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The art of isolation

The Inuit of Cape Dorset capture their traditions in sculpture and print

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / August 27, 2006

CAPE DORSET, Nunavut -- The art capital of Canada is not located on the tony streets of Toronto or Montreal, but on a remote tip of Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut.

It is Cape Dorset, a community of slightly more than 1,300 mostly Inuit people, with an unforgiving climate and no paved roads, almost to the Arctic Circle on the fringes of the inhabited world.

Nearly one in four workers here is an artist. Carving and printmaking are important economic activities in Cape Dorset, recently named the nation's ``most artistic municipality" by a government-financed research group because of the concentration of artists . And they are among the thousands of artists spread across the sparsely populated, vast expanse of Nunavut.

Not many travelers, including other Canadians, venture to Nunavut (pronounced NOO-nah-voot), which comprises one-fifth of the country's land mass. There are 30 times more caribou than humans in Nunavut, formerly part of the Northwest Territories and created in 1999 as a result of an important land claims settlement.

In the last century, the Inuit, once known as Eskimos and formerly a nomadic people, were resettled by the government to this forbidding region. It was here that their innate skills as artisans began to be widely recognized.

Now the art of the Inuit people in Cape Dorset -- sensuous stone sculptures and evocative prints inspired by traditions and history and the northern landscape -- are an integral part of the Canadian psyche.

On a recent Friday at the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, the community's center for the arts, a line of artists holding their works made of stone, antler, and bone is snaking out the office door. Friday is one of the days the co-op buys carvings to ship ``down south" to Toronto.

One of the eager artists is Taqialuk Nuna, 45, known as ``Tuk," who made his first carved piece when he was 9. He learned to carve by watching his father, who was killed in a boating accident in 1979 while hunting walrus. Nuna places his creation on buyer Chris Pudlat's desk. Made from a carving stone called serpentine , it is a 2-foot-high dancing bear, standing on one leg and playing a drum.

Dancing bear carvings are as familiar a sight in Cape Dorset as all-terrain vehicles, but this one is unusual and not just because the entire figure, including the drum, is carved from a single piece of stone. It also balances securely on either leg, a triumph of engineering, considering it weighs nearly 20 pounds.

Pudlat, 34, examines it carefully for cracks and flaws, and purchases it for slightly more than $1,000 American, to Nuna's obvious relief. The piece may sell for four times that in a Toronto gallery.

Toonoo Sharkey, 36, is next. Today, he is holding a massive black falcon of serpentine that looks like it has metamorphosed from the face of a shaman. After a negotiation carried on in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, Pudlat settles on a price of a little more than $3,500 American . Then he starts to lock up for the weekend.

But suddenly, Nuna is racing back across the gravelly road, this time with two huge chunks of raw stone on a dolly wheeled by his son. They were for sale at the co-op.

He weighs the stone on a scale, then pays Pudlat . He'll start carving when he gets home. The co-op buys art again on Monday.

`Art capital of Canada" is an unlikely distinction for a place so isolated and desolate. North of the tree line, on the icy waters of Hudson Strait, Cape Dorset is not the sort of place you would think of as an arts community. There is no art supply store or library other than the one at the local school; no movie theater or gallery, except a small showroom in a co-op storage room. The chief entertainment for visitors -- or ``southerners" -- is shopping at the stores known as ``the Convenience" and ``the Northern," stocked with goods at breathtakingly high prices that come in by plane daily or by supply ship from Montreal three times a year.

Not that southerners are flocking here. There are galleries of Inuit art around the world -- Paris, London, Vienna, Milan, San Francisco, even Plymouth, Mass. But somehow Cape Dorset's reputation for art hasn't inspired curious collectors or other tourists to visit the source of all this creativity, even with other opportunities for unspoiled adventure and nature travel.

``Not many people visit," says Kristiina Alariaq, who runs Huit Huit Tours with her husband , Timmun. ``Our largest season was 30 or 40." Kinngait Studios, which house s the co-operative's graphic arts program, logged only some 85 visitors between May 1 and the end of July, and a chunk of them arrived together on a cruise boat.

So the artists work in relative isolation, their carvings and prints purchased by those who have only the vaguest notion of the context in which they were created. And with no other robust industry in Cape Dorset, where the median annual income is just under $14,000, poverty is rampant and welfare is a way of life.

Nunavut is a land in transition, not only politically but also culturally: In the last century the Inuit begin shifting from a nomadic lifestyle to a community-based one, and in Cape Dorset it is possible to find people in their 30s who began their lives ``out on the land" in outpost camps where they survived by hunting and fishing.

Today, signs of disorder and deprivation are everywhere -- in broken windows, vandalized buildings, in the poor nutrition and health manifest in bad teeth and respiratory problems.

Yet it is naturally a place of severe and rugged beauty, where the Inuit still venture out on the land to hunt seal, fish, caribou, as their ancestors did. In July when the average temperature is 46 degrees, it is light almost all night long and only the call of a raven (and the roar of an all-terrain vehicle) announces that it is morning. The land is textured with hills and valleys and craggy mountainous terrain. A short walk from the center of town reveals a host of arresting tundra flowers -- fluffy Arctic cotton , purple mountain saxifrage , miniature poppies, soft green cushions of moss campion.

Art is so integral to the fabric of life here that you encounter people making it everywhere you go. A common sight in Cape Dorset is this tableau: a well-worn chair and a large, inverted wooden spool for telephone wire recycled into an improvised work table.

You're likely to spot a carver on any of the streets, hunched in protective gear under the stairways offering shelter from the wind, or in a more elaborate arrangement like Nuna's: a wooden shed, a spare wooden frame supporting a canopy, a workbench. Even children are outside carving, filling their pockets with tiny bears and miniature inuksuit (stone directional markers traditionally used by hunters), which they offer for sale to occasional passersby.

It's been estimated that as many as 400 people are engaged in art-making here, about 70 of them full time, and several have received Canada's highest artistic awards. Their work is seen in museums and galleries around the world , including the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which two years ago mounted an important show of contemporary art from the Arctic.

Cape Dorset is also home to one of Canada's most famous artists, Kenojuak Ashevak , whose bold drawings of animals and nature are made into prints and have been depicted on Canadian postage stamps and coins. Her ``Enchanted Owl" print is said to hold the record for the highest amount fetched by any Canadian print at auction: $58,000.

At 78, and with her eyesight failing, she continues to draw , working on a bed in the middle of the floor of her small living room. The scene evokes an image of traditional life when Inuit people lived either in snow houses or winter tents, and conducted many of their daily activities on raised platforms. Ashevak has lived in both.

There are 28 communities dotting the vast expanse of Nunavut, and Cape Dorset is by no means the only one producing art. Farther north is Pangnirtung, known for its fine printmaking and woven tapestries. Baker Lake is noted for colorful appliquéd fabric wall hangings, and Arviat for beading and jewelry. From the community of Taloyoak -- high above the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Passage -- come the acclaimed Spence Bay packing dolls. These depict arctic animals wearing traditional ``amauti" coats still worn by Inuit mothers today to carry their babies in the deep hoods.

Cape Dorset, though, is considered the epicenter of Inuit art in Canada, in part because it has the longest history of printmaking (it was introduced by a Canadian artist in the late 1950s), and a highly evolved infrastructure for marketing the art around the world.

Why are there so many artists here?

``I have no answer," says Jimmy Manning, 55, who is semi retired as the co-operative's studio manager.

``One of the marvels of the Inuit is their innate ability for drawing," says Peter Wilson, 48, general manager of the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts in Pangnirtung. ``They can look at something and go to a piece of paper and capture the essence of this. I have no explanation for this."

Ask an artist here the same question and chances are you'll get a pragmatic answer. ``A lot of people here are carving because they have no other income," says Jamasee Pitseolak, 37, one of the community's younger carvers. His work reflects more contemporary themes -- motorcycles, airplanes, electric guitars, golf courses (he likes Tiger Woods ).

But from the depth and passion of their work, part of the answer has to be that there is so much to express. The Inuit are a story telling people with a strong oral history tradition. Unlike the Icelandic people, who recorded their history in sagas, the Inuits' mode of expression is primarily visual. They are a people who depended on what they saw on the land and in the sea to survive.

Jutai Toonoo, 46, tells of how his family, like the other Inuit, was forced by the government to relinquish their lives on the land and move to communities. Their sled dogs were ``slaughtered" by authorities, he says. ``They thought it would be the best thing for Inuit to be in one place," he says. ``I think we must have looked pathetic to them in our old, torn clothes."

Oviloo Tunnillie, 57, who is considered the most accomplished female carver of her generation, talks of growing up traditionally on the land, but as a little girl, she spent several years hospitalized down south with tuberculosis. She never saw her family. ``I thought it would never end," she says, speaking through a translator. ``What happens to me lives on in my head."

``There are a lot of joyous images in their work -- the dancing bears -- but there is also a lot of work that represents the hardships our ancestors have gone through," says Pudlat, the co-op's buyer. ``It's a hard life to try to survive up here in the north."

Contact Linda Matchan at

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