Inside his private studio in a quiet Vancouver suburb, Lyle Sopel is able to find himself amidst a cacophony of piercing noise, riveting himself to a rare art form that few would ever devote themselves to.
The master sculptor muscles rough gemstone boulders into sizeable chunks, ultimately creating detailed fine art that expresses “a deep feeling and emotional story,” sometimes even enlightening him to experience the presence of God, he says.
His tidy workspace is testament to his methodical mindset — pencil sketches of ideas in progress, clay prototypes, and jagged boulders of varying shapes, sizes and colours awaiting their fate with the diamond saw.
To a layman, the slabs of nephrite jade, tiger’s eye, and celestial blue lapis lazuli seem like little more than chunks of stone. But to this highly-sought after gemstone artist whose cadre of collectors includes members of royalty, heads of state, and celebrity art connoisseurs, these rocks are about to take on a life of their own.
“I like to be inspired by the stone, that’s my favourite approach,” says the seasoned artist, as he picks up a piece of the dark green mineral and admires it with the affinity of a true master. His imagination miraculously sees a lion’s head, pileated woodpecker or even Buddha himself in the ragged rocks.
“I can infuse jade with any feeling I might have. It’s such a part of me,” says Sopel, comparing the stone to an empty vessel — hard and translucent, waiting for a master to fill it with emotion and interpretation.
He sculpts the flying spirit of a bird, carves the soul of a salmon, and captures the exhilaration of Greek goddess queen Amphitrite racing across a raging ocean in her chariot made of marble, gold and glistening white quartz.
“Being spiritually minded is a prerequisite to being an artist of my type,” says Sopel. “I think I have to be, to do what I do. It’s what I infuse in my art. My belief is that humans and animals share the same spirit. By showing the spirit of the animal or person I create, I believe people can relate more to my original art.”
Sopel’s appreciation for the natural world developed as a child, chasing frogs and exploring the forests of his hometown, Richmond, British Columbia. His passage into the art world, however, was never predicted by his parents. Perhaps it was his European ancestry that inspired Sopel to embark on a trip to Europe when he was 19 years old, awakening his creative calling.
“I visited all the major museums and saw the works of Leonardo da Vinci, was introduced to Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo and the realism of Donatello,” says Sopel, who on his return to the West Coast, enrolled in the Fine Arts Program at Langara College with the intention of becoming a ceramics teacher. “I loved throwing pots; it was very tactile.”
In a moment of divine intervention, Sopel looked up — his attention drawn to what he saw through the window of the next classroom.
“They were doing sculpture … making a woman out of clay, and just like that,” says Sopel, snapping his fingers, “I realized I was in the wrong class. That’s where I wanted to be. I switched all of my classes and became a sculpture major and jumped right into that medium.”
It was the mid-1970s when Sopel graduated, young and anxious to get into the world of art. At the same time, jade had just been discovered in Northern BC, “like a gold rush; a huge discovery,” says Sopel. “The idea of working with jade was running rampant in the arts world.”
He got hired by a small mining company where he was given a piece of jade — considered the stone of heaven in ancient Chinese culture — and the simple instructions, “Let’s see what you can do with this.”
Sopel smiles as he remembers the first time he held jade in his hand, “truly a mystery. It goes from the roughest, most unforgiving thing you can imagine, then it comes out this gleaming, translucent wonder stone. Jade is such a part of me now, it’s like an extension of my hand.”
He went on to work with a private investor who funded his artistic expenses for three years as he honed his skill, developed the tools to achieve what others thought impossible, and held his first official art exhibition, where all 90 of his sculptures sold to one single collector. From there, his exposure gained momentum — he was the featured artist at the Canada Pavilion during the 1984 World Expo and later opened studios on Vancouver Island, North Vancouver, and today in Vancouver’s lower mainland.
With no mentors, other than what he could garner from photographs by the late 19th-century Russian artist-jeweller Carl Fabergé, Sopel became a true Renaissance man, learning to invent tools and methods, even studying architecture in order to fulfill a lofty commission to design and create the largest jade Buddha in North America.
“I had to remain steadfast and find that stillness within my being where I could be one with the stone. The paradox was that I could be both strenuously active and a silent witness to the process.”
Every artist has their big dream, and for Sopel, that’s “to have a huge jade sculpture in downtown Vancouver, a visitor draw and icon for the city.” He envisions the sculpture to be disk-shaped — inspired by the Chinese artefact, the bi, with an opening at its centre as a lense to view the mountains and the sea.
With this anticipated sculpture, he aspires to stir others to connect with both the spiritual and natural worlds.
“We have our feet here on this planet, but this would be a vessel to see through to heaven.”