An Inuit soapstone sculpture of a beluga whale will have its missing tail and fin replaced, as soon as University of Winnipeg student Sonia Gaiess is done with it.
She has been practicing mixing colours and moulding the new parts out of clay by hand. When the time comes to create the finished product, she will have to act fast, before the material dries in about 30 minutes.
"It’s very complicated because a big part has been lost," Vitaliy Yatsevych, WAG art conservator (and Gaiess' mentor) said Thursday.
"We’re just guessing, and we need to make minimum visual changes or it will belong to the conservator more than the artist."
Students typically don’t work in the conservation lab at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, since art restoration takes a high level of skill, according to Serena Keshavjee, co-ordinator of curatorial practices at the U of W.
Even so, Gaiess, a fourth-year art history student, secured her own project at the downtown facility, which boasts largest public collection of Inuit art in the world.
It is a step she wasn't expecting when she began her placement at the WAG in September. "I was like, 'I’ll just mop the floor,' as long as I’m in here, I’m happy," Gaiess said.
Once the beluga — sculpted by artist Joe Arlooktoo in 1969 in Kimmirut, Nunavut, and donated to the WAG minus its tail and fin — is restored, it will be the centre's first soapstone model to be used to teach the craft to future students, according to Yatsevych.
Originally, Gaiess and Yatsevych were using soapstone sculptures from the same source community as the beluga as a repair guide. Then, they found a photo of another sculpture by the same artist in a Vancouver auction — with a tail that looked completely different than first guessed.
Back to square one.
"We had an interesting day on Tuesday," Gaiess said with a laugh, describing how they realized they have to completely reshape what will become the whale’s tail.
All changes to the sculpture will be reversible, according to Yatsevych. If its original fin or tail ever turn up, the WAG will be able to remove the epoxy add-ons and reattach the original pieces.
It also won’t be displayed to the public, making the project a bit less nerve-racking, said Gaiess.
Gaiess will focus on restoring Arlooktoo’s beluga sculpture before the end of her time at the WAG in March.
She plans to continue her education on material conservation at Queen’s University in Ontario after graduation — but a little piece of her work will stay in Winnipeg.