In the Spring of 1979, I found myself stepping out of a Transair DC-3 and making my way across a tarmac of hardened earth to a crude but functional quonset hut which served as the airport terminal back then. I had just been hired by the Government of the Northwest Territories as an Arts and Crafts Development Officer. I was to work with artists, crafts-persons, and government created arts facilities that had become active in the region over the two decades prior to my arrival. As an artist who had spent most of my adult life committed to creative discovery, I was aware of the opportunity my job provided to me to interact and learn from some of the world’s most gifted natural artists. I was honoured to have arrived at a time considered by many to be the most creative and prolific in the history of Inuit arts and artists in the Kivalliq.
The Keewatin (or the Kivalliq, as it has come to be known) is a place in which artists experience the balance and symmetry that links all living and non-living things. I grew up with the balance that one encounters in an urban setting. Here the balance was more visible. You could see the land in the faces and voices of the people. You could see it in their art.
So many wonderful faces come to mind. Days at the craftshop were characterized by an almost constant stream of humanity either to sell or show their creative work or simply to chat. Often, people passing through on their way to and from other communities would stop in to chat. I saw, daily, hundreds of works of art in every media, from abstract works to traditional implements and clothing. It was a panorama of Inuit creativity.
The focus at the time was the production of fabric-based crafts. The government was still trying, as it had over the last 15 years, to create a source of self-sufficient economy for the Inuit who had relocated there to work for the North Rankin Nickel mine in the ’50s. Throughout the building were examples of ceramics. There were also pieces of soapstone, benches and vises. Soapstone carving, along with drawing and fabric art were among the other activities of the workshop. There was something of the original simmering creative energy that still remained. With Claude Grenier as its founding manager, it was one of the most innovative programs of its time — a starting point for most of the best artists in the region.
The program was multi-disciplinary. It was strongly based on Inuit principles. Family members worked side by side; husbands and wives, parents and children. In collections of documentary photos were some of the great artists to come out of the Kivalliq; folks like Jessie Oonark, Pierre Karlik, Tiktak, John Kavik, Donat Anawak, Hakuluk, Patterk, Tatty, Prime Okalik, and many, many others who went on to distinguish themselves in a broad range of media.
Endings Become Beginnings
Government involvement in arts programming was coming into its most volatile period. The government withdrawal from the operation of craft-shops in the early 1980s was a traumatic experience for those of us who had begun to see the role of government as an integral part of the protection of northern culture and for Inuit who had come to rely on them as a source of livelihood. The collapse of government involvement in the craftshops created opportunities for folks like Keith Rawlings, Marie Bouchard and others like myself who had a vision of the potential of Inuit art that they could now encourage on their own.
Although over two decades have passed since the government ceased to be involved in craftshops, it is impossible not to be impressed with the rich legacy those operations left behind. It was the insights of government programmers, their empathy with the tremendous strengths of the culture of the day that inspired their programming.
In many communities, the arts and crafts facilities were the centres for more than commerce. They were opportunities for an almost constant dialogue regarding what went before and what was to come, a dialogue in which the unspoken objective was to confirm Inuit cultural strength and resourcefulness. Without the support and
encouragement of government in the production of the Inuit art of the period, there would be no such art form today.
Back in the late 1970s, the creation of arts and crafts for sale were important moments of a rich cultural interchange that was going on everywhere. Art provided a visible expression of a renewal of the legendary capabilities of Inuit to adapt to change, whether that change came from the environment or from the tremendous upheaval of their accelerated introduction to southern lifestyles and values. In the late ’70s, the intensity of this moment of change was reflected in the better works. The same is the case today. For a culture that had never known or needed to know the functions and purposes of ‘art,’ their visual expressions became an essential element of their new identity in a rapidly changing world. Experimenting with expressive media that were not a part of their traditions, Inuit drew confidently and fluently from the deep well of their narrative, cultural memories.
An Artistic Vision Unfolds
The Matchbox Gallery opened in May of 1987. In 1988 to 1989, with government support, a large extension to the existing building was added that more than doubled the operating space. This area enabled us to begin our ceramics program. Originally, I had wanted some of the first protagonists of the ceramics project to continue their work in this new incarnation. Unfortunately, many veterans, like Philip Hakuluk and Donat Anawak had passed away. Our first ceramics workshop began with a group of younger carvers who were then active in the community. Yvo Samgushak and Laurent Aksadjuak came out of an extended retirement to work once again with ceramics and to teach a young group of beginning ceramists.
Among this group of young ceramists was Roger Aksadjuak who has since become a master ceramist and one of our most important artists and teachers. I still have memories of Roger learning by working at his father’s side. It was the start of the kind of traditional learning that has made our program effective and rewarding.
I established contact with some veteran ceramists in Montreal and other northern professional ceramists working with the Yellowknife Guild of Crafts. Jeannie Sarich, then working as the ACDO with Economic Development, was also critical in getting our program on its feet. With the help of the Department of Education, we presented a basic ceramics training program which was tremendously successful
A Change in Fortunes
For a variety of reasons, our government funding began to diminish. We eventually abandoned our full-time production, moving from a wage labour to a piecework system. While we continued to work as a group, artists made ceramics only when they wanted to, or when we could afford to pay them. It was the shift to piecework that enabled us to survive.
We now had the chance to perfect our craftsmanship and artistic expertise, taking the time to develop the technical skills of the artists we worked with, encouraging them to do their best work, and calling on them to focus on new creative challenges. We discovered other ways to sustain the gallery beside the sale of work. We encouraged our artists to use their skills in other ways. Many of them began to work as teachers in smaller programs we created at the gallery, and to provide support for other programming activities in the community.
After several years without government support, we began to deliver arts training programs with a premise that arts learning is an important catalyst and complement to academic learning. The program was a resounding success with important implications for northern education.
A Literacy of Touch
One of the senses that is least developed as far as southerners are concerned is the sense of touch. In our cosmopolitan life style, we have created tools which have replaced our hands, and perform some of the kinds of processes that, in an earlier stage of our technological growth, we had to do for ourselves. For Northern people, the ability to manipulate materials with their hands, to fashion tools, shelter and clothing out of limited natural resources, was the cornerstone of their ability to survive.
The artwork that comes out of the North, and out of Inuit communities in particular, are a testimony to their strength and capabilities at understanding and manipulating materials in all kinds of creative circumstances. These abilities are still very present in women who work with skins, and maintain incredible detail in the construction of garments, and in men who still retain their traditional land and tool making skills.
Understanding the nature of materials, and manipulating those materials with a refined sense of touch, are qualities that are essential if one is to be effective in working with clay.
A Strong Sense of Spatial Reasoning
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been amazed at the ability of northern people to see objects and animals at long distances that I couldn’t see. It isn’t just a matter of eyesight, but of careful observation and discernment. There is a kind of logic to this ability, particularly on the part of a nomadic people whose ability to see game over long distances determined whether they lived or died.
The ability to correctly ‘read’ what is in front of you is another factor in working with form in three dimensions whether it is clay or stone. These are the kinds of abilities which Inuit bring to their creative efforts that make them some of the world’s most naturally gifted artists.
A Communal Approach to Learning
The strength of much of our programming has its foundation in the communally based way that people share their learning with one another. In many ways, it is a replication of a traditional learning system, such as in the original craft-shop where people shared information with one another, which accelerated and strengthened their learning process.
In communicating with each other, people reinforce traditional communications and values. The sad fact is that there are, at present, few places available in our community where this kind of interaction can take place on a regular basis. Young adults would benefit from this type of environment today, where they can develop self-confidence and social skills and share a positive and supportive interaction with others.
There are also many outcomes, esthetically speaking. Working as a group gives the end results a kind of common approach and communal style. Still, the respect for individuality, and for each person finding their own way, is paramount among the artists with whom we work.
All of our work is hand-built. The wheel is never used. There is a reason for this. Inuit have tremendous skills at manipulating materials, a skill that has enabled them to survive some fairly rough conditions. This ability to manipulate materials was one of the foundations of their survival.
The predominance of the vessel shape in most of our earlier work takes its influence from the work done by the government-run project. The combination of vessel shapes and sculptural appliqués gave a common starting point for everyone in the program. Artists had the opportunity to learn basic coil, slab and pinch-pot techniques in a communal setting. Because people were learning these techniques at the same time, they were able to support each other, and compare their individual approaches to basic hand-building. Working with vessel shapes also helped them to develop a sense for the kinds of forms that are possible with clay.
Laurent Aksadjuak and Yvo Samgushak, veterans of the government run project, gave our group of learning ceramists a strong technical starting point. Their advice and personal styles influenced much of the earlier work. Once the ceramists had confidence and could master basic hand-building techniques, they began to move in more purely personal and sculptural directions.
Within the last few years, we have grown, and significantly developed our approaches to hand-building. An important influence on this new growth has been the work of Leo Napayok, a superb carver from a family of good artists, who first studied with our TAW program around 2004-6. Leo, a well-established, antler and soapstone artist, initiated works with elaborate low-relief incising into ceramic shapes. All of the artists in our projects were affected and influenced by his outstanding work.
Often, the low-relief incising of work requires that more than one artist work on a particular ceramic. Collaborative working is included in our arsenal of hand-building strategies. In many ways more than one artist working on a particular piece is more consistent with the traditional lifestyles (in which people most often worked collaboratively on projects that were important to their survival) than creating artworks in isolation. It also offers new expressive opportunities and is consistent with our search for creative discovery and expanded learning.
This workshop has become the anchor of the creative life of a community of Rankin inlet artists, a facility which is an unending source of pride and satisfaction to all of us.
Exhibitions and Collections
The ceramics produced as a result of these programs have been featured in major exhibitions in New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Colorado, Minneapolis, Toronto and Germany. Our work has also been exhibited in shows in commercial galleries throughout Canada and the United States. Our artists have participated in hand-building demonstrations in the U.S., Canada, Iceland and Greenland. We were invited to display our work, and to participate and attend the “Ipakhak Ulumit: Nunavut Arts Then and Now” for the inaugural ceremonies for the creation of Nunavut.
We also had a piece entered in a major show of contemporary Canadian ceramics on display at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics in Toronto. The show was called “Earthworks”. Representatives from the gallery went to Toronto to make a presentation before 300 ceramists, curators and collectors from throughout Canada. We spoke about the Matchbox Gallery and the process of increasing
Canadian aboriginal involvement in ceramic arts.
Our work was also featured in a show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in the summer of 2002, and in a show at the Cerny Collection of Inuit Art in Bern, Switzerland, in 2005. The work was circulated in other European centres as well. We have also had several exhibitions of our work at the Legislative Assembly in Iqaluit. Our work was prominently featured at the Waddington’s International Auction ’05. Our ceramics (and for the first time, some of our drawings) were featured in a showing at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery June 4 to September 6, 2006. Several major ceramic works were also included in a retrospective of the arts of Rankin Inlet held at the National Gallery of Canada. From April to May ’10, our works were featured in a display at the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal.
Our gallery has several works in ceramics and other media included in the permanent collection of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly; the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; the Cerny Collection of Inuit Art in Bern, Switzerland; the MacDonald/Stewart Collection; the Winnipeg Art Gallery; the Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto; the National Gallery of Canada; and the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal.