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Passings: Accomplished artist, carver Head passes

For years, Irvin Head was one of northern Manitoba’s most talented and vibrant artists. The Cranberry Portage-based carver and sculptor died August 15 at age 66, leaving dozens of works and a legacy of art behind.
N34 Passings Irvin Head
Irvin Head carves a piece in his workshop in 2017. An acclaimed carver and artist from Cranberry Portage, Head died August 15.

For years, Irvin Head was one of northern Manitoba’s most talented and vibrant artists. The Cranberry Portage-based carver and sculptor died August 15 at age 66, leaving dozens of works and a legacy of art behind.

Head was born and raised in northern Manitoba, growing up in Cranberry Portage and attending school in Flin Flon growing up. In his professional life, Head wore many hats, working as a carpenter, firefighter and teacher among other roles. It was Head’s role as an artist and knowledge keeper for which he is best known, for his carved and sculpted works and the lessons he imprinted on younger generations.

Head began carving in the late 1990s, starting the hobby as a way to get in touch with his roots and express himself. In his later years, Head spoke of seeing figures and shapes in nature, seeing imagery in pieces of driftwood or in stones, as far back as his childhood years.

Using techniques he learned himself with hand tools like files and trowels, Head - called “Muskie” by close friends and family - worked in a variety of media, including different types of wood and materials like granite, marble and antler. His soapstone carvings were among the pieces Head received most acclaim for, often depicting animals or wilderness scenes from the north or Indigenous tradition.

“This is my medicine, this is my therapy,” Head said to The Reminder in 2017.

“You’re not carving that piece - that piece is carving you. It’s making you into this whole other person, a different lifestyle. If you really look at it, you have a big, rough stone like this and you take off all the rough edges, all the garbage off that you’ve collected throughout your life and you shape it and polish it. This is what everybody is looking for. It’s nice. I like that.”

Head taught soapstone carving in clinics and classes to interested artists and school children across the north and was one of the area’s foremost champions of Indigenous art and culture.

Head’s work received international acclaim and was exhibited in galleries on four continents, in places like Australia, China, Switzerland, the U.S. and others, always garnering attention for his work.

“There’s a lake in Switzerland with a big park around it. I sat there and carved and people came around. As fast as I carved them, people wanted them. It’s been an interesting life. It’s taken me to places I never thought I’d go or do,” Head said in 2017.

In 2010, Head was also part of a group of Indigenous artists who created pieces featured as part of the Vancouver Olympics - a piece he was the lead artist on, “Grand Entry”, was installed outside of Hillcrest Centre, the official curling venue for the Olympiad. Head also served as a co-president of the Manitoba Aboriginal Arts Council and frequently made pieces for Indigenous teachers, Elders and leaders.

When asked about his own personal favourite pieces, Head mentioned one of his first pieces - one made of caribou antler in 2000 showing a woman and two wolves - and a personalized headstone he made in memory of his mother, a project that took him years to complete.

Head also maintained Northern Buffalo Sculptures, a gallery with pieces made by both Head and others in Cranberry Portage with his own bespoke workshop out back.

“Where do you get the idea? It’s the Creator’s idea – I’m just along for the ride. That’s the way I’ve sort of summed up my life. I’ve got to this point, I’m just riding along, enjoying it, doing these things as I go,” said Head to The Reminder in 2017.

“It’s the circle that we travel. No matter where we go, there’s an artist. When you talk to one another, you understand each other. It’s like you’ve been friends all your life – you have something in common. It’s a good circle to get into.”