Of beautiful birds and gods of war

On one wall hangs an elegant Victorian lady decked out in a fashionable swan hat. On another there’s a strong warrior sporting a high helmet…

On one wall hangs an elegant Victorian lady decked out in a fashionable swan hat.

On another there’s a strong warrior sporting a high helmet displaying an effigy of a foe felled in battle.

And nearby hang a string of cherubic babies, their faces radiating halos of golden copper.

Together they run through thousands of years of history and chronicle empires — from Egyptian to Victorian —through their headwear.

Carver Maureen Morris spent just six months shaping the series of work in Headwear: Helmets, Hats and Halos that opened at the Yukon Arts Centre public gallery last week.

The Atlin, BC-based artist intricately carved each head, hat, helmet and halo in the 55-piece exhibit.

And walking into the exhibition is more like entering a museum than a modern art gallery.

But things in this exhibition are not as they appear.

What looks like ancient stone or marble is actually carefully wrought moose antlers — each one chosen for its size, shape and surface quality.

Morris began the series in September.

Each figure took about a week to form, from crown to nape.

“I hired a friend who needed my money more than I do,” she says with a laugh, while sitting in the gallery surrounded by a sea of carved faces.

He roughed out the antlers by grinding the skin off, then cutting them down into shapes with a band saw.

And then Morris took over for the more delicate carving — honing the rough piece into a warrior mask or a lady’s hat.

Fred Morris lent his artistic skills to the works. He accentuated the lines and added light tone by rubbing some antlers with watercolour paint, acrylic inks, oil pastels and coloured pencils.

Maureen Morris has been carving for 33 years. She went to art school in Vancouver, then travelled north to Atlin to set up a studio.

She began carving in jade, but soon switched to antler, both caribou and moose, because of its versatility and accessibility.

Now, all of the hunters in town know to drop their extra antlers at her studio — most are shed, as moose lose their rack annually, but some are from kills.

The idea for the series came a couple years ago when she was carving pieces for a wall-mounted chess set.

“I got interested in doing faces, particularly the knights, king and queen and bishops,” she said.

So she began scouring through stacks of art history and costume books and finding images that interested her.

“I was getting books by the 50 pound,” she says. “And every time I came into Whitehorse, I’d leave the Whitehorse library with a 25-pound stack of books.”

Morris’ research took her through many centuries.

“I had a whole series of medieval armour — mostly English, but some German and French — and I felt like I was visiting another time,” says Morris.

“Those are actually helmets men used to wear while jousting,” she says, and points across the room at two facing pieces, one shows the likeness of a king and the other a swan’s graceful neck.

“They were only for ceremony, for show and for showing off. So people could recognize you in the dust and the uproar of a real joust,” she says.

She studied the tallest to the smallest in hats and headgear from the Egyptians in 2000 BC to the Victorians in 1890s, and over time it “hasn’t gotten any less ludicrous,” she says with a laugh.

“You look through the books and see some of the most bizarre pieces of headgear, but it isn’t much different now — it’s just different styles.”

Most of the images came straight from the books; most are ceremonial hats and helmets that people actually wore on their heads.

With some mild revisions and improvements.

“I had to edit a lot depending on the size and shape of each antler,” she says.

Antlers are a shallow medium, so she improvised by flattening down noses or carving the faces in profile.

“Every antler’s a different shape, so every antler presents a whole different set of possibilities and problems,” she says.

Each piece is carved from a different antler; some of the bigger ones were made from fitting two pieces together.

This week she’ll be back in her Atlin studio starting on another series.

Headwear: Helmets, Hats and Halos will hang in the Yukon Arts Centre public gallery until May 28, along with a stop-motion animation from Dawson City’s Pit Bar and a aqua-inspired installation Tidal Trace from Edmonton-based artists Lyndal Osbourne and John Freeman.