Artist Joyce Majiski poses for a photo near her eight-metre long replica of a baby humpback whale’s skeleton made of discarded Styrofoam found in or near the ocean at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on Dec. 7. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Artist Joyce Majiski poses for a photo near her eight-metre long replica of a baby humpback whale’s skeleton made of discarded Styrofoam found in or near the ocean at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on Dec. 7. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Yukon artist carves complete whale skeleton with discarded Styrofoam

Joyce Majiski hopes her Song of the Whale will have people reflecting on ocean pollution

Joyce Majiski has a message from the ocean: Vast as it may be, whatever we put into it is bound to eventually end up back on our shores, our dinner plates and – at least this week – in our art galleries.

The Yukon-based artist has told that story before with bottled letters from ocean deities and schools of fish caught in massive nets. On Dec. 12 she’s sharing it in Song of the Whale, an installation at the Yukon Arts Centre that includes the story of a one-year-old humpback whale, who died after she was caught in a herring fishery rope and drowned.

The centrepiece of the show is an eight-metre long replica of the baby whale’s skeleton, each bone painstakingly carved from discarded Styrofoam salvaged from the ocean and beaches.

“Water is the one thing that connects us all — we’re a planet of water — and we have a lot of disregard for it,” Majiski said.

“There’s a lot of things that we have done to contribute to the death of these creatures. Again, we need to pay attention to what we’re doing. If we thought about how connected we are as creatures on this planet, maybe we’d do things a little differently,” she said.

Majiski has previously pursued careers as a biologist and wilderness guide, in addition to making work as a professional artist for the last two decades.

Thousands of herring fish made out of discarded plastic ready to be hung as part of art installation in Whitehorse on Dec. 7. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

As she embarked on the project, she describes her research as “despairing.” Eventually, the search for an intact but loose whale skeleton that would allow the study of individual bones led her to Saltspring Island.

There, she was allowed to handle and study the bones of the young humpback. Majiski did studies of each individual bone, from ribs to vertebrae, first in sketch form and then by carving replicas from salvaged Styrofoam.

“Every shape had its own kind of challenge to deal with because you notice there are different kinds of shapes and each have their different curves and different twists,” she said.

The majority of the Styrofoam came from the Ocean Legacy Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit that does ocean cleanups.

The organization says over 6.5 million tons of litter enter the world’s ocean each year.

Styrofoam is the trademarked name for the material technically called expanded polystyrene or EPS. It’s a family of plastics that are formed from smaller cells. When it degrades in the ocean, styrofoam breaks down into small particles that can be consumed by ocean animals. Styrene, the monomer from which the plastic product is made, is also a suspected carcinogen.

It’s also messy material to work with as an artist.

“The styrofoam looks really awful. It’s all big pieces that are black and crumbly. They’ve been floating around in the ocean and degrading and washed up on shore.

“It’s really messy. It’s really dirty and crumbly and I didn’t want to breathe it [as I carved]. I mean, I wore a mask all the time and coveralls and gloves. I was vacuuming myself and my hands and everything every hour or so depending on how much I was carving,” said Majiski.

As she carved the pieces, the grime was scraped away to reveal the original hues of the material – white, pale orange and pale blue. Some of the dirt, grime and damage from the sea is still visible on parts of the completed skeleton.

Artist Joyce Majiski and Donald Watt, installation assistant, work on part of Majiski’s Song of the Whale art installation at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on Dec. 7. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

In total, Majiski carved 177 intricate pieces, which are being assembled in Whitehorse for the first time.

Suspended from the gallery ceiling, her whale will be accompanied by plastic schools of herring, and a projection and soundscape by Daniel Janke.

Also on display as part of the show is the work from international artists Irene Carlos, Cristina Luna and Natasha van Netten, whose complementary works explore the migratory path of the humpback whale.

The show is taking place at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery from Dec. 12 to Feb. 25.

Contact Haley Ritchie at

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