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Moving between worlds

Story by Amy Kenny

Violet Gatensby, Fog Woman Bentwood Box Design, 2016, acrylic on birch panel. (Yukon Permanent Art Collection)
Artist Violet Gatensby

For Violet Gatensby, carving feels like going into a different world. It’s not unlike the feeling she used to get as a kid, when she’d leave Carcross by boat, paddle down the lake, and pass through the narrows, leaving everything behind.
“I loved that feeling,” says Gatensby, an Inland Tlingit artist from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.
“The feeling of [carving], when you start understanding the blade and the wood and everything that goes with it? There’s a flow and you just get stuck in this space and time for a little while and it pulls you right in.”
You chase it until you know you’re done, she says, and then you feel an immense sense of satisfaction.

“It feels really good for me to be able to do this so freely and run into the future with this form in honour of the people who couldn’t,”

Violet Gatensby, Dugout Paddles, 2020, acrylic paint, cedar.

When she stands back and looks at Where the Waters Narrow, an exhibition of her work on display at the Yukon Arts Centre until May 17, she says she remembers the end of each individual piece.
These include gun stocks, large-scale paintings, and intricate carvings (Gatensby also does design work and makes jewellery). Some date back to 2015, when Gatensby was in her first year of the First Nations Fine Arts program at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. At least one piece in the show was finished the night before the show opened. Everything else was completed in the years between.
Gatensby says it’s interesting looking at a collection of her work this way. It doesn’t feel to her like she’s progressed as much as she has until she looks at all of it side-by-side, the way it’s curated at YAC.
“My teacher told [the class] when we left Freda Diesing that we would ride on their confidence until we found our own,” she says. When she looks at her earlier work, she sees her mark in it, but not the same way she makes that mark now, in 2024.

Violet Gatensby, Wolf and Crow Gunstocks, 2024, acrylic on wooden and plastic gunstocks.

“I see my style, but there’s a point where there’s a hard shift in the style and technique I’m using.”
That shift has to do with the way Gatensby works to pull traditional techniques and ideas into the present day, whether that’s by way of the subject matter she chooses, or her use of bright, brilliant colours where a more limited palette might have been used in the past.
She says she wants to make work that’s of the moment, and relatable to contemporary audiences, while still using it as a way of acknowledging people who suffered in the past and weren’t able to practice the same kind of art in the way she does.
“It feels really good for me to be able to do this so freely and run into the future with this form in honour of the people who couldn’t,” she says.

Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm and during performances.