Leaving Nunavut with a new appreciation for Inuit art – Column

Leaving Nunavut with a new appreciation for Inuit art – Column
St. Catharines Standard 2011

Before last year, I didn’t understand the draw of Inuit art.

The owls, caribou, polar bears and dancing drummers often depicted in prints and carvings didn’t resonate.

But that changed in September 2010.

At the time, I worked at CBC Radio in Toronto and was asked to fill in for the morning newscaster in Iqaluit, Nunavut – that’s on Baffin Island for the geographically inclined.

It was a short contract, only a few months, so I kicked off my stilettos, slid on a pair of Canadian Tire rain boots and grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

For anyone who knows this airplane-fearing, entirely non-rugged reporter, venturing into the tundra alone (in flat shoes no less) was no minor feat.

A couple of things struck me soon after arriving: The endless rolling hills of tundra patched with arctic cotton, tall grass and streams inspires both jaw-dropping awe and the feeling of total insignificance; the people who live there are inextricably connected to that land, its resources and the surrounding water.

It’s no surprise then the artists in the region pay homage to the scenery and animals of their home.

In September, the Arctic air is already sharp. I walked home from work each day bundled in a parka, eyes turned to the sidewalk to avoid the wind. But, one afternoon, the sound of a saw against stone caused me to look up.

A group of Inuit carvers sat in folding chairs beside an apartment building cradling unfinished stone statues, a haze of white dust surrounded them, covering their skin and clothing.

One man held a dancing bear between his knees and pressed a circular saw against the serpentine stone (and frighteningly close to his leg), cutting the rock into shape.

Another hooded man sat nearby, refining the edges of a small stone whale with a metal file.

Beside him, a man in a baseball cap stood and repeatedly pulled a thin leather strap over another carving, smoothing the stone.

An Inuit reporter I worked with at the CBC said the carvers toil outside through the winter, chiseling, sawing and shining the stone carvings so they can sell to galleries and tourists.

Many of them patrol downtown bars, hotels and restaurants at night selling their art.

It’s a process that happens in communities across the Arctic and something few get to witness.

But, because of southern galleries dedicated to Inuit art and organizations like Canadian Arctic Producers, those unable to travel north have access to the artwork.

“There is a misconception that Inuit art is passe,” said Heather M. Beecroft, an art consultant on Inuit and First Nations art. “But it’s very much alive and well.”

Beecroft will be speaking at Riverbrink Art Museum in Queenston on Nov. 6 about current trends in Inuit art.

While traditional artists still create prints of animals native to the land, others are moving beyond their history and depicting modern artifacts.

“It’s a natural thing with all art, it moves and changes with the times,” said Beecroft. “They’re not living in igloos anymore, they’re coming to the cities and embracing contemporary life.”

The contemporary flavour intersected with my daily life last year when the fall 2010 Cape Dorset Print Collection was released.

Cape Dorset is a small community in Nunavut known as the epicentre of Inuit art. Some of the most revered carvers and print makers work in the area.

There is a co-operative in the community where printmakers create their work and every year, Dorset Fine Arts releases two print collections of the finest pieces.

One of each print is distributed to various galleries in Canada and the U.S. and people often line up outside the galleries the day the prints are released so they can purchase the image they want.

I arrived outside the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit with a fellow reporter half an hour before the doors were to open and nearly 20 people were already huddled in the cold.

The prints at that museum are sold using a public lottery. Potential art purchasers throw their name in a basket and hope it’s picked early in the process.

The names are later drawn, one by one, in front of the crowd and those selected are able to purchase the print of their choice – if someone before them hasn’t chosen it already.

The selection of art was diverse – polar bears, birds, an Inuit man doing a handstand. But there was one I was meant to have.

I may have left my heels in Toronto to travel north but I returned with an appreciation for traditional Inuit art and a large print signaling the artistic shift taking place in the community.

I took home a piece called Stiletto by Kavavaow Mannomee that depicts a large pink shoe and a small figure in a parka holding on to the heel. It tells the story of a legendary “little person” who crawls under the closet door of a socialite and finds the perfect harpoon… a stiletto heel.

When I look at Inuit art now, I don’t just see an animal or geographic feature. I see images telling the history of a people, where they’ve been, where they’re headed and how they straddle that line between the two.