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Soapstone carver Ted Griffiths puts a face to his work

By Shelley Arnusch

Who: Ted Griffiths

What: Artist in residence

Where: The Gallery at Chateau Whistler

When: Through Sunday, March 14

"Each bear is my friend," says soapstone carver Ted Griffiths, as he runs his hands over a work in progress, smoothing away white dust from the grooves of another squat grizzly.

A temporary resident at The Gallery at the Chateau Whistler, Griffiths has set up a makeshift workstation in front of the gallery. A sign behind him helps the uninitiated follow the carving process: raw rock, blocking, grinding, filing, sanding and polishing.

Over the past 12 years, the retired art teacher says he has produced more than 1,100 bear sculptures, yet claims he still gets emotionally attached to each and every one of them, dusty grizzley du jour included.

It’s easy to see how that might happen. Griffiths manages to carve personality as well as form out of the jagged chunks of Brazilian soapstone.

His bears stick out their tongues, and romp with their cubs. They sit back on their haunches and contemplate salmon sandwich feasts stolen from an unwitting hiker – a true-life experience by an acquaintance of the artist, depicted several times over by Griffiths’ inspired hands.

An art teacher in Alberta and B.C. for 30 years, Griffiths has been carving soapstone for the past 12 years, dedicating himself to the art full time since retiring from teaching a year and a half ago.

"It’s part of my great retirement package," he jokes. "You can’t just sit and watch the soaps all day."

Obviously artistically inclined to begin with, Griffiths came to the medium by way of his experience with Haida Totem carving – something he said he enjoyed, but felt he could never truly feel legitimate doing since he was not a part of the culture.

However, he felt an immediate affinity to soapstone carving.

"I feel very comfortable carving the grizzly bear. It’s a part of me from always living in Alberta and B.C." says Griffiths. He supplemented his general knowledge of bears by observing at a grizzly compound in Yellowstone and has since made the ursine form his signature.

While certain themes, such as the "Madonna" mother bear with cubs are recurring in his work, he maintains every bear he carves is unique, from the tiny ornaments to 500 pound free-standing behemoths.

Griffiths’ bears are fixtures of both the Chateau Gallery and its older sister at the Jasper Park Lodge, as well as Canada House in Banff. He’s made the demonstrative residency his trademark, logging approximately 60 days per year.

"My personality is gregarious. I’m an extrovert," explains Griffiths, admitting there is also a time and a place for quiet contemplative creative sessions either at his studio in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. or at a friend’s area farm.

But his willingness to put not only his work, but the process on display for passersby is a foil to the image of the artist as a cloistered studio dweller, emerging only when the masterpiece is complete.

Art to Griffiths is public, interactive and full of personality, just like his bears.

Ted Griffiths will carve in residence at the Gallery at the Chateau Whistler today and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 to 9 p.m., and on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information call 604-935-1862 or go to www.thegallerychateauwhistler.com.

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