As I walk into the Yukon Arts Centre early on a Tuesday morning I pass a woman holding some wild flowers in her hands. Our eyes meet in the way eyes seem to meet in the Yukon — a second longer than normal, accompanied by a smile.
I feel a trickle of warmth down my spine.
I’ve come to check out the Beringia exhibit, with no more idea what I’m walking into than a passing remark that it is “just like walking into Beringia.”
The exhibit is educational, museum style, mammoth skeletons grinning down on me as I walk through it. But I don’t get very far before I’m drawn into the smaller room on the right, where Sandra Grace Storey’s show We Are Golden is on display until the end of November.
I’m immediately captivated. The room is a balance of light and shadow, casting a mood of solemnity. My voice unconsciously shifts to a whisper.
Across almost sixty feet of wall hangs a tapestry of tile-work out of which life-size caribou rear their heads or raise their hooves. As I move closer to the tiles, their richness of detail begins to reveal itself, an intricate weave of the imprints left behind by lace and flowers and the occasional poignant word.
On the other end of the room, two clay children peer up into the sky, and in between the two stands a large, ominous raven. Another raven’s shadow circles the room, the dark silhouette of its wings moving across the tile work, often falling on me, depending on where I stand.
I’ve entered another world, for sure, but I don’t think it’s Beringia.
When I ask if I’m allowed to take photos, I’m told of my lucky fortune — the artist has just happened to stop by. Would I like to speak with her?
A moment later I’m introduced to the woman who smiled at me in the hallway. Sandra Grace Storey, Tagish sculptor.
In a calm voice she tells me the story behind her work.
“I started this before the snow left,” she begins. “And I finished two weeks ago. I pressed flowers and plants into the clay as the seasons offered them.
“I’ve always been amazed that the people before us had such hard, laborious lives, and still made such beautiful things” she says, referring to the lace she pressed into the tiles. “They have no value now, are ten cents at the Sally Ann. This is a way to preserve their beauty.”
There are also the imprints of various 21st century objects, representing human impact on the environment in the relatively short time we’ve been a part of it.
“You can’t go into the woods without finding a pile of tin cans, or even the remains of a fire pit.”
Pulling back from the details of her work, Storey touches on the significance of the caribou, which she had long yearned to sculpt a herd of.
“Caribou are community, connection, survivors, part of the landscape, and they give of themselves, their bodies. In many ways they are very much like us.”
The caribou take up most of the piece, yet it’s almost difficult to make their features out from the rest of Storey’s sculpted mural. Every element — human, animal, natural, man-made — all are woven together into something that hangs between landscape and folklore.
Even the mood I felt entering the room has been sculpted by Storey’s hands.
“Everything is life-size so the viewer is not in control,” she tells me. “You participate in the story by entering the space.”
The raven circling overhead makes sure of this, his shadow falling on the viewer as much as on the art.
“You are entering a moment of an ongoing myth.”