Local artist seeks to unite world cultures with Canadian jade

Brian Matheson talks about the 2014 world jade symposium. | Photo by Stephanie Lamy

Brian Matheson talks about the 2014 world jade symposium. | Photo by Stephanie Lamy

Some people tell stories through words or pictures. Brian Matheson’s medium of choice is a tough green substance.

This year, Matheson, a North Vancouver jade carver, hopes to bring those narratives together in an international symposium celebrating what he considers “the master of all mediums.”

“The story of jade is so fascinating,” says Matheson, who has been carving since 2003. He has traced the trail of “stone breadcrumbs” around the world from Asia to Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, New Zealand and back again.

As director of the 2014 World Jade Symposium, Matheson wants to create a forum where artists around the world can share their appreciation for the green gemstone.

The 39-year-old carver is currently working on preparing several blocks of Canadian jade, into which symposium participants will channel their inspiration. A competition via social media will follow to determine the top creations.

Working with jade

Brian Matheson works on a piece of jade in his North Vancouver studio. | Photo by Stephanie Lamy

Brian Matheson works on a piece of jade in his North Vancouver studio. | Photo by Stephanie Lamy

“It’s like opening a book,” says Matheson of the process of working with jade. “It’s an amazing adventure every time.”

Chris Dobranski knows about adventure. After being approached by Matheson in 2011, the professional wood carver made his first foray into the world of jade and won that year’s competition.

His piece, Dreamspeaker, was inspired in part by his personal journey from hospital laboratory-technician to adopted son of the Raven clan of Haida Gwaii.

Traditionally, carving jade involved using sand friction to gradually wear it down. That required many hours of hard work and patience. Today, tools powered by electricity and covered in diamond bits allow the process to be slightly faster.

Despite beginning with limited equipment, Dobranski felt guided by higher forces.

“I was watching my hands work the whole time,” he says.

Dobranski, 44, has now been carving professionally for over 10 years.

Canada’s supernatural stone

There are plenty of stories about the supernatural qualities of jade. In Mesoamerica, the “spleen stone” was used to treat a variety of kidney and bladder illnesses. For Chinese people, the “stone of heaven” is said to bring good fortune, good health, and protection from evil.

Nevertheless, Kirk Makepeace looks forward to the day when the “royal gem” might be more widely used as a kitchen counter or floor tile.

“Jade is the world’s best dimension stone,” he says. “It is more expensive than granite or marble, but its industrial use is phenomenal.”

Makepeace, 59, is president of the Richmond-based Jade West Group, which accounts for about half of the province’s jade production. Cassiar Jade Contracting, a private company based in Watson Lake, Yukon, generates the rest.

Since 1975, Makepeace has witnessed the growth of the industry, which was driven in part by the use of jade in the medals during the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was discovered then that B.C.’s nephrite is the same variety that is traditionally found in China. That corrected a long-standing misperception that jadeite jade, found primarily in Burma, is the real Chinese jade.

Canada’s northwest has the world’s largest supply of nephrite jade.

“Jade is unusual in the gem world in that no one knows how much a piece of jade is really worth,” says Makepeace.

The price of jade goes up every year based on market demand. Currently, jewellery-grade pieces are exported at $200 per kilogram. Yet these pieces only make up 2 per cent of total mine production.

It took four months to find the perfect rock for this year’s symposium. The penultimate half tonne boulder from Yukon’s Jade Mountain is to produce approximately 60 to 85 blocks, which should be ready for international shipping by spring. Participating artists will have until the end of summer to complete and submit their creations, which will be voted on in an online competition. Finally, the pieces will be displayed in a travelling exhibition at various locations around the world.

The work and preparation is exhausting, but Matheson is excited.

“The symposium will reunite all the cultures of jade through differences in time and geography,” says Matheson. “It’s going to be grand.”