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Hopedale carver David Millie incorporates Inuit culture and heritage into his creations

David Millie with a piece of raw serpentine. - Floyd Spracklin
David Millie with a piece of raw serpentine. - Floyd Spracklin

Works of heart

HOPEDALE, N.L. —

BY FLOYD SPRACKLIN

SPECIAL TO THE LABRADORIAN

Have you ever wondered what makes us who we are, what we have become, how we arrive where we are? The answers aren’t that difficult to find. Not once you turn back the clock to re-visit your younger years.

David Millie was born in his parent’s remote fishing camp at Nachvak Bay in August of 1964. Millie refers to his birthplace as a gateway to Torngat Mountains National Park, where as he says, “Parks Canada has a jumping-off station located there today.” 

The Hopedale artist considering the stone. - Floyd Spracklin
The Hopedale artist considering the stone. - Floyd Spracklin

This Canadian National Park created in 2008 is located in Nunatsiavut on the Labrador Peninsula at the northern tip of Labrador and is some 476 kilometers north of Millie’s current hometown of Hopedale. Torngat comes from the Inuktitut word Torngait, meaning place of spirits, so it’s not all unusual that Millie shapes his stone and bone carvings out of a love for his Inuk culture and from those formative summers in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Millie’s father, William, and his mother, Ida, together with his brother Boase, would each summer leave Nain to travel north by boat to their summer fishing station at Nachvak. There his father set nets for Arctic char and Atlantic salmon. He then pickled and packed the fish in barrels for when a collector boat would arrive to transport to points south.

Millie and his mother eventually moved to Hopedale after his father passed. This was so they could all be near his grandparents, Nicodeumus and Mary Menzil, who were among the many Inuit relocated from Hebron in April of 1959. At some point, when and where Millie is not exactly sure — Hebron or Hopedale — the Moravian Missionaries likely baptized his grandparents, a factor that accounts for their very un-Inuktitut surnames.

Tradition

As a young boy, Millie often watched his grandfather Nicodeumus while he carved useful household items as well as polar bears, Sednas, Inukshuks, and other land and sea-related animals and totems. Unlike the modern day angle grinders, Dremels, and the like, Nicodeumus used a simple file and knife to create what was needed. 

One of David Millie’s bone Sedna carvings. - Floyd Spracklin
One of David Millie’s bone Sedna carvings. - Floyd Spracklin

One particular Newfoundland Island saying puts it in a nutshell, “You can’t do ar t’ing when you got nar t’ing to ar t’ing wit.” Necessity really was the mother of invention.

One such item he once watched Nicodeumus make for Mary, his wife and Millie’s grandmother, was a crochet hook out of Arctic hare bone. Millie guards with his life the precious photo of his grandmother and his grandfather displaying the crochet needle he had just made for an unnamed non-Hopedalian.

Millie says over a cup of tea, “I make lots of things. I especially like making my own homemade bread. I never forget to add some Carnation milk to the flour mix either.”

“When I was a baby and my mother was trying to feed me, she had no milk, so she had to use a floured water mixture as a substitute. To this day, I love bread, especially with Carnation milk,” he adds with a huge smile across his face.

Millie goes on to say that as a young boy, he was known as a bit of a cranky fellow. So his older brother, Boase, likely in his attempts to calm him down and have some peace and quiet, would mix up David’s favourite drink of tin milk and water for him.

Professional carver

It would take Millie another 18 years after watching his grandfather at work before he himself became a professional carver in 1992. 

David Millie in his outdoor workshop. - Floyd Spracklin
David Millie in his outdoor workshop. - Floyd Spracklin

It all began in Hopedale when he participated in and graduated from a six-month arts and crafts course offered by College of the North Atlantic. Two local professional carving instructors, Philip Hunter and Dick Kairtok — who worked in soapstone, bone and wood — were to be just what Millie would need to kick-start him into his own work.

Millie found he liked what he accomplished through the program. He sold a few items, felt good about himself, and then his life of carving grew from there.

In his early 30s, not long after completing the course, Millie took on a monumental task. It was Christmas time with little or no money for gifts and the festivities associated with the Yuletide season. So he decided to carve a huge piece of soapstone the same way his grandfather used to, mostly with a file and knife. The final product was a sight to behold. A 40-50 centimetre high carving with three dolphins as the crowning centerpiece.

Millie set off for Goose Bay to sell his hefty new piece. He tried a local gift shop where he asked for $1,200. But with no success. Not until a local teacher heard of Millie’s carving and agreed to purchase it for $900, He was ready for Christmas.

A few years ago, Millie developed a business plan, a proposal for his burgeoning carving business. However, a government department turned down his plan and refused to fund his entrepreneurial idea. Not to be dissuaded, Millie continues to access his much-needed stone product as best he can. His bone material comes by much more easily than the stone, since he usually finds some on his leisurely walks or is given old discarded caribou and moose antlers from within the community.

However, for his soapstone and serpentine he still must walk and at other times borrow a ride in boat or snowmobile to get to where these materials are available. His walks take him north of Hopedale and at other times far beyond the airstrip where he stows what he is able to lug into his backpack for his heavy return home. 

David Millie reworking a stone Sedna carving. - Floyd Spracklin
David Millie reworking a stone Sedna carving. - Floyd Spracklin

Ninety-five per cent of Millie’s work must be done outdoors during all seasons, often on quite blustery and wintry days because of the dust and debris from his angle grinder, the mainstay of his initial rough work. The remaining part of the process is thankfully done inside where Millie spends hours polishing with sandpaper and water until he is satisfied. Finally, he pops his new stonework into the oven to heat sufficiently in order to absorb the polish after removal.

Epiphany moment

After recently finishing a Sedna caribou antler carving, Millie began another Sedna, one of his favourites. For this one he uses serpentine stone from a 20-plus kilogram piece gifted to him by friend Ross Flowers. He turns the piece over in his hands until he has that epiphany moment.

“I know exactly how I will carve her,” he said. “This part here will be the base, this here will be the start of her fluke, and the rest will happen as I move along.”

He admires the green serpentine veins as he strokes the cold stone.

“Sedna is our sea goddess,” Millie said. “She is caretaker of animals that the Inuit hunt and need for survival. Sedna is here in this stone. I can feel it.”

The stone Sedna piece after revisions. - Floyd Spracklin
The stone Sedna piece after revisions. - Floyd Spracklin

Finally, he’s done, polished and all. But wait a minute. Something isn’t quite right. Tomorrow he’ll work on Sedna again. While the snow blows and the thermometer dips to 25 below, he re-visits his angle grinder to make more changes until he, like so many artists, is satisfied with the final product. Now Millie can walk away from a piece of art he’s proud of.

Millie has high hopes of one day having his own work building so he doesn’t have to endure the elements while he carves. His wish list is a very practical one — snowmobile and motor boat so he can collect the stone usually located quite some distance from Hopedale, often across the next bay or two to an island or another piece of Nunatsiavut mainland. His tools need constant maintenance and replacement. And in order to be out there in the 2019 market, Millie needs a laptop, phone and internet connection in his home.

Persistence is Millie’s middle name. He won’t give up on something he enjoys doing that also provides an income.

Now to celebrate his latest achievement with a cup of tea and a slice of that Carnation bread. With his usual huge smile across his face, Millie mulls over his next carving.

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