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The strange, compelling artistry of “beaver sculptures”

Appreciating the craftsmanship of Canada's national animal

A beaver rock Expand Image

Some years ago, during a canoe trip down the Dumoine River in Quebec, I saw a piece of wood floating in the water. It had been worked by beavers, and, stripped clean, looked lovely. I picked it up and brought it along — across several portages. This was the beginning of what I call my collection of “beaver sculptures.” It has since grown to include well over 100 pieces.

I never take them off the dams or the lodges, on principle: that is for their construction. (Besides, those have no protruding parts, and so are less interesting.) Some I pluck straight out of the water, which usually means that they have been left there recently, perhaps the previous night. The bark is partly or wholly removed, which renders the wood either clean beige (sometimes close to white) or else interspersed with clusters of bark that can be brown, black, and occasionally red.

Other sculptures I find on the land, and occasionally under water. Some of these have been around for a long time, which has turned them gray, dark brown, even black.

Nothing gets included that doesn’t have a clear indication of those telling teeth marks, although for those that have been around a long time, I have to look carefully. I do nothing to any of these pieces except clean off the dirt or slime. Indoors, the colors have not changed in years.

Our house in the country is on Lac Castor, ironically enough (although there have to be hundreds of Lac Castors in Quebec). Ours is small lake, about two kilometres long and mostly wilderness: there are 15 houses around one end and only two beyond that, both built by beavers. Most of the collection comes from this Lac Castor, or the lake created by the
beavers behind the inlet dam. Others come from wherever I happen to go. If this one lake has produced so much intriguing sculpture, imagine what is out there across Canada! 

Occasionally people will present me with found sculptures. One time the kids found a beaver log that had floated up against our dock. “The artists are delivering their art to the door!” they announced.

I have a snobby friend who insists that this is not art. “Okay,” I reply, “then it is craft.” That is the difference between beaver sculptures and driftwood: both can be lovely, but only one has been worked by skilled craft, not just by nature and time. It’s amazing how many different shapes can come from these mammals, simply engaged in gathering food and building structures. 

I personally believe that some of these sculptures merit display. I check every day for an email from the New York Museum of Modern Art begging me to exhibit them. Otherwise, the exhibit belongs in a museum of nature. In the meantime, 35 of them are displayed in the country house: on the walls, the floor, the fireplace, hanging from the ceiling — wherever. 

Here are photos of a few of my favourite pieces, courtesy of my daughter Lisa Mintzberg

Beaver sculptures Expand Image
Beaver sculptures Expand Image
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