Former journalist who fought cancer turns passion for whale bones into art

“These are sacred structures, these are structures that hold us up, that we live out our lives in, and yet when you say guts or viscera or bones people go ‘Ew!’"

Colleen McLaughlin Barlow's sculptures of whale bones are on display at Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC

A sculpture of a whale's cervical vertebra in blue green crystal (Colleen McLaughlin Barlow)

Displayed just a few feet away from the actual bones of a blue whale skeleton at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC are lead crystal sculptures of whale bones, which are part of a new exhibition that explores the sacred nature of their shapes, says artist Colleen McLaughlin Barlow.

While the Whale Dreams exhibit is meant as a reflection on anatomy and humans' relationships to these massive ocean creatures, Barlow may never have become an artist if it weren't for a cancer diagnosis.

Flipper whale bones in green crystal. (Colleen McLaughlin Barlow)

She used to work as a journalist in Vancouver before being told, almost 20 years ago, that she was terminally ill.

From journalist to artist

"I was 39 years old and I was told I might not have that much longer to live and interestingly the first thought after my diagnosis was not being really upset, but rather, 'Oh, if I only have six months left to live I've got to get to Paris to be an artist,'" Barlow told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

She went and studied in Paris, and got well — 17 years later she remains cancer-free.

"I'm very happy to be working as an artist in the world, and I'm now [represented] at four galleries internationally. The career has gone well, so I'm just very grateful to be around still."

For Barlow's current exhibition she studied whale bones and painstakingly sculpted them out of clay, and then took the clay versions to a foundry and cast those into lead crystal.

Colleen McLaughlin Barlow stands by some of her drawings of whale bones that are also on display. (Sheryl MacKay/CBC)

"I want them to be elevated. I want people to think about them in a dreamlike way. And when you put things like that in suspension, they do become dreamlike objects," she said.

Whale bones

Barlow said she first became fascinated with bones and anatomy as a result of being sick for so long.

In Europe she began making sculptures of human bones, but then later was introduced to whale bones — and that brought back an earlier memory of seeing the bones of a whale that had washed up on the shores of a Scottish Island where she had lived years prior.

"It was so exquisite," she said. "These shapes are so amazing, I wanted to start working with these shapes, so I started making art about it."

Barlow said she hopes her art makes people think of bones and the other internal structures of people and animals as "beautiful."

"These are sacred structures, these are structures that hold us up, that we live out our lives in, and yet when you say guts or viscera or bones people go 'Ew!' There's this revulsion thing," she said.

This piece, titled 'Fin', features a clay sculpture of whale bones encased in resin (Colleen McLaughlin Barlow)

"I just find them these shapes are so compelling and so beautiful. They're something that we don't normally see, and if we do see them we tend to dismiss them as something dead.

"So I want to elevate them so that people would pay attention to them, and say, 'But that is bloody beautiful,' because they really are."

The exhibit is on display until Feb. 14.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Whale Dreams exhibit at UBC celebrates the beauty of anatomy


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Barlow cast all her artwork in resin. Only one of her pieces in her exhibit was cast in resin. The rest of the pieces are cast in lead crystal.
    Jan 28, 2016 10:18 AM PT


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.