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Frequently asked questions about Inuit Art

Soapstone Carvings

People frequently ask us for 'soapstone carvings', but this term is generally a misnomer. When Inuit Artists began sculpting in stone on a larger scale, their art became known as "soapstone carvings," regardless of the stone used. While it is true that some Inuit carvings are made out of soapstone, other, harder types of stone found throughout the Arctic are much more common: serpentine, dolomite and quartzite on Baffin Island, basalt in the Keewatin Region, argillite or limestone in Artic Quebec, and so on. Using "soapstone" as a generic term to describe all Inuit carvings is therefore misleading. Soapstone is a very soft mineral consisting mostly of talc. If the content is almost entirely talc, it is also known as steatite. It may feel soapy or slightly greasy when touched, hence the name. The colour may range from whitish, greyish-green to different hues of brown. Soapstone is easily carved, but it can also be easily scratched and damaged. It is known to be vulnerable to dampness too. When finished, soapstone carvings may appear to have a dull surface, and artists often apply wax or a greasy substance to give them lustre and protect them from humidity. Originally, artists who made soapstone carvings, recognizing the problem with its softness, would cover their soapstone carvings with a layer of shellac or varnish. Over time, however, this caused soapstone carvings to turn a yellowish colour. Because of this, artists no longer use varnish on their soapstone carvings. Soapstone carvings, because they are softer, generally take less time to make and are therefore less expensive than those made out of harder stone. Marble carvings, the hardest stone, on the other hand, are the most expensive. Because soapstone carvings scratch and damage easily, we do not carry many of them. Closest to the soapstone in softness are carvings coming from Arctic Quebec. On Sanikiluaq Islands, artists mostly use local varieties of limestone and argillite. Limestone is a soft sedimentary rock consisting of calcium carbonate and often containing layers of clay silt and sand. Argillite is a very fine-grained grey to black silt stone, sometimes slightly metamorphosed. Carvings from Sanikiluaq Islands are mostly a greyish colour when finished, and the artists will often use black shoe polish to darken them. In spite of their softness, limestone and argillite from Canada's Arctic region are superior to the regular soapstone both in quality and in hardness. Carvings made of these types of stone can still get scratched and damaged easily, but their graining is finer and their colour more subtle than soapstone. Especially attractive is their distinctive stripped grain, which takes a beautiful polish. Soapstone or steatite, on the other hand, comes in less refined colours which can only be saturated by waxing, but they do not take a high polish

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