Inuit artisans in Canada’s Arctic regions use raw materials that are found on the land or from the sea along the coasts. Since there are no trees up in the Arctic tundra, wood was never an option as a raw material for Inuit sculpture and art. Instead, the Inuit artisans use whatever is in good supply locally. Therefore for their Inuit sculpture, stone is the most common material used followed by animal bone and ivory.
Since stone is the most common raw material for Inuit sculpture, this is what the world usually sees from Inuit art. However, getting a good supply of quality stone is not always easy for Inuit carvers. Quarries or sites with good stone are not always located near the various established Inuit communities. Inuit artists would often have to travel together to the quarries by boat during the summer or by snowmobile during the winter. Sometimes trips can take several days. Getting the stone out of the land is hard physical labor since it has to be extracted with tools such as picks and drills. The stone cannot be simply blasted out with dynamite since blasting will damage the stone. Once enough quality stone is extracted, the Inuit carvers would have to transport the supply back to their communities.
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The type of stone used for Inuit sculpture varies since each Arctic region and even supply site will usually have different types of stone. The general term ‘soapstone’ often used for Inuit sculpture is not exactly accurate since most Arctic regions in fact do not have soapstone sites. Soapstone (talc steatite), a relatively soft stone, is used in some but not the majority of regions for Inuit sculpture.
The most common stone used in Inuit sculpture are serpentine and serpentinite which are harder than soapstone. As carving material, serpentine and serpentinite are more difficult for Inuit carvers to work with than compared to soapstone. These stone come in a variety of different colors including green, brown, black and a range of shades in between. Other types of Arctic stone used for Inuit sculpture include marble, quartz, argillite, siltstone and dolomite. Examples of different colors of Arctic stone are shown below.
A variety of veining and even striped grain in Arctic stone is possible. The striped grain on the dancing bear below right actually adds a certain natural appeal to the overall Inuit sculpture.
Some Arctic stone will have small amounts of metallic mineral imbedded and these will sometimes be seen in finished Inuit sculpture.
Alabaster and soapstone imported from other countries such as Brazil, Italy and United States (Arizona) are sometimes used in Inuit sculpture. Many Inuit art enthusiasts claim that Inuit sculpture made from foreign stone are not as valuable as those made from indigenous Arctic stone. Knowing that artwork made by indigenous Inuit artists who used their local indigenous Arctic stone may be one of the overall appeals of owning authentic Inuit sculpture. However, some Inuit including David Ruben Piqtoukun who is one of the most successful Inuit artists, use imported stone on a regular basis. His artwork is world renowned and his use of non-indigenous stone has not hurt his reputation or career at all. The walrus below left was carved using a gold-brown Brazilian soapstone with a marble inlay for the tusk.
Some pieces of Inuit sculpture will look more polished and shiny compared to others. This is mostly due to regional Inuit art styles since in some regions, Inuit carvers prefer a primitive, unpolished look (see the example of the bird on the top right) while in other regions a highly polished finish is preferred. For the polished look, Inuit carvers use colored or clear shoe polish for the finishing touches. Sometimes, beeswax is heated onto Inuit sculptures as an alternative finish.
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