Art from the ashes

Take what is ravished and make it beautiful. For more than a decade, that has been the vision of Whitehorse artist James Kirby.

Take what is ravished and make it beautiful.

For more than a decade, that has been the vision of Whitehorse artist James Kirby.

A prolific sculptor and jeweler, Kirby works almost exclusively with materials reclaimed from tarnished industrial landscapes.

“I take things out of the environment that people have destroyed … things that every other living being would just step over,” he said.

His work is like an artistic rebellion against the destructive forces of industry.

“We take all this base mineral out of the earth to make steel to build garbage to sell people junk and we basically shoot ourselves in the foot by doing that.”

“We’re not paying attention to what’s really there, we’re paying attention to one aspect of what’s really there.”

Kirby fashions his art in a large studio near the banks of the Yukon River that once served as an RCMP horse stable.

Cracked, broken and misshapen rocks are heaped in a waist-high pile at the back of his studio. They are some of Kirby’s reclaimed treasures.

He pointed to a large granite stone, rendered useless by a series of large fissures along its side.

“I found this outside the quarry at Whitehorse copper,” he said.

“I’ll seal up all the cracks, I’ll carve a totem pole in the front and then I’ll sell it for $30,000.”

At his jewelling bench, Kirby showcased his stone collection.

He held up a small stone that glistened with an intricate octagonal pattern: 275 million-year-old colonial coral.

“That’s what you drive on on the Dempster Highway,” he said.

“That whole highway was an ocean.”

A piercing blue stone catches my eye: blue coral.

Found by Kirby in the Yukon River, he said it originates from the Western Pacific, around the coast of Malaysia.

“Somebody had it in their fish tank and threw it into the river,” he said.

“It’s endangered, you can’t buy it anywhere.”

Glistening silver bezels bedeck much of Kirby’s jewelry. It all comes from a single discarded silver teapot he found in the river.

“The most fun I have is when I go out and I find something that is precious — that people have been walking on and stepping on and digging up and throwing to the side,” he said.

Kirby appeared at a day care to show off his collection of fossils, dinosaur bones and First Nations artifacts.

“I told the class, ‘All this stuff is in your backyard,’” he said.

The next day, a father angrily confronted Kirby with the news that his son had dug up his entire lawn in search of dinosaur bones.

During the interview, a young neighbourhood boy dropped by looking to take Kirby beachcombing.

Kirby attributes his geological knowledge to a bizarre lifelong obsession with rocks.

Kirby remembered, as a child, taking all the clothes out of his dresser drawers and filling them with rocks.

As an employee of Whitehorse Copper in his late teens, he described intently sitting next to the company’s conveyor belt to “watch the rocks go by.

“It was beautiful.”

Rocks even seem to have an affinity for him.

A few years ago, a flaming meteorite coursed over his house, turning the darkness into blinding light.

Kirby’s unique spiritual path plays a prominent role in his art.

He wears a large ring carrying the image of a pentagram contained within a circle, the symbol of the Temple of Set.

His forearm carries a tattoo of the scarab beetle Xeper (pronounced ‘keffer’), Egyptian symbol of personal rebirth and immortality.

“Xeper means to come into being,” he said.

He rejects the teachings of Western, or “right-hand path” religions, and explained that Xeper and the Temple of Set focus on the power of the individual.

Spiritual clarity comes from within, not from submission to an external god, he said.

Kirby’s tenuous hold on his genetic roots may have played a role in his spiritualist leanings.

He claims a diverse thread of genetic backgrounds: Cherokee, traces of Welsh, Viking and even a hint of African.

“The black thing — a big family secret … grandma took it to her grave.”

 “I never fit in anywhere, so I decided to make my own culture,” he said.

With his art, Kirby stressed that he is an intermediary, not a seller.

His art is about “putting things in the right place,” and it’s a philosophy he extends to his customers.

“A lot of times I don’t get paid for my work, because the right place is in the hands of someone who can’t afford it.”

He has turned down customers who have “frivolously” looked to buy his art, just because “they can.”

He held up an intricate carving made of mammoth ivory that he expects will never sell.

“Sure it’s beautiful, but few people can really know what it’s about.”

In accepting payment, Kirby often works beyond the boundaries of monetary exchange. He has accepted fish, moose meat, vehicles, even dental treatment for his work.

His shop is stocked with tools and hardware that have come about through various trades.

The dental treatment is particularly useful.

Ten years of working around rock dust has done extreme damage to his teeth.

“Everything we need in our lives comes to us, if we are living our lives in a way that befits our souls,” he said.

Over the years, as Kirby’s spiritual leanings increased, his unique art form of industrial refuse has risen out of his goal for minimum environmental impact.

“(Humans) are all about death, that’s what we do. We kill everything we touch, and we need to be aware of that.”

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before using it on Nov. 24. The Yukon government is reopening the drive-thru option on June 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Drive-up COVID-19 testing opening June 18 in Whitehorse

The drive-up testing will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday and increase testing capacity by 33 spots

A draft plan has been released by the Dawson Regional Use Planning commission on June 15. Julien Gignac/Yukon News
Draft plan released by the Dawson Regional Land Use Planning Commission

Dawson Regional Land Use Commission releases draft plan, Government of Yukon withdraws additional lands from mineral staking in the planning region

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Let them live in trailers

“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city… Continue reading


Wyatt’s World for June 18, 2021.… Continue reading

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Yukon News file)
Yukon logs nine new COVID-19 cases, 54 active cases

More CEMA enforcement officers have been recruited, officials say

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council at its June 14 meeting

Murray Arsenault sits in the drivers seat of his 1975 Bricklin SV1 in Whitehorse on June 16. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bringing the 1975 Bricklin north

Murray Arsenault remembers his dad’s Bricklin, while now driving his own

A presumptive COVID case was found at Seabridge Gold’s 3 Aces project. (file photo)
Presumptive COVID-19 case reported at mine in southeast Yukon

A rapid antigen rest found a presumptive COVID case on an incoming individual arriving at the 3Aces project

Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio
Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8.
Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand… Continue reading

A woman was rescued from the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Alaska on June 16. (Photo courtesy/AllTrails)
Alaska hiker chased off trail by bears flags down help

ANCHORAGE (AP)—An Alaska hiker who reported needing help following bear encounters on… Continue reading

Two participants cross the finish line at the City of Whitehorse Kids Triathlon on June 12 with Mayor Dan Curtis on hand to present medals. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
2021 Kids’ Triathlon draws 76 young athletes

Youth ages five to 14 swim, run and bike their way to finish line

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Unacceptable’ that Inuk MP felt unsafe in House of Commons, Miller says

OTTAWA—It’s a “sad reflection” on Canada that an Inuk MP feels she’s… Continue reading

Lily Witten performs her Canadian Nationals beam routine on June 14. John Tonin/Yukon News
Three Yukon gymnasts break 20-year Nationals absence

Bianca Berko-Malvasio, Maude Molgat and Lily Witten competed at the Canadian Nationals – the first time in 20 years the Yukon’s been represented at the meet

Most Read