Inuit Sculpture: Methods and Materials


Stone has replaced early marine ivory as the most popular carving material in contemporary Inuit art. This has led not only to a greater variety of colours and forms, but also to the larger size of many modern Inuit sculptures. Ancient weathered whalebone found in much the same way as we would find driftwood on our own shores is another popular carving material, but international restrictions on its use and that of ivory have resulted in a decline in their use. Caribou antler which is naturally replenishable, together with musk-ox horn, are also used to carve where available. Many works combine two or more of these materials; for example, antler or ivory was often used as inlay in stone sculptures.

The generic term ‘soapstone’ is commonly used not just in Inuit Art, but also in many other aboriginal and contemporary art movements but this is often misleading. Soapstone is a waxy, soapy to the touch, soft steatite with a high talc (Mg3Si410 (OH) 2) content which easily scratches and would even bruise.

As Inuit Art became more international and well travelled, the earlier use of this softer steatite diminished, giving way to the harder serpentine, (similar mineral composition to steatite but with less bound water), along with other primarily metamorphic rocks including, argillite, marble and quartzite. Stone is the most versatile carving material because it can be worked to almost any size and shape. Its colours range from the rather dull greys of argillite found particularly in the Belcher Islands of Hudson’s Bay to the luscious, almost semi-precious jade-like greens quarried in the south of Baffin Island. Other rock types can be white, blue-green and black, often naturally marbled or mottled to give each piece its uniqueness.

Marine ivory, relic whalebone, antler and horn are more restrictive, but Inuit sculptors have nevertheless managed to take advantage of their naturally occurring shapes to produce a seemingly endless variety of  form and subjects.

Materials are often in short supply, and the quarrymen who generally supply the artists must travel great distances overland or by boat to quarry quantities of good quality stone. Once the materials are obtained, carving proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner. The necessary skills, perfected in the fashioning of traditional implements and tools, have been passed down through generations of Inuit, whereby manual dexterity appears to be almost intrinsic. Most sculptures are still produced with hand tools, although a growing number of artists use power tools and small dremels as well. Traditionally saws, axes and adzes, hammers and chisels are used for the initial roughing/blocking out stages of a carving. Files, rasps, steel wool, sandpaper and finally wet and dry emery cloth are utilized for fine work and finishing. Penknives or nails may be used for detailed incising.