A Kraken snow sculpture in Whitehorse and the First Nations backstory behind it

Kaska artist Dennis Shorty’s float plane carving is the inspiration behind a captivating new snow sculpture.

You can’t miss the eye-catching snow sculpture outside of the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC) in Whitehorse.

Since Monday, two snow carvers have been transforming a 3.5 metre tall block of snow into a one-of-a-kind work of art – a Kraken’s tentacles intertwined with a floatplane, to be exact.

A handful of snowy tentacles appear to wrap around a submerged floatplane – and there’s a noteworthy backstory to the unusual piece.

“It represents (when) we were taken and brought back by floatplane,” says Kaska multimedia artist Dennis Shorty, who is a residential school survivor.

The snow sculpture is based on a smaller-scale floatplane carving of Shorty’s titled Float Plane LP 282 made from birch, cooper and moose antler.

As a child, Shorty was flown by floatplane from the community of Ross River in eastern Yukon to Lower Post in northern B.C. where he attended the Lower Post residential school.

“I put numbers and letters on it. I put LP for Lower Post, and 282, that’s my name in residential school, so that’s what that carving is,” he says.

He says his experience at residential school “took (his) spirit away.”

Shorty says for many years he struggled with the trauma of residential school and the murder of his mother.

“I wasn’t a good a person in the beginning because of residential school,” he recalls.

Shorty says things began to change for the better around 15 years ago when he met his partner Jennifer, who he describes as “his rock.”

Since then Shorty says he’s been on a path of healing thanks to Jennifer and his art practice.

“It helped me with my spirituality, my mind, my soul. It helped me ground myself,” he says. “The only thing that brought me back was my artwork.”

He says the plane is a symbol of trauma but also overcoming and resolving that experience.

“It’s to show people out there that you can persevere no matter what comes your way. You can stand up. We have choices. My choice was to do art, teach, play music,” he says.

From wood to snow

Dennis Shorty’s Float Plane LP 282 carving. It’s on display at the Yukon Arts Centre as part of the Yukon permeant art collection’s Collective Memory exhibit. Photo: Jordan Haslbeck/APTN.

Shorty’s sculpture was purchased by the Yukon permanent art collection, which is housed at YAC.

It is currently on display as part of the collection’s Collective Memory exhibit, which is celebrating a selection of 75 pivotal works over the last 40 years.

Artists Michel Gignac and Ken Anderson were commissioned to create a snow sculpture based on a piece from the exhibit.

Gignac, who designed the sculpture, says he was drawn to the floatplane but wanted to incorporate the piece into something totally different.

He says it’s up to the viewer to interpret the message.

“I guess it’s just to create more story, more for people to read into,” he says. We’re going for more of a look where you’re not sure whether the Kraken creature is taking down the floatplane or whether the floatplane is fleeing from it.”

He adds the sculpture’s form has been difficult to work with.

“Lines are interrupted by tentacles all the time,” he says.

“If I could just draw that straight line I would have the angle that I need to keep going, but every time there’s a tentacle that breaks the straight line and makes it very challenging.”

Anderson, who is assisting Gignac with the sculpture, says the sheer size of the sculpture makes it appear “larger than life.”

“It allows you to interact with the work more. I think as humans we’re always impressed by something that’s bigger than we are,” he says.

Healing through art

Snow carvers Michel Gignac (left) and Ken Anderson (right). Photo: Jordan Haslbeck/APTN.

Both artists know Shorty personally. Anderson, who is a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, says it was important to respect Shorty’s memory while recreating something new.

He says he hopes it will inspire people viewing the exhibit to learn more about First Nations history.

“I mean obviously that school down in Lower Post is gone now, but it’s kind of about the memory, right? Kind of like this piece it will be gone, it won’t last too long but it’s still here,” he says.

The snow sculpture is expected to be completed on Friday.

Shorty says he hasn’t seen it yet, but he’s looking forward to viewing it in person next week and taking a selfie with it.

“You know that piece that they chose, it means a lot. It’s my healing, our healing.”

Photo: Kaska artist Dennis Shorty holding Float Plane LP 282. (Submitted by Dennis Shorty)
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