Edmonton graphic designer brings Inuit symbolism to Arctic research station

Wei Yew has been an Edmonton graphic designer for more than 30 years — but even he hadn’t designed a sculpture quite like his most recent project.

Wei Yew's sculpture reflects Canada, the northern lights and copper at Canada's new northern science centre

The Polar Iconic Structure sits outside the High Arctic Research Station outside Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Wei Yew/Supplied)

Wei Yew has been an Edmonton graphic designer for more than 30 years — but even he hadn't designed a sculpture quite like his most recent project.

Yew was commissioned to build a 5½-metre tall sculpture in front of the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Each design he's previously been commissioned for has presented a unique challenge. But Yew said designing the Polar Iconic Structure proved to be especially difficult.

"I think it's the most challenging," Yew said Tuesday on CBC's Radio Active. "It's just another tough job to do, especially when you have not done things like that up north before."

Wei Yew, left, poses in front of the sculpture in Edmonton before it was taken apart and shipped to Cambridge Bay. (Wei Yew/Supplied)

Yew said he had to factor in wind and snow drifts into the sculpture while still trying to represent cultural symbolism several layers deep.

'An iconic structure'

The design, made up of what looks like organ pipes in the shape of a maple leaf, also follows the shape of the northern lights, he said.

The symbolism is important for Yew and for the region, he said. "[We] created a shape of a maple leaf there so we can establish Canada's sovereignty up in the North."

The northern lights flow is an ode to one of the many beautiful symbols of the North, and so is the material from which the sculpture is made.

Cambridge Bay, also known as Iqaluktuuttiaq, is a centre for the Copper Inuit, who were given the name by Europeans due to their use of local copper to make tools.

The shimmering copper is a stark contrast to the snow on the ground. (Wei Yew/Supplied)

The community serves as one of four communities where Inuinnaqtun, the Copper Inuit's language, is spoken.

To reflect that integral part of their history and culture, Yew decided to make the sculpture out of copper.

"I thought, 'Why not reflect the culture and heritage?' " he said.

The shimmering copper tones will likely look best during the summer, when it is often light out for days at time. But Yew said the sculpture will look unique in the winter, too — after installing LED lights underneath each pipe.

"The lights were for the evening in the night sky, when there's nothing there," Yew said, adding he had to install them underneath the pipe to abide by the area's dark-sky preserve restrictions. 

"Hopefully, it will be an iconic structure there."

'That's a great one'

With the research centre nearly finished, Yew said he's excited to see what the completed project will look like.

The plans, compared to the reality. (Wei Yew/Supplied)

The $250-million station was part of the 2007 federal budget aimed to establish a home base in the North that otherwise lacked research infrastructure.

The centre is expected to accommodate 44 scientists and expand on research that will benefit those who live in the area.

Yew said the opportunity to be part of what many hope will be a world-class research facility was fascinating.

Now that the sculpture is complete, Yew said he and his team were happy to let it go.

"There were a lot of challenges," he said. "But in the end, when you look at it before we left, all of us said, 'Wow, that's a great one,' and [had] a sigh of relief that it's done."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the crew on Twitter @CBCRadioActive.