Pootoogook Qiatsuk – Virtuosic artist

    By Season Osborne

    Artist at work, Pootoogook Qiatsuk carving serpentine, July 2015. © Lee Narraway

    The goose’s long neck is twisted at an almost impossible angle with its head upside down, looking at its breast. The impressive thing is that this goose is carved from a single piece of stone!

    The goose is the work of Pootoogook Qiatsuk, third generation master carver. He may have inherited his artistic talent from his father and grandfather, both renowned artists, but he has made his own mark in the art world as an outstanding carver, print and jewellery maker.

    Cape Dorset, ca. 1980 Long-Necked Bird Green stone 5.5 x 2 x 5 in, 14 x 5.1 x 12.7 cm MIA exhibition Courtesy Walker’s Auctions, Ottawa © Dieter Hessel
    Cape Dorset, ca. 1980 Long-Necked Bird Green stone 5.5 x 2 x 5 in, 14 x 5.1 x 12.7 cm MIA exhibition Courtesy Walker’s Auctions, Ottawa © Dieter Hessel

    Qiatsuk was born in Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Nunavut, in 1959, the eldest of eight. His grandfather Kiakshuk (1886-1966) was one of the original Cape Dorset carvers, who initially understood the properties of serpentine stone and developed a unique style, bringing life and form to the rock. Lukta (1928-2004), Qiatsuk’s father, was also a master carver in the forefront of the art form. Lukta was one of the original five who made names for themselves as stencil and stone cut printmakers, when Inuit printmaking emerged from Cape Dorset onto the world stage.

    Pootoogook Qiatsuk, 2015. © Season Osborne
    Pootoogook Qiatsuk, 2015.
    © Season Osborne

    Pootoogook learned from the best. He watched his father carving stone and would help him with the finishing and sanding of his pieces. He was inspired to try working with stone himself.

    “I was 11 or 12 when I started carving. My first thing was a very small walrus. I sold it to the Hudson Bay Company. I thought I was rich. They gave me 50 cents,” said Qiatsuk.

    Through watching his father, grandfather, and the other carvers in the community, and by practicing on his own, he found his artistic voice. Qiatsuk’s first sale inspired him to carve more and the Hudson’s Bay Company post, now the Northern Store, bought his pieces, and at increasingly higher prices. With each carving, he was revealing his own view of the world and finding his own voice.

    John Houston, filmmaker and owner of the Houston North Gallery in Nova Scotia, lived in Cape Dorset as a child and remembers Qiatsuk as quiet and shy: an observer.

    “Each of us has a unique personal talent that ends up shining through, and your work reveals your character,” says Houston. “Pootoogook has an uncanny knowledge of how much pressure to put on the rock before it will crack. If you pick up a piece of stone and try to create what Pootoogook makes, it will end up in pieces on the floor. Pootoogook is a master.”

    Qiatsuk’s talent was further honed when he became apprenticed to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op as a printmaker in the lithographic shop. He worked with stone and linoleum cut prints for eight years on the annual Cape Dorset print collections.

    When his wife, Letia, got a job in Iqaluit, they moved with their three daughters to the territory’s capital. There was a jewellery and metalwork program at Nunavut Arctic College, so Pootoogook applied and was accepted to the three-year course, learning
    metallurgy and goldsmithing. He graduated in 1999 with the ability to turn jewellery into tiny works of art.

    “Right now I’m doing more carving,” Qiatsuk says. “I make jewellery too. Sometimes people ask for something specific, so I’ll make jewellery for somebody. I sometimes teach lino cut at Arctic College too.”

    Ancient Voices Brooch, copper/sterling silver Courtesy Nunavut Arctic College
    Ancient Voices Brooch, copper/sterling silver Courtesy Nunavut Arctic College

    In July 2015, Qiatsuk demonstrated his carving skills on the aft deck of an Adventure Canada cruise ship that traversed Hudson Strait, stopping in the artistic communities of Kimmirut and his hometown of Kinngait/Cape Dorset. Qiatsuk’s talents have also
    taken him beyond the Arctic. Invitations to give soapstone-carving demonstrations have taken him south to Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and Vancouver.

    He was also invited to give carving and linocut printmaking demonstrations in Hungary. In 1999, he and fellow Iqaluit artist Mathew Nuqingaq built a seven-foot tall inuksuk at Nádasdy Castle, now a renowned museum, in Hungary. Nuqingaq and Qiatsuk constructed the inuksuk from stone cut from a nearby Hungarian quarry. However, the centrepiece was stone they had brought from Nunavut.

    In the fall of 2014, Qiatsuk accompanied Tom Webster of Iqaluit Fine Arts to demonstrate sculpting and printmaking at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana. While there, Qiatsuk did some sculpting and ran a small edition of linocuts. Visitors were very excited about the printmaking because they watched the transition from the design creation to the linocut, to the printing process, and then had the opportunity to buy the print afterward.

    “Pootoogook has a wide range of subject matter. He’s quite unique, and you recognize his work almost immediately. But, if given his choice, I think he would make birds. He also makes interesting transformational work,” says Webster. “You see some fundamental Inuit culture coming through in his work, and he’s very good at that. The word that comes to mind is ‘inspired’.”

    Houston offers a reason Qiatsuk may have developed such excellence in his bird carvings. “When you come from a family that has done something remarkable, you find what is yours. He does that in his exquisite birds. The word I’d use for him is ‘virtuosic’.”

    Two of Qiatsuk’s carvings are in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. They aren’t carvings of birds, but of seals. Christine Lalonde, Curator of Indigenous Art, knows those pieces well.

    “The National Gallery is fortunate to have outstanding early examples of Pootoogook’s work. We’ve had them on display as part of our collection at the gallery many times over the years,” says Lalonde. “They never fail to delight visitors with their grace and playfulness. It inspires sincere wonder when we display such artistically challenging compositions.”

    Qiatsuk’s style uniquely translates from graphics, to sculpting, to carving, and to jewellery, and each genre reveals the mark of a master.