Susie Silook is one of Alaska’s preeminent contemporary artists. Her works, usually carved from a single piece of ivory and mounted on a base so that they stand upright, are deeply embedded with the oldest Inuit carving traditions. The sculpture she made has three different figures craving with the same whalebone, and their faces are formed with simple shapes. To be honest, I thought this sculpture was carved from a stone because of its rough marble surface until I saw the introduction label at De Young Museum. Whalebone is the normal bones of whales, which have often been used as a material, and it has often been used as a cheaper substitute for ivory in carving today. I’m so curious and interested in how this artist creates a sculpture from whalebone.
At the beginning of creating this sculpture, Silook has to use a variety of saws and chisels to directly carve simple rough shape she needed. And then, in order to portray the characterizations of each figure, she has to arrange the composition of three figures into specific location through drawing the draft on whalebone; dice and define each position of those figures by strengthening partial detail and making spatial relationship; and then, use grinding grass or grinder to smooth the rough surface and light up the sculpture. Finally, the artist should cover a transparent color into the sculpture like glazing, so that it is in keeping the intrinsic quality of whalebone. Certainly, those production processes of creating a sculpture from whalebone are just my imagination, but I really feel that process is astounding. However, the facial features of these figures are portrayed in a different way. The shape of the female figure tends to mellow and smooth, the man tends to crude and sharp, and the child tends to soft and tender. Thus, each figure has its own characteristics.
For me, they are a happy family. Their expressions seem calm and satisfied. This sculpture carving a family within the same whalebone is also a symbol of unity. Each family member is a separate entity, but they are all important integral parts in building the whole of family, even community, and society. They interrelate and affect each other in their daily lives. Therefore, I think Silook also wants to represent the harmonious relationship among people through her sculpture, Family. However, I love this sculpture and its austere style of shaping deeply captivate me.
Susie Silook (American, Siberian Yupik, b. 1960). Family, 2004. Bone. Bequest of Thomas G. Fowler. 2007.21.340 (Image from: https://www.famsf.org/blog/meet-de-young-family)