It didn’t take soapstone carver Vance Theoret long to realize that bears were the ticket to his success.
When he first started sculpting 35 years ago, the 100 Mile House carver created loons, his earlier work primitive but popular pieces among the travelling public. But it was his first bear that really set him up for the future. People wanted more and more bears – and over time the funnier the better.
“I did one where it was a bit more comical. The bear was sitting down, had a big fat belly and I called him Baloo. I usually get a good idea if pieces are good with a little feedback from my wife Deb so I left it in the kitchen and when she got up for her cup of coffee I could hear her laughing,” Theoret, 67, said. “After that, I started to incorporate a lot more humour into my work and that’s really when things took off for me. Bears are a good vehicle for humour because they’re like big kids, you can get them to do almost anything.”
Theoret got into carving after taking an interest in the works of renowned sculptor Nancy Hadler, who was also his wife’s birth coach. He taught himself, making usual mistakes before he started selling his sculptures to tourists passing through 100 Mile House.
“I was lucky to sell my work right away,” he said. “I’m hoping people saw something in it.”
He set up his own studio, aptly called the Stone Bear Gallery, on First Street before expanding his market. His work is now featured in nine galleries across Canada, including Whistler, Banff, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatoon, and he hopes to add a 10th gallery this winter at Sun Peaks.
His collection encompasses a range of animals carved out of soapstone and alabaster, including owls and killer whales. He also has a series of bears canoeing, skiing and surfing, dubbed “the secret lives of bears.” As he shapes the stone, Theoret said he does his best to keep its natural beauty, especially its pattern, intact.
“If you listen to what the stone is telling you what it wants to be, it really works with you.”
Over the years. Theoret has transitioned to smaller sculptures, partly because he likes the “instant gratification” of finishing a piece, which for small sculptures can take anywhere from half a day to three days. He still does big projects, but only if he’s commissioned.
Although COVID-19 hit him financially, Theoret said the business has picked up this summer and there’s been more traffic at the galleries. It has motivated him to carve, and this summer he attended the Calgary Stampede.
“I need the pressures of deadlines to motivate me,” Theoret said. “When we were at the height of COVID there was no need to have lots of inventory so I didn’t make a lot of inventory.”
This week, Theoret will also travel to Edmonton to teach a soapstone carving class. He said he loves guiding people and helping them to conceptualize their carvings.
Envisioning the finished product in the rock is one of the most important skills for a carver, Theoret said, and something he still struggles with.
“I’m self-taught, so everything I do with carving is instinctive. When I teach it’s good for me because I have to explain why I do things that way and helps remind me why,” he said. “It slows me down and makes me think about what I’m doing in a different way.”
At his home studio, Theoret uses an angle grinder and other power tools to save time. When teaching, however, he prefers to show how to use a hammer, chisel, file and even a simple hand saw to shape the rock. This teaches his students how to walk before they run, he said. “Ten newbies with power tools, what could go wrong?”
Theoret said he doesn’t intend to stop carving bears anytime soon.
“I enjoy the creative process and being my own boss,” he said. ”It’s a feast or famine business but I still enjoy the lifestyle of creating something and then trying to sell it.”