Jonah and the Great Whale


An Original One-Of-A-Kind Sculpture by Tony Mayo


“Jonah and the Great Whale” took me over 10 years and 2,000 hours to create. I do not use any power tools. I believe this keeps me more in touch with, and gives me a better understanding of, the materials I’m working with. Hand tools force me to work slower which keeps me more relaxed because I know it is going to take me a long time to finish my piece. That approach helps me create intricately detailed and exquisitely finished art.

Here, Jonah is swimming out of the mouth of the Great Fish. I chose to use an Orca for the Great Fish because to me, an Orca is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. I carved the Orca out of basswood taken from a fallen tree grown in Victoria, British Columbia. I dried and cured the wood for two years before carving it. This Orca is correct in proportion and shape, but anatomically it is in an impossible position. An Orca cannot twist its body and at the same time turn its tail up at ninety degrees to its body. In addition, if the tail is moving through the water in one direction, the dorsal fin could not be moving in the opposite direction as I have done with this sculpture. In both cases, I took artistic license because I believe it gives the sculpture a more interesting and graceful appearance.

You will also notice that I have created two perfectly smooth and even ridges that do not actually occur on an Orca. One ridge starts just in front of the dorsal fin and goes along the edge of the fin, down the back and around the end of the tail before turning back along the middle of the stomach, ending in line with the dorsal fin. The other ridge runs up one side of the tail, around the outer edge of the tail and down the other side. While creating those ridges, I carefully looked at them from every possible angle, continuously running my fingers gently over the surface to ensure the ridges were absolutely smooth and even, with no bumps or wavering.

An Orca has two layers of eyelids. Both layers on each tiny eye were painstakingly undercut. Also, carefully carved are the roof of the mouth, under the Orca’s tongue, under the lips, around the gums and deep down the throat. Even the uvula is diligently rendered. The underside of each pectoral flipper is also precisely crafted. Before painting, every detail was sanded with superfine sandpaper. In many places the sanding was done within a space only as wide as the thickness of sandpaper. It was extremely challenging to sand by hand, under the minute eyelids, down the throat and under the tongue, lips and flippers in an attempt to create a flawless surface. To sand those hard to reach places I crafted small specially shaped hand tools onto which bits of sandpaper were glued. To do the final shaping, I used the sandpaper like a fine file. As I “filed”, with the lightest touch of my fingertips, I felt every spot from every angle to make sure even the slightest unwanted ridge or bump was sanded off.

After sanding, the orca was sprayed with many coats of Varathane paint. Between each coat, the sculpture was carefully sanded smooth, and the final coat of paint was cut polished. The white markings are the natural colour of the wood coated with clear Varathane. When stylizing the white markings, I again took artistic license and made the markings on the belly in the shape of a white dove in flight. Note that the edges between the black paint and natural wood are precise. That was not an easy task. To spray-paint something that is completely in the round takes a great deal of skill. Consider that inside the mouth, under the tongue and down the throat had to be painted. Every area had to be sprayed at the same time, even, smooth and quickly. There could be absolutely no runs or drips. That process was repeated multiple times with meticulous sanding between each coat.

The whale’s teeth are crafted from Arctic Fox teeth. While living in Canada’s High Arctic with the Netsilikmuit, I often visited their dump. There, among other things, I salvaged some Artic Fox teeth. While working on this sculpture, I realized the root of an Artic Fox’s fang looks similar in shape to an Orca’s tooth. The root of each Artic Fox tooth, like Orca teeth, differed in shape and size. The small teeth were difficult to work with, but after removing the crown, I refined and hand polished each tooth. Fitting the teeth into the whale’s gums, which I had previously carved and sanded, proved to be a challenge. I manufactured a very small custom tool which could fit into the small space and at the same time would allow me to carve at a right angle to the handle. A custom hole was carved for each tooth because each tooth differed in size and shape. Notice that each individual tooth fits so perfectly that even with magnification, no space or glue is visible around the teeth.

Jonah is carved from a piece of antique hippopotamus tooth that was acquired from an estate sale. Many people consider hippopotamus tooth to be superior quality ivory with the finest grain. Jonah is approximately the diameter of, and half the length of, an average pinky finger. Under magnification, you will see that Jonah has been carved with every single muscle, joint, rib and bone. Visible are every tiny finger and toe including joints as well as creases in the skin on the palms of Jonah’s miniature hands. You will find similar detail on other parts of his body. The eyes are approximately one millimeter across with pupils so small they can’t be seen without magnification. The pupils and the nostrils were drilled with a bit so small that it could hardly be seen. When drilling a hole that small, an error can be disastrous. You only get one chance. In a millisecond, the drill can slip and drill in the wrong place, at the wrong angle or too deep, drilling right through something like the nose. Or, too much pressure, or the slightest wrong angle, or a slip or twist can snap the bit causing irreparable damage.

As Jonah swims out of the whale’s mouth, the pressure of the water pushes against his face, forcing the skin back against his cheekbones. The surging water sweeps back his long hair twisting it down his neck and back. The force of the water drags his tunic down between his legs. There, the ivory is carved so thin that light passes through the tunic. Every minute detail of this miniature was meticulously hand sanded and polished to perfection.

While creating this sculpture, one of the challenges was to make everything symmetrical. I reworked each area many times. Starting slightly too large, as I toiled toward symmetry, I took off the slightest shavings at a time; a little here, and a little there, until I reached the proper size, shape and symmetry. I followed that procedure from every possible angle, working very slowly and carefully because if I accidently took away too much material, it could not be put back.
I delight in the challenge of pushing materials to their limit. To that end, I chose to make the tail and dorsal fin as thin as possible. I also wanted them symmetrical and uniform in thickness. As I worked the material thinner and thinner, I continually looked at my work from every conceivable angle to ensure I was keeping it uniform, even and smooth. As I had often done throughout the entire manufacture of this sculpture, with my eyes closed and in complete silence I carefully felt every surface with the slightest touch of my fingertips. With no visual or noise distractions, I could better concentrate on how I was shaping the sculpture. Barely touching the surface, I was more sensitive to slight inconsistencies that I could feel, but not see.

In absolute quiet, while wearing magnifying goggles, I frequently had to hold my breath while working because this sculpture took such deep concentration. Even breathing could cause my chest, arms or head to move, and I dared not have any distractions, or make even the slightest unwanted movement. There was no option for error.

I’m sure I spent more than 100 hours hand sanding with itsy-bitsy-teeny pieces of sandpaper. Sanding hour after hour with minuscule bits of sandpaper held between my fingertips required a great deal of determination. I wore down my fingernails and sanded the skin off the tips of my fingers until they bled. As my hands became very tender and sore, I had to keep convincing myself that it was necessary to tediously sand everything so perfectly smooth and even. But, I always came back to the same thought, “I want to do absolutely the very best that I can.” The monotony of sanding was mind-numbing, and during that process I welcomed distraction, so I sanded to the rhythm of lovely soothing classical music.

The base of this sculpture is a nugget of exceptionally fine native copper found on the surface near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 1929. This is the largest nugget of native copper I have personally seen. It is truly museum quality.

Finally, constructing the protective glass case was much more challenging than I had imagined. A wood form had to be constructed to hold each piece of thick, heavy plate glass in exact position at precise ninety-degree angles while the glue dried. The custom-made case is fabricated in light blue-green tinted glass to give the illusion of viewing the unfolding drama while peering through the ocean’s watery depths.

“Jonah and the Great Whale” is a labour of love. I hope you appreciate the fine finish and details as much as I enjoyed creating this special piece.

Tony Mayo

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