No guts, no glory

Good seal intestine is hard to find. So, when Lyn Fabio got mailed a bundle of damp gut, she was ecstatic.

Good seal intestine is hard to find.

So, when Lyn Fabio got mailed a bundle of damp gut, she was ecstatic.

The problem was, she was on holiday when it arrived.

And it was summer.

The parcel came from a Washington State artist Fabio met in Inuvik.

It was a traditional gut parka from St. Lawrence Island.

But by the time Fabio got home, the gut was starting to become moldy, so she soaked it in distilled water, stuffed it with bubble wrap and laid it out to dry.

“When the gut’s wet, it’s like a drippy puddle,” she said.

Light was streaming in Fabio’s small, Hansen Street studio Monday afternoon.

The ephemeral, translucent parka was hanging in the window, holding its shape like frozen clothing.

It looked brittle, but Fabio scrunched it inside out to expose the stitching. It’s woven with grass that swells, waterproofing the seams when wet.

The Alaskan natives used to wear these parkas over their clothes as raingear, said Fabio.

And they had to wet them to get them on.

“When it’s dry, the whole rain outfit weighs less than three ounces,” she said.

Fabio saw her first seal gut parka at an art show in Juneau in 1988.

Both traditional and contemporary gut work was on exhibit.

“I walked into that show and burst into tears,” she said.

“It really inspired me — how the light was shining through the work.”

But Fabio’s inspiration was short-lived.

She couldn’t get her hands on any seal gut.

“I was discouraged because we don’t live near the coast,” she said.

Twelve years later, Fabio heard about a hog gut workshop in Washington State.

The gut baskets looked similar to the one’s she’d seen in Juneau, and she signed up.

Working with pig intestines is not as bad as it sounds.

They’re not slimy, stinky or bloody.

In fact, the thin, see-through tubes sound and look more like tissue paper than dried flesh.

“Each piece of gut has its own nature,” said Fabio.

“Some is thicker; some is wider.”

Fabio’s gut creations fill a table by the window, a papery array of organic vessels that catch and hold the light.

One of the bigger pieces is fringed with polar bear fur; others are adorned with horsehair, corral, porcupine quills, milkweed, and juniper root.

“I collect a lot of these natural materials, when I’m hiking,” said Fabio, pulling out some pungent eucalyptus seeds from her recent jaunt to Italy.

She gets the porcupine quills from local road kill.

“People know I collect the quills, and sometimes I’ll come home and find a dead porcupine at my door,” she said with a laugh.

“And they’re pretty smelly.”

Apparently, it’s not easy skinning a porcupine, or plucking its quills.

One, asymmetrical gut bowl has written wishes sewn to it and totters on a stand woven from wishbones.

“I collect everything,” said Fabio, pulling out a bag of deer hooves.

Another bag is full of dried garlic stems.

Fabio hasn’t figured out what to do with them yet, but couldn’t bear to see them thrown out.

“They’re so beautiful,” she said.

Fabio’s work has a light, natural, translucent quality that makes it hard to ignore.

Many of the pieces are symmetrical, formed over glass vessels acquired from the Salvation Army.

But using glass forms is risky.

Fabio wets the gut and layers it over the form like papier-mache.

It’s a long process, because Fabio waits a day between each layer, and a large vessel can require as many as 20.

After the layers dry and the piece has been waxed several times, Fabio has to break the glass to remove the mould.

“It’s always tense in the house when it’s smashing day,” she said.

If things go badly, the broken glass can rupture a membrane piece that took weeks to create.

Even if the breaking goes well, after the glass is gone, Fabio sometimes realizes a piece is too malleable and needed more layers.

But, usually, things turn out.

Many of Fabio’s vessels are tinted, but the colouring is subtle.

“I don’t want solid colours, because I don’t want to lose the transparency of the gut,” she said.

So Fabio has been experimenting with softer, natural dyes, including saffron and berries.

She also uses ink to highlight the intestines’ skeletal, lunar texture.

While working toward a fine arts teaching degree, Fabio majored in printmaking. She finds the gut reacts much like printing plates.

She has always worked with textiles and is haunted by texture.

“But this is the most focused period,” she said, referencing her past six years working with pig innards.

Every year, she’s taken her work to the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik.

The first year, Fabio was worried about its reception, she said.

“No one else up here is working with gut, so I have no other friend or artist to compare it with, I’m on my own.”

But Fabio came back from Inuvik empty-handed.

She’d sold-out.

“I still have moments of doubt,” she said.

“But there’s a certain maturity and trust that comes with just putting it out there.”

Fabio has had some disgusted responses.

One man wouldn’t even come near it, she said.

“So, I asked him what he ate for breakfast?”

Fabio buys her gut in bundles from Yukon Meat and Sausage, which uses it to form sausage skins.

At one point, she was invited to a pig slaughter and was offered some fresh gut.

“It was pretty stinky,” she said.

“But I took about four metres home and washed it out with the garden hose.”

However, scraping the gut proved tedious.

Fabio wanted to learn how the Alaskan natives prepared the seal gut, but most of the elders who knew these secrets have passed away, she said.

The seal gut contained a spiritual element for the native people, said Fabio.

Shamans wore the gut parkas, and hunters would wear them for luck.

“And I want to pay homage to these traditions,” she said.

Although Fabio has been working in the medium for six years and has shown her work annually in Inuvik, this will be her first Whitehorse exhibit.

“I just have to put it out there and see what response I get,” she said, placing some eucalyptus seeds on one of her pieces.

Milkweed and the Skin Within opens Friday at Arts Underground.

The opening reception begins at 5 p.m. The artist will give a brief talk about her work.

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