Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council
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50@50 - Michael Massie

Location: Kippens, NL
NLAC Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $5,000

Detail of white chess pieces.

Dates: May 15 to September 1, 2012
Artist Contact: Michael Massie
Artist E-mail:

With a mixed heritage that includes Inuit, Métis, and Scottish, Michael Massie’s work has a signature that’s unique and recognizable.  He combines traditional and contemporary themes, taking innovative approaches to the objects he creates.  Massie was born in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 1962 and celebrated his fiftieth birthday this year.  Despite his mother’s desire that Michael become a firefighter like his father, he instead practiced art and pursued a certificate in commercial art, a diploma in visual arts from the College of the North Atlantic, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (jewellery major) from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Following his college years Massie took part in two carving workshops held by the Inuit Art Foundation in Nain, for three weeks in November 1991 and again for five weeks in February 1992, honing his style of combining native imagery with Western techniques to create sculpture and artworks. In the last 25 years, Michael’s work has shown throughout North America and Europe; his artwork is included within collections at the Smithsonian-National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and the Heard Museum in Phoenix.  In Canada, his pieces can be found in the Royal Ontario Museum, the National Gallery, the MacDonald Stewart Art Center, The Rooms, and the Vancouver Airport Collection. He’s also earned recognition for his excellence as a silversmith and has been twice short-listed for the Prix Saidye Bronfman.

Massie first caught the attention of the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in the mid-90s, and it wasn’t until 1998 the two were connected at the Spirits in the Sun Art Show in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Since then, the gallery has exclusively represented him and they decided to create the 50@50 Celebration of Metal and Stone exhibition to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. The gallery sums up the variety of materials used in 50@50, “for this collection Michael carved sculptures in serpentine, marble, anhydrite, limestone, whalebone and antler. With many, he incorporated a variety of metals into the design which include copper, brass, chrome, aluminum, sterling silver and gold leaf. Metal became the unifying vital ingredient of this collection. It is his expertise of combining metal and stone that has set Michael uniquely apart from his contemporaries.” On a final note, the gallery adds that Michael “is an artist who is continually challenging himself to produce new and different artworks.”

Q & A with Michael Massie...

NLAC: How did you find the transition from working with silver so much to using other materials when the Spirit Wrestler Gallery encouraged that during the 90s?

Components of the chess pieces laid out for assembly.

Michael: There was a challenge in the beginning when Spirit Wrestler encouraged me to work in other materials; meaning that because I’ve tried my hand at stone sculpture a few years earlier, it was easier to work with it.  In previous works I may have added a slight bit of metal, either as a tip of a harpoon or to a pair of snow goggles.  But for my 50@50 show there had to be works that surpassed the 2006 show (Tea and a Story with Michael Massie) and this is where I tried to add more metal to the stone.  Over time I added lines and dots to the pieces, which became patterns or texture.  And each piece that followed had to be better and different. So the idea of adding more metal in a way that was interesting was the biggest challenge. 

NLAC: What draws you to create teapot sets, what is your connection to them?

Michael: My connection to tea sets came from making a single tea pot. My first tea pot was in dedication to my late grandmother, May Baikie, who was an avid tea drinker and it was only fitting to make one in her honor. With a single tea pot, I just have to concentrate on the individual design, but to make a set, the design [of each piece] has to work together; keeping the other elements, (creamer, sugar bowl, spoon, tea pot and tray) as one piece which work as a unit.

NLAC: How do you blend your three heritages in the work you create?

Michael: This is how I view the different mediums I work with: the stone works as my Inuit heritage and the metal works as Western influences. This is mainly through the materials used, the Inuit did not use metal in their art and when I first started out, the attitude of the collectors, dealers and gallery/museum representatives dictated that if Inuit art was not either stone, a print or a tapestry, it wasn't Inuit art.  I guess you could say this is why I tend to categorize my works.

Detail of black chess pieces.

NLAC: Prior to this exhibition with Spirit Wrestler, what other exhibitions have you done with them as part of a collective or solo?

Michael: Fusion: Tradition and Discovery (1999), Tea and a Story with Michael Massie (2005), Mini Master I (2006), Mini masters II (2008), Spirit Wrestler-Shaman, Sedna and Spirits (2008), Mini masters III (2009), Woven and Sewn in Time (2009), Mini masters IV (2011), and now 50@50 (2012)

NLAC: What is the story behind the chess set that you created for this exhibition? Considering its intricacies, what was the creation process like?

Michael: I’ve been looking to make a chess set for over 10 years and for this show I wanted to make something other than a tea set; it was during my last show seven years ago when I decided to make it.  I wanted to make something a little different than other chess sets I’ve seen. As with much of my work, I like the idea of shamans and so I went with that theme. The next step was to design the pieces and that is where the fun began.

It was obvious to anyone who knows my work, that the owl would represent the pawn. The rook being the castle, ended up as an igloo with a face on top (keeping with theme). The knight was a little more difficult to design until I was having a conversation with my brother, Russ, about this very problem.  He mentioned the knight is usually represented as a horse and that the closest thing to a horse up north is the caribou and this is where the head with antler added kept with the theme.  The bishop was easier because of the cross and I just so happened to have completed two pieces with the brass ring around the head so it was only fitting to do the same with this one. The queen is represented by Sedna, the sea goddess of the north. The king, ended up as a walrus and owl, I found designing the walrus was more interesting as a subject matter than any other animal of the north, because of its tusks and whiskers.

The pieces had to have bases and I chose to use the same wood as in the board.  I wanted to keep the design concept in the height of the pieces as I have seen in older pieces, large and with weight.  I chose to use brass with the ivory and sterling silver with the serpentine, because of the contrast in materials. In the board design I wanted to have a difference in height between squares.  The wooden squares are 2mm higher than the silver ones, this give a three dimensional look to the surface and in my opinion, is more interesting in its appearance.

NLAC: What challenges did you face while creating the pieces for this collection? Are certain materials more difficult to work with than others?

Michael: There were a couple of challenges; the ideas and the themes that I wanted to use were incorporating metal and stone. I’ve always made my works so there are no two pieces exactly the same. This is a challenge in itself, it keeps the imagination working and always on the lookout for new ideas. As for the materials needed to make some of the pieces, it isn't easy to obtain the metal needed for them. I’ve had to order outside the province for many of the metals. So when materials are getting low, it makes it harder to come up with an idea. It was a challenge to get the two materials to work together as well. Gathering the stone needed to make the works is sometimes not always easy. If I’m wanting serpentine for a piece, should I not have it on hand, I have to get it from the St. John's Native Friendship Center or from Labrador, and not being able to see the stone before it is purchased can be difficult.  If I’m going to use anhydrite, it is much easier, it is just a half hour away and I can pick and choose.

NLAC: Do you ever partially create a piece and find it no longer speaks to you? Do your pieces evolve as they come to life or more often reflect the initial design/sketch?

Chess pieces with board in progress.

Michael: There have been a few pieces that caused me to take a second look and decide whether to continue or not, but if I do put them aside there will be a time that I will look it over again and for the most recent show there were a couple of pieces that were taken from the 'back shelf'.  There have been times where the stone has cracked when the design was almost completed but to look at it as a disaster would be the wrong thing, there will come a time to use it in another piece or to try and figure out how you can still make it work once it has cracked. As the piece evolves it takes on its own life, if I have a design drawn before, I try and copy it exactly, but there are things we cannot control, fractures, cracks, etc.  If I’m making a piece with eyes, it doesn't really come to life until the eyes are in. It’s always easier to draw a design on paper than it is to make the piece look exactly like it, but that is the challenge and sometimes it comes easy and other times it takes a little more time.  

NLAC: How does the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council (NLAC) funding from the Professional Project Grants Program help?

Michael: The funding from the NLAC is a great help to making my art, it allows me to purchase more silver or stone. To buy silver it is best to purchase a large amount at one time. You get more for you money, because of price breaks, and as for other metals it is the same thing.  

NLAC: What was it like to hear places like the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Canada wanted to include your work in their collections?

Michael: As artists we want as many people to see our work as possible. When I found out that the National Gallery, the Smithsonian and other galleries wanted to include my work(s) in their collection, I was excited to say the least.  It felt like I have made a difference when that happened, to have my works in their collections.

NLAC: Where do you get your inspiration from? Are there contemporaries you admire particularly?

Michael: My inspirations come from my life experiences and through Inuit stories, legends and myths.  I became fascinated with the art from the central North, Gjoa Haven, Pelly Bay, etc.  The work from there is very spiritual and at times can be very surreal or abstract. There are many artists I am influenced by, some are from Haida, some are Maori, some are Inuit and others are Western. Others range from Picasso to Ashivak, I’m always looking for ideas and things that may influence me in my designs.

NLAC: What projects are you working on for the future?

Michael: Since the 50@50 show I’ve been working on some commissions. There were a few people who missed out on getting a piece from that show and I am trying to fill that void.  After the commissions are completed it will be business as usual, I will be working as always to pay the bills.