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Art Travel Program Northern style

Intrepid travellers Nancy McNee, Peter Ross, Suzanne Walther, Margaret McNee, Diane Walker, Hatty Reisman and Gaëtane Verna out on the land in Cape Dorset. © Gaëtane Verna
Margaret McNee looks on as Cee Pootoogook inspects his stone cut work.
© Gaëtane Verna

Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery is a power house cultural institution with a celebrated history of showcasing the most current, and often very edgy, international visual art. Its Art Travel Program has transported participants to far flung places like Buenos Aires, Paris, Istanbul, Copenhagen and Berlin. Now it was Nunavut’s turn.

West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative (dorsetfinearts.com), an organization with its head office in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, and a satellite location in Toronto, would be a critical part of the excursion. In Cape Dorset, the Cooperative operates the venerable Kinngait Studios, which is revered as Canada’s oldest fine art print shop and legendary for the quality and uniqueness of its output. This is the birthplace, and still reigning champion, of Canadian Inuit art. The region’s revered artists and printmakers have worked in the Cape Dorset studios since the 1950s.

In November, we met in Ottawa. As the parka-carrying, art aficionados, and I, boarded our connecting flight, the excitement was palpable, since, except for two members, it was the group’s first sojourn to the 64th parallel. Our itinerary included the usual sightseeing, alongside opportunities to make connections with the grassroots of this tiny enclave. Life in Cape Dorset is more than its immense and breathtaking Arctic tundra. This is a living, breathing, modern community, with well-worn gravel roads that wind through neighbourhoods and connect schools, retail stores, churches and government offices. Our southern explorers would see these surroundings through a distinctly northern lens.

Tim Pitsiulak takes a break from drawing at Kinngait Studios. Sadly, Tim passed away December 23, 2016 at the age of 49. A beloved
member of the Cape Dorset family, he will be missed. © Gaëtane Verna

There was lots of time outside, bundled-up touring both in town and out on the land, but a crucial part of the experience, was engagement with the town’s people. At each lunch and every dinner, we hosted local leaders who provided insights and anecdotes from the residents’ perspective. Artists and educators, politicians and public servants, business owners and elders contributed stories and histories. Often these narratives were exotic and celebratory while at other times they underscored the remoteness and challenges of northern living — because life in the North often takes the form of paradox! Cape Dorset and indeed the whole of Canada’s Arctic is full of contradictions — a compelling feature I was keen to illustrate for these visitors.

From the terrain, which is as beautiful as it is dangerous, to communities of such personality and warmth enveloped by a climate so cold, this place is difficult to rationalize. Cape Dorset has sustained four generations of Inuit artists, but the hamlet is thousands of kilometres from the nearest art school — that’s extraordinary! What I saw happen during this trip was equally remarkable. As host to these seasoned voyagers and world marauders, I saw travellers who have visited some of the world’s biggest and best, but who found so much inspiration in tiny Cape Dorset.

Considering a visit to Cape Dorset? Here’s a handy tip sheet to get you started:

  • Depending on your city of origin, the journey can be lengthy, with a handful of connecting flights
  • At your initial departure airport, make sure that baggage is checked right through to Cape Dorset
  • The one hotel in town, Dorset Suites (dorsetsuites.com), is quite roomy and well appointed
  • The hotel has WIFI, but expect it to be slower than urban connectivity
  • There is currently no cellular service, which means you can enjoy being unplugged
  • Alcohol is regulated and only available to registered hotel guests
  • The hotel and retail shops accept credit cards but if you want to pay cash, bring it with you, there are no bank branches or ATMs
  • Inuit art can be purchased from Kinngait Studio, packaging and shipping can also be arranged
  • Wear comfortable shoes or boots and sensible layers, depending on the time of year
  • In winter months, slippers are handy while at the hotel and when visiting homes and offices
  • Be flexible – weather and other Arctic factors can change your itinerary

William Huffman