Pod People: Haida artist relies on talented Calgary fabricators to create his 5,500-kg whale sculpture

Jacquie Moore

Calgary Herald


June 12, 2015

Model of SEI, by Y Public Art

Stories about whales are generally epic, and this one, which starts with a napkin sketch and ends with the 5,500-kilogram creature making an overland voyage to the West Coast, is no exception. The whale in this case is a steel, copper-bellied piece of public art currently being installed outside the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver Airport following a four-month gestation period in a southeast Calgary industrial park

Sei (the Norwegian name for a type of baleen whale) is the work of Haida Gwaii-born contemporary artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. According to Yahgulanaas, who lives on Bowen Island, although the overall structure of his sculpture is very reminiscent of traditional Haida art, the work references modern art as well, entering comfortably into conversation with Henry Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece for one. And rather than turning inward and away from the modern expanse of the airport’s surroundings and the steady stream of air traffic overhead, the sculpture’s highly polished metal surface opens up to and reflects that expansiveness.

But if all that makes Sei seem as monumentally inaccessible as a, well, whale, the artist also hopes the sculpture inspires onlookers to notice their own reflection in its mirrored surface. “I want people to look at it and realize, ‘Hey, that’s me,'” says Yahgulanaas, who calls the piece “a friendly space to remind ourselves that we are one species.”

Yahgulanaas is all for accessibility: he is the creator of a genre of narrative art dubbed “Haida manga,” a hybrid of North Pacific iconography and Asian comic book art that is popular around the world, including Japan, where Yahgulanaas broke a record by selling 20,000 copies of his 2006 book Hachidori before noon on the day it was released. Like his Haida-manga books and prints, Sei was created with the intention of playfully “cutting through cultural barriers to provide a place to reflect and converse about art.”

The sculpture’s provenance, too, is as accessible as it is modern.

Sei was made—outsourced, one is tempted to say—in Calgary at a large-scale custom-metal shop called Reggin Industries. The company’s specialty is commercial staircases, guardrails and building columns—generally not the stuff of high-cultural contemplation. It was assembled by a team of three and sometimes four full-time steel fabricators (a.k.a. welders), none of whom had ever had a hand in producing a piece of public art before. Still, despite the risk, not to mention the inconvenience, of producing a complex piece of cantilevered steel in a workshop 1,000 kilometres and a mountain range away from its eventual home, Yahgulanaas and his business partner, designer Barry Gilson, at Y Public Art, decided Reggin was the right fit for the project. “They’ve got a high level of skill working with stainless steel, and they could produce it within the timeframe we needed,” says Yahgulanaas.

After working with the artist on Sei’s design for more than a month, then feeding the information into their laser cutting machine, specialists at Reggin devoted more than 40 hours a week for 10 weeks to transforming Yahgulanaas’s original sketch into a monumental work of art. Just as willing to break down occupational barriers as cultural ones, Yahgulanaas says “I call the people who worked on this piece artists, because that’s what they are. This was a very technically sensitive, co-creative process.” Other collaborators involved were Holly and David Graff, professional Vancouver-based copper gilders (a rare breed indeed) who painstakingly coated Sei’s underbelly with upwards of 1,500 sheets of copper leaf. According to David, an artist in his own right who has worked with Yahgulanaas on other projects over the years including a copper embellished car hood that sits in the British Museum, Sei was one of the couple’s most challenging projects. “We were working upside down in cramped quarters and, because of the steel-fabrication schedule, we were only allowed access to the project on Sundays and overnight”—an experience that, he says, is pretty much par for the course for practitioners of this centuries-old craft (the couple has covered ceilings with copper and, also for Yahgulanaas, the inside of a four-metre-long boat).

During his weeks in Calgary, Yahgulanaas fell in love with the westerly views out his window at Tsuu T’ina Nation’s Grey Eagle Resort. “I saw a wooded valley, I saw the Rocky Mountains and, on my last morning, I looked out and saw two moose walking by.” He is thus, presumably, especially looking forward to returning to Calgary this fall, when Trepanier Baer Gallery will host his next exhibit. Meanwhile, the artist will be eagerly monitoring public reactions to Sei in the hope that its presence will instigate connection and conversation. “Public art encourages people to pause and think about art rather than wait for a curator to explain everything.”

Oops. Maybe we’ve said too much already.