If Kamil Azizov had it his way, Yukon would be covered in farms and there would be giant sculptures on the mountaintops.
He says he has big ideas for the territory that includes sustainable food that doesn’t have to transported from the south. And art. Lots of art.
At first glance, many people would write him off as a weirdo.
They would be making a mistake.
Sure his room at the Stratford Motel is a mess and smells like nothing you have ever encountered before –
a mixture of past meals, mould, and various other odours that dominate the space.
The floor is dusted with wood shavings and a short, modest pantry sits opposite the mattress.
It contains mainly dry foods and berries he’s collected from the woods. A hot plate sits on top of it, boiling water in a kettle next to a dirty frying pan, which contains a gathering of bones, picked clean.
In another corner sit wooden slats -“Put out for garbage,” he laughs – which serve as a workbench.
On the windowsill, what looks like a dead plant is actually the tops of onions growing in a makeshift garden.
But this clutter is his work. Hundreds of pieces of jewelry shaped out of bone and ivory, woodcarvings made from tree scraps he finds on his walks and art made out of wool.
They are everywhere, including on the walls, making it seem like the clutter is climbing.
As for Azizov, he could be considered a genius.
He knows at least seven different languages, has lived all over the world and resourceful doesn’t even begin to describe his capabilities.
Officially, he is a 62-year-old sculptor, carver, and visual artist from the Soviet Union. He represents himself as part of the Volga River Tartar Meshar Mongol Tribes. He left what is now Uzbekistan nearly 25 years ago.
He’s been moving around North and Central America as much as he did around the old Soviet Union and about four months ago, he arrived in the Yukon.
He has dreamed of coming here ever since he was a young man sitting beside the Volga River with one of his first loves, watching the ice pass by.
“He’s always been attracted and interested in that part of the Earth,” says his daughter Kamilla Azizova, reached in Montreal.
She was nine years old when they came to Canada.
“We came to join my mother,” she says. “My mother ran away from Russia, and they’re both artists so it was very hard, under the communist rule, for artists … self-expression, you know, you got punished, literally, for it. So they both ran away, but my father has lived all over the place.
“Everywhere you can think of my dad’s been. He’s a great curious mind. It’s in our blood, I think.”
Her father was primarily a jeweler in Uzbekistan, she says, adding that his pieces are in the national museum.
When they lived in Victoria, British Columbia, her father opened a jewelry store. That’s when Doug Galbraith met him.
Living as neighbours, Azizov opened the shop right in the middle of the old, brick-building they shared in Chinatown, Galbraith says.
“I helped him open the gallery and casually became his apprentice,” he says. “We became close friends and I was of that age when I was quite hungry to meet mentor-type people and he fit the bill perfectly.”
With laughs and quick breaths, Galbraith recalls a memory of him and Azizov, stripped to their underwear to stave the heat from a small pot-belly stove they had turned up to 1,600 or 1,700 degrees in Azizov’s apartment, trying to melt at least a kilo of silver – enough to cast a new sculpture that they ended up selling for about $7,500.
“Just incredible,” Galbraith says of the man. “Resourceful. Very strong, fiercely independent and a storyteller.”
Galbraith, who works as an artist, musician, taxi driver, husband and father of two in BC, still applies much of what Azizov taught him.
“I learned a lot of technical things from him,” says Galbraith. “But in my life I still consider him one of the strongest father figures I have.”
And Azizov has acquired some students in Whitehorse.
“They stop by when they wish,” he says of the approximately half-dozen young men he instructs.
“But this space is too small for seminars,” he says of the tiny room at the Stratford.
The people at the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools (CAIRS) on Fourth Avenue got to know Azizov through a client who brought him in.
The centre has a small woodcarving studio.
“He doesn’t do any teaching here,” says executive director Joanne Henry. “He just comes to hang out and use the equipment sometimes. He’s come to be one of our friends.
“He’s different. A wandering minstrel kind of guy, but he’s a hard worker, has some amazing ideas and just wants to help.”
“I would like to be a functional part of society,” says Azizov through his thick accent.
“I would like to connect with the young generation and meet with the First Nations peoples here. I have fresh eyes for all the situations.”
Despite the hardships of a penniless existence here in Whitehorse, Azizov does not actively sell his art, nor does he charge his students.
“I don’t agree with putting our young people in debt,” he says. “Knowledge needs to be delivered for free and fun.”
His daughter is not worried about him.
“If he can’t find a way, he’ll invent one,” says Azizova. “He looks like an older man but he’s quite strong and active.”
Azizov says he wants to spend the winter in Yukon. His daughter says she doubts he’ll stay past the spring.
Before he leaves, however, there are a lot of things he wants to accomplish.
Looking to his small food collection, he says he doesn’t understand why Yukon doesn’t have a more developed agricultural industry.
“I grew up in a climate like this one and the whole town was an orchard,” he says.
“The Yukon could feed all of Canada, it is very rich in grazing land – it’s fragile and so we cannot do it with haste – but if there was lots of food, guests would be fed. Canadians don’t really know starvation, but rough times are coming and we only have junk food here.”
He plans on partnering with the private and public sector to import livestock for wilderness grazing camps that would boost food and wool production and fuel youth exchanges with the Volga River region.
“He’s always had a small farm,” says Azizova. “It ranges from pheasants to goats to horses to cows. We’ve been raised with our own animals, meaning our own meat. He’s a very good cook, he makes his own teas, he bakes his own bread.”
She laughs, remembering his exotic chicken collection, running around with all his other free-ranging animals.
“It was quite the wonderland,” she says.
Azizov also wants to leave behind an artistic legacy in Whitehorse.
He wants to erect a sculpture at the ski resort on Mount Sima, big and high enough for all the world to see.
“I will put together the most gigantic piece of sculpture for you guys,” he says. “A white horse on top of that mountain, made out of aluminum.”
He plans to cast the piece from aluminum cans he scrounges around town, or that are donated to him.
“If you guys drink lots, the sculpture will be better,” he says grinning with his few teeth.
“Everything I do I have to make beautiful,” he says. “There’s no point in making ugly art – the world’s ugly enough It’s my priority.”
It’s also one of his last wishes.
Azizov has a brain tumour.
Fearful he could emerge from surgery less able-bodied than he is now, Azizov does not want to have the procedure.
He only gets terrible migraines if he works too hard, for too long, he says.
His daughter, Azizova doesn’t know what state the tumour is in, but she says he has had it for some time.
She doesn’t seem worried, rather confident in his capabilities.
“He’s a very smart individual. He’s extremely capable and one of the most intelligent men I know,” she says. “There’s nothing that he can’t do.”
Sitting on the edge of his mattress, Azizov sifts through his newspaper clippings and small carvings, holding each one up to read or admire it.
“I just keep going as far as I can go and, after, I will say goodbye,” Azizov says.
Contact Roxanne Stasysyzn at