The Black Muse guards the entrance to James Kirby’s solo Yukon Arts Centre show, Psyche: A Journey to the Source.
The owl carved of Yukon serpentine looks black from a distance.
A piece of unpolished stone supports the spread-winged bird that seems about to land upon, or perhaps skim, a spoon-shaped piece of granite, about four feet long.
The mineral’s green colour emerges as you approach. Further attention yields the egg clasped in the owl’s left claw. Has the bird stolen this egg to eat or does it bring it as a gift?
Kirby collected most of the stone in this show, including this massive piece of serpentine, from the old Whitehorse Copper mine site.
The serpentine’s green colour comes from its high copper content. The mine treated the serpentine as ore, crushing it to prepare for the copper refining process.
Kirby worked at the mine when he was 18 years old. Now he scours the hillside for rocks that survived the blasting process. Most rocks, he taps with a hammer, and they fall into pieces. One in 20, perhaps, retains enough integrity to carve.
Kirby finds his inspiration in the wild. But he turns to abandoned quarries or mine sites to find his materials. He has no interest quarrying for stone himself in an untouched setting.
He likes to go to places where there’s been “serious damage done” to the earth. He feels that “when you’re sensitive to the essence of a place, you can bring something back to it.” He glories in making “something beautiful from destruction”.
Kirby’s show contains three main kinds of work: there are his representational stone carvings, like the owl. There are abstract “specimen stones”, which he has ground down and polished to create a composition from the highly figured surfaces inside. And then there are his re-creations of ancient Egyptian artifacts, reminiscent of museum exhibits.
But the show doesn’t feel like a museum crossed with a geological exhibit. It embodies both Kirby’s love of stone and his sense of magic.
From a very early age, Kirby loved stone. His sock drawers were full of rocks since he was four.
Most stones are greyish white when you find them. If you lick rocks, you can find surprising colours.
Check out Psyche, one of Kirby’s abstract highly figured rocks. Around the back of the stone, he’s left an area unpolished. This grayish beige forms a fascinating contrast to the stone formed of serpentine with massive garnet, granite and quartz. There’s a face carved into it, but you might not notice it.
Not only are these composite rocks hard to carve, due to the mixed hardnesses of their component rocks, but their “highly figured” surfaces are statements on their own. Representational imagery carved into them tends to disappear into the rock’s own statements. In these pieces Kirby offers the stone’s own story.
In his magical practice, Kirby wants to get past the illusory surfaces of things, to their inner integrity, their truer selves, their “isolate intelligence”. As he grinds and polishes the stones to find their inner colours, he does just that.
As you enter the show, you meet a raven entitled Intricate Webb carved in BC and Yukon serpentine. The raven’s form is carved of black BC serpentine. It holds a green serpentine egg, again in its left claw.
Kirby speaks of the “left-hand path” as the soul’s journey to its “clearest representation of self”. The raven’s trickster nature belongs to this path for Kirby.
The god known as Set in ancient Egypt also emblemizes Kirby’s left-hand path. Setian artifacts were destroyed at one point in ancient Egypt. Kirby wants to bring Setian ideas back to the world, especially here to the Yukon, feeling they are an important part of a shamanic tradition he wants to propagate.
Kirby feels that images best communicate these thought forms, much better than words.
Three quarters of the way into the space, a long wide plinth, reminiscent of an altar, supports three of Kirby’s specimen stones. Two intricately reproduced Setian artifacts adorn the wall behind it.
Before it, like an offering or a dedication, stands another of Kirby’s representational sculptures, entitled Alicia Sarah Kirby: Behold the Soul. A two-sided face stands on a post through the palm of an open hand in soapstone.
Stones standing on posts surround you. It’s as if these representatives from the landscape stand up and look back at you.
Kirby plans to check out slag piles from the new mines, to see what other rocks they’re throwing away. He’ll also carve the other serpentine he has collected, that’s waiting in his yard.
You can catch this show until August 24. In the adjacent gallery, you will see the Yukon Art Society’s Roots show at the same time.
If you get out to the gallery before June 22, you can also catch Shiela Alexandrovitch’s Explorations in Felt: Words and Wool in the Community Gallery.
Nicole Bauberger is a writer and painter living in Whitehorse. Find out where you can see her work at www.nicolebauberger.com.
PHOTO: RICK MASSIE [email protected]
Nicole Bauberger is a painter, writer and performer living in Whitehorse. Find out where you can see her work at www.nicolebauberger.com