‘One of the best carvers’: Nunavut carver Leo Uttaq remembered by his son

When Leo Uttaq was eight years old, he sold his first carving, a stone ring, to his teacher for 25 cents. He used the money to buy a pop and some chips at a school dance.

It was his first sale in a lifelong career of carving, a skill he learned from his father and passed on to his own son, Louie.

Uttaq, one of the most well-known carvers in Gjoa Haven, Nvt., died of complications from COVID-19 on March 14 in an Edmonton hospital at the age of 57.

Louie Uttaq, 26, is one of Leo’s eight children, and the only one who carves. He started on his own when he was 12 and, although his father was mostly hands off, he still pushed the young carver to improve his craft.

“He was just Dad. He was maddening and loving at the same time,” the younger Uttaq said in an interview this week.

He said he plans to carry on carving, but it will take some time before he can pick up his tools to do the work he shared so closely with his father.

“It’s hard to carve right now. I can see my dad. I can see him and hear him,” Uttaq said.

“When I try to start carving, I can’t do it. It’s just too hard. I know when I finish the carving, I’ll want to show my dad, but he’s not here.”

Uttaq’s father spent most of his life in Taloyoak, a Nunavut community of about 1,000 people on the southwest coast of the Boothia Peninsula in the Northwest Passage, but would eventually move to Gjoa Haven with his family.

The hamlet of about 1,300 people, nestled along the passage’s Rae Strait, is known for its intricate carvings of shamans and spirits.

Leo Uttaq’s work has appeared in the Museum of Cultural History in Norway and sells in galleries across Canada.

“He was one of the best carvers,” his son said. “He would carve every day.”

He made his last carving, a dancing polar bear wearing clothes, a week before he died.

As a child, Uttaq remembers spending weeks on the land with his father, hunting for caribou and muskox and looking for soapstone for carving.

Once, during a summer trip on the land when he was five, Uttaq was sitting on the tundra watching his father skin caribou when he noticed a bumblebee float by.

The bee buzzed around his father’s ATV and nearly in front of his face.

“That was the first time I saw him get scared. And it was of a bumblebee,” Uttaq laughed.

Shortly before that, Uttaq shot his first caribou, a memory he said he will never forget. His father watched patiently over his shoulder while the boy shot bullet after bullet at the animal.

“It took me a lot of shots to catch that caribou. When I saw my dad’s face, he was smiling. I guess he was proud of me.”

The way his father shaped his carvings and drilled into soapstone was like nothing Uttaq has ever seen, he said. His father once carved four soapstone muskox in an hour.

“He carved fast. I keep thinking about that.”

Uttaq’s funeral was held in Taloyoak last weekend.

“We’re trying to be OK,” his son said. “We all miss him.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2022.


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