Art gives a community a soul

It’s tough being a teenager in a remote northern community with limited resources and opportunities. Residential school left a deep chasm between those who lived through the experience and thus lost their culture, language and identity and those youth now wanting a relationship with the land and their Elders and seek their role within Inuit society. In Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, an innovative program swept nine talented but not necessarily academic young men to glory and shifted their entire perspective towards a future of opportunity and, as it turned out, fame. They won the Youth category 2019 Arctic Inspiration Prize.

At the awards ceremony, the Inuit songstress Elisapie sang a 1970s Willie Thrasher song “Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules,” which she describes as “a tribute to survival, to nomadism and to the free spirit of the Inuit”. As they listened, the song deeply imbedded itself into the hearts of Andrew Kitagon and Kaitak Allukpik, two young men representing the “From Scrap to Art” team. The song resonated so deeply with them because they themselves have had a rebellious streak and also because the team had created a significant statement about the resilience of Inuit and the threats the culture experiences but in the form of sculpture.

Andrew and Kaitak had been writing their speech for the Arctic Inspiration Prize and had been practicing it for months, in the event of a win. On the night of the ceremony, the recognition of the team’s hard work came, and they stood at the podium delivering a speech that brought the audience to their feet, many with tears in their eyes.

Through a pioneering effort by a group of dedicated artisans/mentors with a strict observance of safety protocols, expectations and patient demonstrations and storytelling, a new way for these young men to take their place was delivered through the expression of art.

Celebrating the installation of the wolf. From top left: Kaitak Allukpik, Andrew Kitagon, Kerry Illerbrun (artist mentor), Daryl Tatoona-Haynes, and Robert Haynes. © Municipality of Cambridge Bay (3)

At the metal dump, they were charged with finding pieces of discarded scrap metals to be resurrected and melded into a realistic depiction of nature. Through this reinvention of waste material, young minds and hearts found expression and skills of their own. Through concerted classes in the very precise handling of plasma cutters and welding equipment, genius and excitement were born. A life-size muskox facing off two wolves, their stances validated by Elder Attima Hadlari’s experience, now anchors a Heritage Park on the waterfront of the town, shocking the community into admiration and delight. And, now, these young men profess dreams of becoming mechanics, race car designers, go-cart builders, artists and they look forward to training their peers from across the North in the community studio. Their birds, fish, muskox and other sculpture garner thousands of dollars at auction and bode well for a business start-up. An old building is being renovated for this purpose, and appropriately named as the “Fire and Ice Studio”. The studio will contain a sales area; a forge to make traditional tools and knives; a mobile glass blowing unit that will repurpose currently discarded jars and bottles at the landfill; and, of course, the welding studio. An art expression is being created that is unique to the community and born out of the hard-working, industrious and innovative culture that Cambridge Bay has always been.

The tales of lessons learned in the workshop are as shocking as they are life-changing: the time when Attima strode into the studio and told the group that the head of the muskox was not in the correct position for a defensive stance. Much to the shock of everyone, Kerry Illerbrun, their artist mentor, took the torch and cut the head off! As he held the severed head, the team collaborated to position it just right, staring down the two menacing wolves.

When we give youth an opportunity for expression, they can in turn inspire a community and allow it to dream again. Art gives a community a soul.