While I tend to gravitate more toward abstract forms in my sculpting these days, I admit I do still love sculpting wildlife. My wildlife sculptures are something I have become known for over the years because many people find it amazing that I can create such realistic-looking animals and humans out of stone.
There are quite a few animals I am partial to carving and nigig (or otter in the Ojibway language) is one of them.
I am part of the Otter Clan in the traditional Anishinaabe Clan System. My clan falls into the Giishkizhigwan group which was charged with teaching and healing. There are numerous clans in Ojibway tradition and they are based mainly on animals. They were instrumental in traditional occupations, intertribal relations, and marriages. Today, the clan remains an important part of Anishinaabe identity.
Otters symbolize joy; energy; curiosity; protection; friendship and dexterity, among other things.
I remember when I was a young man, an elder asked me and one of my friends to go into the bush to get some medicines for something he was making. Some of the medicines we recognized and knew we would have no trouble finding. Others, such as rat root, which is the Anishinaabe word for Gladdon/Beewort for those of you who are in to herbology, we didn’t know much about and had no idea where we would find it.
I had used rat root before but had never been tasked with having to go and pick it fresh. Rat root is a powerful medicine and it is one we use to help clear out throats for singing. You pop a piece of the dried root in your mouth; chew it a few times and then tuck it into your cheek. It is incredibly bitter and an acquired taste, but it certainly helps to clear the throat and sinuses!
My friend and I set off in search of these the medicines the elder needed for his concoction. Of course we found all the ones we knew, but, as anticipated, we were having a lot of trouble finding the rat root. We knew it grew in water and that was about it. My friend and I decided to split up , hoping at least one of us would be able to find this elusive medicine.
After searching with no luck, I decided to go and find my friend. As I made my way over to him, he began frantically calling my name. “Paul, Paul!!! You have to come here quick!” he shouted. I picked up the pace and eventually found him near a small body of water. He was pointing at a small group of otters that were playing around in the water.
As we stood there watching them, they made their way toward the shore and began huffing and chuffing at us. It was wonderful to be so close to these amazing creatures, watching them play and go about their business, but something was telling me there was more to their huffing and chuffing than just play.
I decided to reach my hand down into the shallow water where they were playing. I grabbed a handful of mud from the bottom of the water and much to my surprise and delight, there were big clumps of rat root mixed in with the mud! The otters weren’t playing at all – they were showing us where to find the rat root!
I held the precious medicine in my hand and thanked the otters for showing us where to find it. They huffed and chuffed and, knowing their job was done, disappeared together under the water.
Otters are important to me in my life, not only because of this story or because I am part of the otter clan, but because of the many lessons they offer about life.
Otters remind me of the importance of taking time to play and have fun. It’s easy for me to get lost in my work and there have been times where I’ve put my work ahead of everything else. The otter shows me that I need to have balance in my life – I need to balance work with play and doing things, besides carving, that I enjoy.
Otters remind me of the importance of family. Have you ever seen the video of the two otters floating on their backs in the water holding hands? Have you seen how otter parents hold, caress and nurture their young? Otters are loving, loyal, friendly and unselfish. They devote themselves to their families and they do what is necessary to protect and care for them.
Otters remind me of the importance of being curious and creative. Obviously, I need to be creative as an artist, but it’s also important to be curious. Curiosity forces me out of my comfort zone and encourages me to try something new. Curiosity leads me to discover and learn new things; it keeps life interesting.
When I sculpt an otter, it’s not just a beautiful sculpture of a wild animal. There is a story behind my love of sculpting them and it’s a story I love to share with those who express interest in my work.
There are stories behind each and every piece and as an artist, it’s my job to bring those stories to life through my sculptures so they are never forgotten.