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Giants of the arctic carved into giants of marble

Jon Fathom sculpts Canada's largest polar bear



At the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy, there is a series of huge, unfinished Michelangelo marble sculptures called The Slaves.

Each depicts a man much larger than life; 500 years after Michelangelo put down his tools, they are stuck in the process of slowly emerging from the marble. They are slaves twice, in terms of who is depicted and in terms of the great artist having never quite freed them.

Looking at them, you can really see how a stone artist works.

Talking to Whistler sculptor Jon Fathom about his current project, large-scale polar bears carved from pristine white Alaskan Tokeen marble, I ask if he looks at the nature of each block before deciding what shape the bear will take.

"That's definitely how I tend to work. Michelangelo said it right when you had to carve away what's not part of the sculpture," Fathom says.

Amazing Grace is the first bear sculpture of 100 made from this marble that is planned by Fathom. He calls the series Larger Than Life.

Weighing 2.7-tonnes, Amazing Grace can be seen in the lobby of The Four Seasons Resort's private residence. Amazing Grace depicts a mother bear on the move with a cub. It is the largest stone bear in Canada, Fathom says.

His second sculpture is now half finished from a 22,300-lb. block of Tokeen, which he says will yield an even larger bear, a mother resting with three cubs climbing over her.

Seven Whistler artists, including Oliver Neukom, are also working on the project. They are carving one at a time. It's a slow process, Amazing Grace took 15-and-a-half months to complete.

"Up to four guys work on them each day. It's a lot of work for each one and you want to make sure that it goes right," he says.

Bears are Fathom's signature. The sculptor has made it his life's work to capture them and has established his popularity in Whistler with tourists and locals alike.

"I was living in Lake Tahoe at 21 years old and wondered what I should do with my life," Fathom recalls. "I prayed to God for the first time in my life and had a vision of stone art and had a vision of stone bears.

"I thought, 'Wow, what is this?' I kept an open mind to it. A few weeks later I moved to Seattle and met the right people to lead me into stone art."

And like Fathom's own story, the tale of the Alaskan marble is also epic.

Dozens of carved blocks sit beside the ocean at Marble Island in Alaska, just north of Haida Gwaii. They have been there since the quarry they came from at Tokeen Bay was abandoned in 1927. The stone had been quarried there for years prior to this and was known for its quality.

Fathom, who is originally from Juneau, Alaska, has been given first refusal on 100 huge blocks.

"It's the purest marble in the world, better than Italian. When it first opened it was, I think 70 or 80 per cent perfect, flawless blocks from the quarry, which is unheard of," Fathom says.

"The find was so big that people were shooting each other over the claims... 100 years later, I'm the only one working this marble. It's just been sitting there on the ocean with barnacles growing on it and I've now got three blocks in Whistler."

The rest will be shipped to Whistler later, as the first three pieces sell.

And why polar bears?

"The polar bears are going through changes in the north... having a hard time so I was to use this to raise awareness and give a voice to the wildlife that we cherish," Fathom says.

Some interest has already been stirred, but he is unable to discuss it or the sale price.

"First come, first served. Whoever likes it," he says. "The price goes up for each piece. The first is the least expensive of the series. I plan to replace each one on display as it sells. They're big bears for a big house."


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