Sculptor completes major airport commissions

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Bears by stone sculptor Stewart Steinhauer

Stewart Steinhauer has been told that he is probably the most prolific stone sculptor on the continent.

“When I visited a quarry in Quebec, where I get most of my granite from, I was told that “No one in North America orders a B-train of granite and then places another order within a year or two,” he said last week.

Since 2006, the Alberta-born Steinhauer has been carving large stone figures for at least part of each year at his home on Kootenay River Road. On October 1st he travelled to Calgary to see three groupings of his carvings in their new home in Calgary International Airport’s new terminal.

His first connection that led to the airport commission came several years ago when he was approached by artist Sandy Kunze to be a stop on one of the bus tours she organizes.

“My first thought was no,” he recalled. “Creston is not my market. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I thought I shouldn’t be impolite. I shouldn’t reject a local invitation. I didn’t have a Creston community-mindedness and I knew I should change that.

“I accepted, even though I feel like an outsider in the art world. I don’t feel like I’m an artist. I had to overcome external barriers to accept Sandy’s invitation.”

Stewart Steinhauer’s family history does not include sculptors, or artists of any sort, for that matter. Born and raised on the Cree reserve of Saddle Lake northeast of Edmonton, he comes from a line of builders who share an ability to see and work in three dimensions.

It was a life-altering event, the birth of his first child, that introduced him to what he calls Stone Spirit or, more personally, Stone Grandfather.

“My response to that spirit was to begin carving,” he said last week.  “I started carving in soapstone the very next day. That was 43 years ago and I have never really stopped since.” (Though for long stretches he has been a commercial market gardener.)

Steinhauer’s first exposure to “carving” was when he worked in an underground hard rock mine in the Northwest Territories. That experience had nothing to do with art, but it did leave a mark.

“I got to see all the types of tools that are used for drilling and splitting rock,” he said.

It was in the second year of Kunze’s bus tours that Steinhauer’s work was checked out by Calgary airport people. Not that he knew it at the time.

“Several men on that bus were right up front when the group visited my yard,” he said. “They asked lots of questions, including ones about engineering. I didn’t find out until later, until I was contacted by Bruce McFarlane, that they were from the airport.”

As director of terminal development at the Calgary airport, McFarlane was also in charge of the Themeworks that depict southern Alberta’s landscape and wildlife for visitors from around the world.

“’We want your work,’ Bruce told me. ‘But you have to put in an entry,’” Steinhauer said. Eventually, he submitted proposals for two locations in the yet to be constructed International Terminal. A family of four bears would comprise one Themework, and a herd of seven buffaloes would form another.

The project had some challenges, though. Engineers determined that Steinhauer’s plan to mount the buffaloes on 30-inch granite bases would make the Themework too heavy for the second level location. And tight deadlines for delivery were set. Because of their enormous weight, each piece would have to be craned into position while construction was underway, and before the roof was installed.

“There was a sense of urgency at the airport—almost panic,” he smiled. “But because of my past experience I knew I could deliver on time. If I’ve made a commitment I have no problem completing it—with help from my Rock Grandfather.”

When Steinhauer orders stone from a quarry it takes about a year before it arrives in his yard. Timelines were tightening, though.

“Fortunately, the airport had a special relationship with quarries in Quebec and midwest US. Bruce made some phone calls and the blocks were delivered in three months.”

As soon as they were unloaded he got out his tools and started to work.

A surprise came as he was completing the two Themeworks. McFarlane returned with a plan for yet another project. It would involve Steinhauer carving two bears to be placed in front of a 10 x 36-foot painting by Kunze.

“Bruce said we had to collaborate. I didn’t know how that would work. I have always worked alone.”

He drew on his Cree traditions, and invited Sandy and Dirk Kunze, and Bruce and Renata McFarlane, to join himself and his wife Cindy in a traditional sweat ceremony. A ceremonial tobacco pipe was passed around and, to Steinhauer’s relief, Sandy’s claustrophobia didn’t prevent her from enjoying the experience. The collaboration was underway.

Steinhauer admits to having a special connection with the bear spirits (not the bears themselves) that he carves. That relationship dates back to 1995 when he went on a four-day fast in the mountains with a friend. It is a ritual intended to cleanse and reconnect with the earth. Lack of food and water can lead to hallucinations, in what some tribes refer to as a vision quest.

“A little bear made of stone revealed itself to me,” he said. “The bear was turning and rotating in stop action as it floated in the air. I can still see every aspect and angle of that bear.”

He still carves bears the way he saw that spirit more than two decades ago, creating the body and limbs first, then the head and, finally, the ears.

“The bears I carve are not meant to be representative of wildlife bears—they are spiritual beings that I first met in those mountains.”

Much, perhaps most, of his carving has been done in the Creston Valley in the last decade, though he has spent periods back in Saddle Lake, where his property features a large “sculpture park.” His time on leased Lower Kootenay Band land has been happy, he said.

“I am deeply grateful to Chris Luke Sr. and (the late) Joe Pierre, and the Ktunaxa people for accepting me here. This is a beautiful, incredible land. And I feel very welcomed by the people of the Creston Valley.”

The collaboration with Kunze and McFarlane has led to a valued friendships, and he now has a close connection with Kunze Gallery, where many of his pieces are now on display, inside and out.

“We created a very strong piece of work together (it is called Mountains in Banff National Park),” he smiled. “I am curious to know what Creston people think of it.”

(For more about Steinhauer and his carvings, visit