INTERVIEW: Exploring the art of David Ruben Piqtoukun

We got a chance to speak to the Inuvialuk sculptor at his new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario
This piece is called Shaman Muskox Transformation. It shows how many of David's pieces have both human and animal features. (David Ruben Piqtoukun. Shaman Muskox Transformation, 2010. Brazilian soapstone; antler; fur, with antlers installed; 37 × 26 × 72 cm. Private Collection. © David Ruben Piqtoukun. Photo AGO.)

Over an amazing fifty year career, sculptor David Ruben Piqtoukun has been making timeless art.

Born in Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, he uses his skills to shape stone, metal, wood, and even bone.

His work explores Inuit storytelling. These stories are ones that he has had to work to reclaim after being taken from his family to go to a residential school when he was a young boy.

This piece is called Spirit World of the Inuit. How many characters can you find? Can you find the bear? What about the whale? (David Ruben Piqtoukun. Spirit World of the Inuit, 1984. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 1996. © David Ruben Piqtoukun. Photo AGO.)

Seeing how he takes ancient knowledge, experiences, and wildlife from his Inuvialut homeland and turns them into wonderful sculptures is truly magical!

(The Inuvialut are Inuit from western Canada, in the north of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. An Inuvialuk is a single Inuvialut person.)

A great storyteller

David's work has been shown around the globe, from France to Japan. Recently, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) opened a new show of his called Radical Remembrance. It features over a dozen new pieces of work, as well as highlights from as far back as the 1980s.

We were able to attend the opening and it was quite the experience! Even better, David himself was on hand to talk about the art.

Throughout the afternoon, he explained the stories behind several of the pieces, as well as the types of the rock that he liked to use the most for his art. Crystal alabaster was a big favourite because it was like working with ice that never melts. That's pretty cool!

One story he returned to often was the story of a raven that ate the moon. Many of his sculptures on display at the AGO were inspired by it. Like this one, called Raven Steals The Moon.

Raven Steals The Moon has a few surprises in it. Look closely! (Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun/Photo: Owlkids)

What is the story behind this piece? And what is it like to work with such an interesting looking rock? Let's ask the artist!

David Ruben Piqtoukun: You can see the shaman on this side (points to the right), and the raven on the other side (points to the left). The story goes that the shaman (a person who can access the spirit world) transformed into a white raven and travels to the moon. And it decides to steal the moon to teach people a few lessons!

OWLconnected: Wow! Why did it do that? What had happened?

DRP: They're breaking taboos (rules of society) and such. It's to teach the people some respect. Once it steals the moon, people won't be able to see in the dark. Or hunt in the dark or fish. Animals will stand still, and their children and dogs will starve.

As the raven travels to the moon, it becomes very massive. And once it perches on the moon, it begins to chew the moon up. Those are the pebbles. (Points to the small red rocks in the raven's mouth—can you spot them?)

OC: Yeah! That's a really neat detail.

DRP: And sure enough the moon disappears! It becomes dark for many months. So the people contact the shaman. They want to learn how to do things better. And shaman understands. He listens to the people, he feels a soft spot for them. So he slowly spits the moon back out until eventually it became full again. But as he's doing that, he's coaching the people to do things right and learn from their mistakes.

Sure enough, the moon is full and they're able to start hunting and fishing and traveling. They have the light to do that.

And then if you look around here ... (walks us around to the other side of the sculpture) There's the moonscape!

We told you this sculpture has some surprises! (Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun/Photo: Owlkids)

OC: Oh wow! We didn't notice there was something on the other side! How did you choose this rock for this piece? It is such an unusual shape and colour.

DRP: When I select the material, I have an idea of what (the final sculpture) might look like. So when I chip away, dab the rock with water to see what the colour might be. This (rock) is really interesting. From one side to the other, it's all part of the same stone.

OC: So even this red colour on the left?

Notice the difference in colour between the left and right side. That is all the same piece of rock! (Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun/Photo: Owlkids)

DRP: Yes. The red colour is very dramatic. It's the 'skin' of the stone, they call it.

OC: And you could see the two colours when you were first holding the stone?

DRP: Yes. I saw this two-tone. I carved it, I started sanding, and it looked like this. It is very unique to have material of these colours in the same stone.

How did he think of that?

Although nearly all of David's pieces were done in stone and metal and tied to Inuvialut storytelling, there were a few surprises. Two sculptures were made from the bones of a blue whale! Here is one of them. Can you tell us what you see?

(Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun/Photo: Owlkids)

Hmm... still not sure? Well, let's change the angle. Now can you see it?

Hello there, little guy! (Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun/Photo: Owlkids)

This is one is called Baby Brontosaurus. And we just had to ask David about how he made it!

OC: This sculpture is a lot of fun!

DRP: This one is a baby brontosaurus the moment after birth. It's just squirming around and trying to feel out its environment. It's the first breath of life.

OC: Is there a story about the bone?

DRP: I had it in my studio for many years. And I saw the movie Jurassic Park, and I was fascinated by the long necked dinosaurs. So long and elegant. I thought, "I'd like to do that (as a sculpture)." And this guy came up (points to the bone). This was the very last piece I did for this show.

OC: So the bone had been sitting in your studio for a while and then one day the idea just clicked?

DRP: It just clicked! So I started to make the face and cleaned off the rest of the bone. It took forever to make this base (points to the metal posts that hold up the bone, which David also makes himself). It's hard to match so that it is balanced!

OC: That's such a fun sculpture. Thank you for the tour!

DRP: You're welcome.

What a cute little dino face! (Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun/Photo: Owlkids)

If you happen to live near Toronto, or will be visiting in the next while, Radical Remembrance is on display until June 25. We really recommend it ... as well as all of the other amazing art at the AGO.

And if you can't make it there, ask a parent or teacher about galleries that you can visit near you. Seeing art in person is always a lot of fun—you never know what you'll find!

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