Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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A cut above in Cape Dorset, Nunavut

High art in Nunavut’s high artic

It's a sunny spring day and some of the country's best artists are sending up smoke signals all over town. I'm following plumes rising into the clear blue sky above Cape Dorset -- dust from whining diamond-blade saws -- to pinpoint carvers crouching on overturned milk crates creating the hard rock critters that are Canada's most recognizable art form.

Today, more than beavers, maple leaves or the Group of Seven, Inuit art says "Canada" around the world, as demonstrated by the inukshuk -- a human-shaped Inuit trail marker -- that will appear on everything from toques to coffee mugs as Vancouver's 2010 Olympic symbol. I've come to the frozen mecca of Inuit art on a quest for an Inuit carving hot off the chisel.

A young Connecticut artist named James Houston brought international attention to the talent of Eastern Arctic artists in the 1950s. He nurtured an art industry that today generates $20 million annually for a territory where every third person earns some income from arts and crafts.

The finest examples are carvings rich with spirituality -- of hunters, or traditionally clad women, or of sleek, animals bursting with action. These national treasures have been presented as official gifts to visiting presidents, royalty and popes. In 1995, one such treasure even served as former prime minister Jean Chrétien's weapon of choice when an intruder broke into 24 Sussex Drive.

There is a wide variety of art to be bought from co-ops or artists in Nunavut's 28 communities, as well as from Northern Quebec and Northwest Territories Inuit: mitts made from downy musk-ox fur; igloo carvings whose roofs pop off to reveal a traditional family inside; and intricate reed baskets from Sanikiluaq, a community nestled on the Belcher Islands in Hudson's Bay.

Like most communities in Nunavut, Cape Dorset, at the south-western tip of Baffin Island, is a small grid of dusty, muddy or icy roads -- depending on the season -- lined with no-frills bungalows, churches, a couple of government buildings and windowless shops. Freighter canoes, snowmobiles and caribou antlers litter yards and the beachfront. Sled dogs howl. Visually, it's not anyone's idea of the country's most artistic community, but among the hamlet's 1200 residents lies a remarkable statistic; according to a February 2006 government study, Cape Dorset has more artists per capita than any other Canadian municipality, about 110 carvers and printmakers -- 22.7 percent of the workforce.

I've come north to visit two of the most popular and well-known art destinations, Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset, in search of Inuit carvings and prints. But first I prowled the streets of Iqaluit, Nunavut's dusty capital and a mandatory stopover on any trip north. Two galleries -- Northern Country Arts and Iqaluit Fine Arts Studio -- stock quality art from throughout the territory at lower-than-Southern prices, but the best deals to be had are from the artists themselves and in Iqaluit you can even do that over a plate of Arctic char or caribou stew. In the dining room at the Frobisher Inn, a procession of artists makes the rounds of tables with everything from tiny caribou-antler earrings carved into half-moon ulu knives to hefty and sleek polar bears.

Arctic Art Central
A short plane hop away is Pangnirtung, overlooking the steep cliffs of the fjord that is the gateway to Auyuittuq National Park. "Pang" is one of the most scenic Arctic hamlets and it's easy to see where the town's print artists draw the inspiration for their annual collection. In the sunny shingle-clad Uqqurmiut Centre, artists create colourful stencil prints of hunting scenes, glimpses of everyday Inuit life and graphic images of wildlife.

I fell in love with a rare etching by Tommy Angnakak of a bear dancing beneath a starry sky. It was one of the last of an edition of 50 that sold out within a week of the centre's annual collection release, which has taken place every June since 1969. "Some of us went to Arctic College in Iqaluit," Angnakak told me, "but most pick it up by looking over the shoulders of others." On that day, four artists were tap-tap-tapping their blunt, stiff brushes to create the delicate pastel shades that will become belugas and rosy-cheeked children playing traditional Inuit games. In another studio within the centre, Inuit women produce intricate wool tapestries and crocheted toques, Pangnirtung specialties.

But Arctic Art Central in Cape Dorset, on the southwest corner of Baffin Island, is where the world's most sought-after Inuit carvings and prints are produced. Steps away from the town is a stark but spectacular landscape where the ocean is frozen into an icy highway in winter, and where distinct black rock, ankle-deep dwarf trees and tundra cover the hills in summer.

As in most Nunavut communities, locals still rely heavily on hunting and fishing to feed their families. In fact, many artists are subsistence hunters who carve in order to earn cash for fuel, bullets and carving tools in a part of the world where a new snowmobile can cost over $10,000 and employment in our southern sense of having a "town job" is rare. The likes of dancing walruses and wide-eyed snowy owls bring in $2 million to $3 million for the carvers every year.

I set off with a pencil-drawn map that marked well-known carvers' residences, legends with names like Nuna Parr, Axangayu Shaa and Pauta Saila. Walking the spring-muddy streets I was surrounded by crowds of exuberant kids who shouted, "What's your name?" and directed me towards carvers at work. In Cape Dorset there is no escape from the chink of axes on stone or files rasping from a backyard or an unheated carving shack.

Love's Labour Lost
While the price of Cape Dorset or Pangnirtung prints doesn't vary much in a fine art gallery in Toronto, Tokyo or at the West Baffin Co-op down the road, carvings are another matter. Like trying your hand at gold panning in Dawson City or "noodling" through tailings for opals in the Australian outback town of Coober Pedy, it's possible to hit pay dirt in the form of a freshly minted carving for a bargain price in any Inuit community, even Cape Dorset.

"How much and when will it be finished?" I asked the dust-covered artists whenever a white marble bear or a hunter emerging from a chunk of serpentine caught my fancy. Each artist here knows the value of his or her work, and bargaining is generally not the custom. Later, when I returned, the carvings were inevitably gone. "Sold it to the Co-op," I was told.

You literally have to be on the spot with cash in your hand as they complete the final polish. Why would they wait for fickle tourists when a ready market awaits them down the road? "This is a 'now' culture," explained Finnish-born Kristiina Alariaq, who runs the B&B where I was staying. "They need the money to feed and care for their families. They are not doing this out of love."

Within the simple dark green buildings of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, huge boxes of carvings await a First Air flight south to take to the Co-op's exclusive distributor, Toronto's Dorset Fine Arts. But that doesn't mean the best carvings are all siphoned away. These are the same masterpieces you can nab on the street if your timing is right, or even from the storeroom in the Co-op, where a small cluster of tourists browses shelves crowded with stone eagles, masks, shaman and Inuit mothers in amoutiq braiding their daughters' hair.

Outside Chris Pudlat's office, carvers wait patiently to have their art appraised. As the Co-op's buyer, Pudlat is busy; spring is the time to stockpile work because many carvers will soon head to outpost camps to hunt for the summer.

"The prices we charge here are double what we paid the carver," he told me. "Then the price is at least doubled again before it hits southern gallery shelves." He nodded at the exquisite gull I held in my hand, a delicate carving with long graceful wings and a price tag of $500. "The artist got $250 for that and it would put you out at least $1000 in Toronto. But if you had caught Napachie Sharky before he walked in my door he probably would have let you have it for $300." The Co-op funnels the money into the community and into obtaining rock -- over 27,000 kilograms a year -- from treacherous, hard-to-reach quarries.

Fit To Print
The Co-op's print shop manager, Jimmy Manning, was to give me a tour of the facilities. When I couldn't find him, I asked an old lady in a worn parka smoking a cigarette against the garbage bin outside if she had seen him. She smiled a near toothless smile and shrugged with not an English word to answer.

Manning arrived and showed me how the stone cut prints are created, the artist's design etched into stone, which is then coated with different coloured paint, layer upon layer with a small roller. In that way, each Japanese rice paper print is an original. After an edition of 30 to 50 prints, the design is removed and the slate re-used. "We experimented with many different kinds of stone until we finally settled on slate from old pool tables," Manning explained, adding that the superstar of Inuit printmaking had just left the Co-op after signing her completed works for the much anticipated October collection release. "You just missed her."

Seventy-nine-year-old Kenojuak Ashevak used to bring her art in the 1950s from outpost camps to Cape Dorset by dog team. She has received the Order of Canada and holds the honour of having produced a 1960 print called The Enchanted Owl, that recently sold for $58,000, the most ever paid for an Inuit print, at a Toronto auction. It also appeared on a six-cent stamp.

"Oh," he said suddenly, looking out the window. "There she is there," and he pointed at the woman happily leaning up against the trash bin. Like all things Inuit, there is no pretentiousness about the artists up here.

Considering the international fame of Inuit art, it's astounding to hear Manning explain that Nunavut has no art museum or cultural centre. I asked him why. He looked at me pointedly and simply shrugged. No comment.

Beth Beattie of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association in Iqaluit, however, practises no such diplomacy. "The government doesn't realize they're sitting on a gold mine: people and their creative potential. It's not precious metals, which is the only thing they understand," she said heatedly. "I get long-time American Inuit art collectors who want to give something back, to donate their life-long collection to Nunavut, but there's no gallery up here. Canadians should be embarrassed."

I spent my last day in Cape Dorset watching an agile hunter about to throw a harpoon as he emerged from a block of serpentine, and I wasn't going to let this one get away. I checked back on its progress every few hours. In all the years I have watched carvers, I have never seen them working from a sketch. "Do you ever draw what you will carve?" I asked Pudlalik Shaa with the incredulity of someone who struggles to render stick men on paper. I got that blank look and prolonged silence at which Inuit excel when confronted with a really stupid question from a southerner. "No drawing. Just chisel."

The best way to buy a piece of world-class art is warm from the hands of the artist who has just polished it to a high gloss. If it grabs you, you grab it for the best price in the world. And, best of all, the story that goes with your purchase is free.


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