Loretta Kyle speaks the language of ancient stone. It can make for fascinating and inspiring conversations.
“I talk to rocks, you know, and there’s not that many of us that do that,” she told me at her studio near Hoselaw in the M.D. of Bonnyville.
And, she adds, “I don’t know many people who say that rocks talk to them.”
But there’s nothing flaky about Kyle or her art. She was friendly and welcoming when she showed me around her studio. And like most artists, she has a well-grounded, disciplined approach to her work.
Carving stone is serious business. The material is obviously heavy, and hard. The work is as physically demanding as it is artistically challenging. But it’s the only medium that appeals to Kyle.
“I love stones,” she said. “I was given a tiny little turtle jade pendant for watering my neighbour’s flowers when I was about nine. I remember looking at that and thinking that’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
She didn’t take it up until she was already in college. “I got really sick and decided to play around with some soapstone. That was in 1989, and I’ve been going ever since,” she said.
Part of the appeal is the stone’s own story: unlike a painter’s canvas or a poet’s sheet of paper, a piece of stone has a natural past. It was once river silt or fiery lava, and has lain unbroken and unseen for thousands or millions of years.
While many artists and art buyers seek perfect, flawless pieces, Kyle loves what she discovers when she works the stone. She showed me a heron she was finishing that revealed a crack in the stone—a crack that had developed deep in the earth, and that had been filled eons ago by a fine seam of iron.
For some, that healed fissure from long ago is a flaw. For Kyle, it’s a marvel.
“That’s part of the magic,” she said. “Kisii stone is hardened mud, and sometimes I can even detect a faint fish smell when I’m grinding it. So that goes through my mind. Stones have a history and a story, and I think about where they came from.
“And the colours—the miracle of all the different colours and shades and shapes and things in the stones. It’s like Christmas every time I sand a piece because it reveals what it is.”
She still works in soapstone, which is soft and easy to carve, but fragile. She also uses harder stones like kisii from Africa, chlorate, and pyrophyllite.
Her subjects are mostly animals, though she has also done female figures. Some of her carvings are whimsical, especially her renderings of farm animals; while others have a more noble bearing.
“I love birds. In mythology, they’re the messengers between Earth and heaven,” she said. “And then it evolved. The more I did it, the more I was out in public, the more I realized people have no clue. They’re not connected to our Earth.
“Farmers get it, you know? But the ordinary person that isn’t connected to a farm, they don’t know much about our Earth. People are so disconnected, and I am hoping that when people look at my work they get curious about the Earth and start looking at it, seeing it.”
But don’t expect a lecture, and don’t look too deeply for polemical messages in Loretta’s pieces.
“I don’t like to preach. I’m not a preacher. When you hit someone over the head with, you know, ‘you have to do this or the Earth is going to die,’ that doesn’t work,” she said. “You’ve got to invite them to be curious and really look. When I only did birds at the beginning, I would do the necks in all different angles and different postures, and people would say to me, ‘do birds really do that?’
“And it was shocking to me that they didn’t know that. But of course, if they live in a city, they’re not going to have an opportunity to watch a heron preening. So I thought, that’s what I hope my work does, is connect people back, get them curious about the Earth and nature and the environment, and then try to start taking better care and make better decisions.”
And that’s part of where her comical pigs and frogs come from. While the heron figures can be intimidating to some, the lighthearted pieces provide some balance. Her “Simple Gifts” is a duet of a calf and a kitten—the kitten had been licking milk off of the calf’s face, and the calf in turn is grooming the kitten.
“I don’t really want to be confronting like a lot of people like their art to be,” Loretta said. “I think we need more joy in the world, we need more fun, we need more smiles.”
Her work is available at six galleries across Western Canada, and she has been selected to show at the Calgary Stampede for the eighth time this summer.
Carving is a demanding discipline—the stone is expensive, you can’t erase or paint over a mistake. But at the same time, Loretta doesn’t work from clay models or pencil sketches. She finds her way as she carves, accepting what the rock has to offer.
“It’s been a journey of over 30 years of just making the next one better and the next one better and then the next one better,” she said.
“And you have to love it. It’s hard on the body, but I don’t know, there’s something about stone. I think about doing other things because I’m getting older and it’s getting harder, so I think about doing different mediums, but they just don’t talk to me.
“The stones actually speak to me,” she said. “There’s something magical about them.”