Three Soapstone Artists

Tapping into universal narratives

by Wendy Stefansson

Grant Berg

Grant Berg, Northern Lights, Soapstone Carving. Photo by Cheryl McCartney.

Grant Berg, Northern Lights, Soapstone Carving. Photo by Cheryl McCartney.

Prairie people are sky watchers. The concept of “landscape” here necessarily includes a vast and animated sky; a sky that’s a force to be reckoned with. In the work of Grande Prairie sculptor Grant Berg, this sky is a recurring motif.

His soapstone piece, There’s a Storm Movin’ In, depicts a big prairie thunderstorm rolling across the plains; the kind you know is going to hit you like the wrath of God. The sculpture curls in successive waves coalescing around a central void. Laced with marble-like veining, the stone itself gave Berg “lightning ripping across the storm front.”

In another work, Berg uses a pale green, translucent stone to depict rippling waves of northern lights. In a third, he has sculpted not a sky, but a bird; a phoenix. Berg struggled with this piece because it didn’t seem light enough to fly until he removed large amounts of stone from the wings, abstracting the bird to create a visual balance between strength and lightness.

Berg uses stone – dense, inert and earthbound – to represent air and flight. He feels compelled to, in his words, “carve the intangibles.”

Leslie Bjur

Leslie Bjur, The Argument, Soapstone Carving

Leslie Bjur, The Argument, Soapstone Carving

Grande Prairie artist Leslie Bjur talks to me about her recent soapstone sculpture, The Argument. It is solid stone rendered organic and fluid; its sinuous curves seem almost animate. Multiple tendrils strain in different directions, all trumpet-mouths and taut nerves. It reminds me of Yeats’ line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” – except that this is the moment just before disintegration, while the centre is still intact. While there is still hope for resolution. While dissolution is not yet inevitable. Bjur points out that there is a narrow part of the sculpture, so narrow that the stone comes close to breaking. It sticks out; has sharp edges. This piece is like the last verbal barb you aim as you are leaving the room.

Created at a time when a close friend was at odds with her partner and living with Bjur, The Argument expresses some of the intensity of that moment. That energy finds its way into the work. Bjur contends: “I don’t do pretty work. I do work that is organic,” growing naturally from life as it is lived.

“Living in this moment,” she says, “means making this piece right now.”

Rénald Lavoie

Rénald Lavoie, La voix de la mere, Soapstone Carving

Rénald Lavoie, La voix de la mere, Soapstone Carving

Inside Rénald Lavoie’s workshop at his farm outside of St. Isidore, he casually lifts a cloth off of a seemingly nondescript mass. What emerges surprisingly from beneath is La voix de la mère (The Voice of the Mother), a 28” tall sculpture he has carved in Brazilian soapstone. All roundness and encircling, the piece depicts a raven arcing upward along the spine of a mother engaged in an intimate conversation with the child in her lap. The figures seem to form a complete universe unto themselves; whole and self-contained.

This kind of uncomplicated humanity comes through in all of Lavoie’s work. Choosing the human form for its expressive possibilities, Lavoie is able to tap into universal narratives – beginnings and endings; intimacy, possibility, regret, grief and loss. One figure stands erect, her head cast down, her arm drawn protectively across her chest to her mouth. Another drops to the ground on all fours, sway-backed and stricken. Perhaps most poignantly, on a gravestone Lavoie carved for his brother, a figure in the fetal position emerges from – or returns to – the rough, uncarved mass of the stone.

Lavoie says simply: “We’re all part of this same rocky world.”

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