Fort McMurray
Wood Buffalo

A lifelong passion for carving

BARB MARTOWSKI

Sonny MacDonald, 2010 Canada
World-renowned Canadian First Nations carver, Sonny MacDonald is seen here showing some visitors how he would make the best use of the bison horn's ridges to his advantage when carving it.
BARB MARTOWSKI/SnowSeekers

FORT SMITH, AB — Now retired from his 'civilian job,' Sonny MacDonald is a larger-than-life, self-taught artist who started carving at the age of seven. Among others, he has done commissioned work for both Pope John Paul II and Prince Phillip of England, but whether it's a commissioned piece or something for a trade show, anyone visiting his workshop can clearly see that MacDonald 'needs to carve.'

"I don't drink and I don't smoke, never have so I have to do something," he laughed.

Looking around his shop which is filled to the rafters with antlers, gnarly pieces of sun-bleached wood, bulbous roots and narwhale and walrus ivory, I can see that he's a man who takes his time—letting the materials speak to him and if he has to, putting them away for awhile until inspiration or the 'right answer' comes to him.

The secret that adds to his success

Among the many projects, there's the beginning of a loon, several small pieces with bead art flowers carved into them that will eventually become jewellery, a small polar bear that's only waiting for a salmon and the right base before he's complete. And it's the right base which makes MacDonald's work stand out.

Sonny MacDonald carvings, 2010 Canada
Canadian First Nations carver, Sonny MacDonald created a beautiful nesting birds sculpture from roots, rocks and various antlers.
BARB MARTOWSKI/SnowSeekers

"I will often try out several bases before I find the right one. I've probably done around 3,000 loons and Whooping cranes in my life so far and each one is different.

It's finding the right base, something unusual that makes that piece stand out from the others that makes it work."

Loons and cranes maybe his specialty, but MacDonald also carves a number of Mother Nature's creatures. His material is from the land and so are his subjects. One of the pieces that really stood out for me was a fairly tall sculpture of some nesting waterfowl. 

Inspiration from rock and roots

The base that gave him the inspiration were willow roots that had grown around some small river rocks. The rocks stayed embedded within the root system but at the same time, forced the roots to grow around them creating small divots—perfect for nesting birds made out of antlers.

Even with it's light layer of dust, it's a spectacular piece.

You won't find MacDonald's work in many stores, grinding out pieces for the sake of sales is not his style. For the most part he works on pieces that are commissioned, pieces that he will take to trade shows or those he donates to charity fundraisers. 

MacDonald has a small ‘store front’ attached to his workshop where a number of his pieces can be bought. 

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