The sum of its parts
By Aaren Madden, January 2016
With his unique medium, sculptor Roland Gatin fuses stone to build connections and explore ideas.
When Roland Gatin was 11 years old, he stood in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy, and took in Michelangelo’s David. He was a long way from the small town of Lanigan, Saskatchewan, where he was born in 1968, and the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he had lived since he was six years old. Says the 47-year-old artist today, “I can remember this wonderful light, noticing motes of dust floating around and being aware of the smell of that dust as it circulated in that space. My sense of it at the time was that it was the smell of stone dust, but that’s just because I was surrounded by stone…It was more likely just ambient old city soot dust.”
His mother, artist Adrienne Bouchard Langlois, brought her family to live in France for a year, and at every opportunity they visited museums and galleries. A year-long immersion in the western art and architectural canon was a gift that, says Gatin, “keeps on giving.”
That’s not to say David sparked in young Gatin an instant desire to sculpt in stone. Though his mother modelled the possibility of an artist’s life, “At that age it was never even in the back of my mind,” he says. “It was just interesting to look at.” What did germinate early on was the beginning of lifelong interests in history, geography and, above all, ideas.
Those interests followed him into his twenties, when he accumulated a rather peripatetic resume: tree planter, with Greenpeace, in finance, camp counsellor (he has been an avid canoeist since age 13), and more. “I was kind of restless and undisciplined,” he admits; “I was looking for new experiences.”
A couple of events opened the way to his current path. The first one involved a piece of soapstone belonging to his roommate in Winnipeg. On a whim one day, Gatin, his roommate and another friend set upon it with steak knives and started carving. “Within a week or two I was buying a few tools and buying soapstone.” Carving jewelry, candle holders and functional gift items was just a hobby that he would do off and on until one day, when he was living in a small Manitoba town working as a teaching assistant and with mentally handicapped people, he came across a documentary about Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. “Within about 10 minutes of the documentary, I was just in tears. I realized, this is it. This is what I have been casting about waiting for,” he shares.
A few years later, in 1999, he landed on Salt Spring Island with his now-wife and the “express intention of becoming a sculptor,” he says. Within days he had completed his first piece. Initially, Gatin sold his works at the Saturday market. They were single-stone, mainly figurative carvings inspired by his favourite sculptors: Henry Moore, Noguchi, Auguste Rodin, Alexander Archipenko and, of course, Michelangelo. He was learning the soapstone medium, finding his voice and selling his artwork.
One particular sale was pivotal in his practice. A man from Toronto bought a piece from the market table and asked for it to be shipped. Gatin happily took it back to his studio in preparation for packing—and knocked it off the table. It fell to the floor and split in two. “After I finished jumping up and down and screaming at myself,” Gatin laughs, “I glued it back together with crazy glue—and instantly couldn’t find the join.” He explained the situation to the client, carved a new work for him and let him decide which to take (he took both). Better still, he recalls, “a little light went on in my head.”
That revelation had practical and creative implications. “I couldn’t afford to go buying stone as often as I’d like to, and so I just started experimenting.” Research into durability led to his current use of the same glue used to construct ultralight aircraft. Initially, he would build a block from “random agglomerations” of stone and carve it as a single piece, coining the term “multistone” to refer to this medium.
“Gradually, though, I started designing pieces with specific colour combinations and specific angles and shapes in mind,” he explains. That intention is apparent in pieces like “Le Dauphin” and “Stone Dial 2” (see cover), both of which emanate a 1920s Art Deco sensibility. These pieces are now in Madrona Gallery in Victoria, where the former, with its frisson of Futurism, reminds assistant Laurie White of imagery from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. “That idea of progress at the time,” she muses.
“It’s not one that I had thought of but I’m sure it’s there,” allows Gatin, who is now based just outside of Ladysmith. Inviting individual interpretations, he derives inspiration from myriad sources: movies, advertising, architecture, mythology, and even quotidian visual imagery such as road signs that he encounters with his son, who is now 10. “I am always staring at peoples’ heads on the ferry,” he laughs.
He also reads voraciously in English and French on subjects ranging from history to philosophy to fractal geometry. Disparate ideas connect from various sources and inevitably find their way into his practice. For instance, reading about Howard Carter’s discovery of an ornate alabaster drinking vessel in Tutankhamen’s tomb led Gatin to create “Disposable Modernity Part 1A,” a group of alabaster and pyrophyllite carvings (the milky white and red stones respectively) made to look like plastic and glass Coke bottles; one is even crushed and ready for discard. “What we value now is not the object, but the convenience—to our peril,” he states, adding, “I’m just trying to put it out there and raise the questions.”
Fittingly, he has been working on a series of sculpted jigsaw pieces that feed his interests in negative space and, conceptually, in the composite nature of the self as a manifestation of disparate ideas, context and experience. Works like “Quirinus (Jigsaw Piece #9)” seem to have a figurative quality, building on that notion and asking questions about how ideas, experience and individuals “fit” together. In viewing, ideas and meanings emerge and build upon each other.
The same happens in process. Gatin has the happy agony of an over-abundance of ideas for technique and subject that emerge from whatever piece he might be working on or what he is reading, observing or contemplating. He sketches, then waits until time allows further pursuit. Coming next out of this creative rabbit hole are a series of canoes, some that will actually float (on view at Madrona early next year), and a modern take on the illuminated manuscript. That they are rendered in stone delightfully confounds assumptions about the medium.
Creating each sculptural exploration begins and ends with sanding: first to smooth the separate pieces of stone for laminating, then to achieve a smooth, lustrous finish. One can imagine the scent of stone dust in the air of Gatin’s studio.
Aaren Madden was 16 years old when she discovered that the dusty, old-papery smell of a used bookstore was like incense in a place of worship.