Since 1949, Inuit
carving has been an ambassador of the Canadian Arctic to the
world. Now finishing its fifth decade, some carvers wonder what
the future holds for their art.
Sam Pitsiulak began carving when he was six or seven
years old, working, perhaps playing, with snow and ice. It was
the early 1960s and Inuit art, carving in particular, had captured
the imagination of collectors across Canada and around the world.
The enthusiasm for the form seemed boundless. It was certainly
deep enough to touch a child living in still remote reaches of
At the age of eight, while living in an outpost camp
a few miles from the south Baffin community of Kimmirut, Pitsiulak
picked up soapstone for the first time and fashioned a series
of eight small sculptures of seals and birds. Pleased with his
work, he brought the carvings to the store in Kimmirut, which
paid eight dollars for the collection one dollar per piece. He
spent the money on, among other things, some 22 long rifle shells
and a much admired bow and arrow that belonged to a friend.
"An eighty year old got eight
bucks for eight carvings," Pitsiulak says today, his laugh
crackling in the static of the long distance line to his home
In Kimmirut. "Holding all eight bills, I felt like a millionaire."
The first experience with carving was a taste of things to come,
both the satisfaction of creating beautiful objects and the financial
rewards they could command. Pitsiulak began carving seriously
in his late teens, gaining attention by his mid 20s with carvings
of Canada geese in green soapstone with black necks and white
ivory or marble inlays. He also became known for killer whales
in black stone with inlays. One was presented to a member of
the Vancouver Canucks a few years ago. Now in his 40s, he remains
a well known carver and respected artist.
Kimmirut is a small settlement of 400 people about
100 kilometres south of Iqaluit. founded as a Hudson's Bay Company
trading post in 1911 and later the site of an RCMP detachment,
it has a history typical of Nunavut communities Inuit people
began to settle here in the 1960s, coinciding with the opening
of a school and nursing station as well as canine epidemic that
took its toll on the dog population and made life on the land
Like most communities in the Canadian
Arctic, it has had little in the way of a sustainable economy.
It did, however, have a supply of soapstone which local artists
have fashioned into distinctive carvings. In its heyday, in the
1970s and into the early 1980s, carving brought a kind of economic
stability to the community. Once the stone had been quarried
and the tools acquired, a good carving that took two days to
make could sell for as much as $1700, Pitsiulak recalls. "It
was something like the gold rush... Everybody was carving and
getting a lot of money for it."
Pitsiulak is fortunate his first experiences occurred
in that heady period. A youngster with a handful of birds and
seals today may not find himself feeling like a millionaire,
Last summer, a sign appeared in the window of the local Northern
Store, one of two principal buyers of carvings in the community
(the other being the Kimik Co-op). It was nothing special in
itself, just a printout from a computer. But it carried an austere
message an announcement that the store, for the near future,
could only buy carvings from two individuals.
Far from a comment on the talent or the vision of
local artists, it spoke instead to a marketing problem. Generous
buying practices in recent years had led to overstocked inventories
of carvings, particularly those done quickly for money rather
than artistic expression. The two carvers on the list suggested
the styles and standards that other carvers should work to if
they wanted to sell their work. The numbers are up now, the store
has about 18 people on its list this fall but it's a far, frustrating
cry from better days in a community that has supported dozens
Kimmirut, in fact, is not alone. Earlier this year, Goo Arlooktoo
a minister in the NWT's territorial cabinet and the local representative
for the carving communities of
The 1949 show by Houston and
the Handicrafts Guild was the event that truly established the
modern idea of Inuit carving, and its dual role as an aesthetic
expression of a unique world view as well as a means to assist
the economy of Arctic communities It was not, however, the first.
In 1930, the guild arranged an exhibition of Inuit objects, including
some carvings, drawn largely from the collections of the explorers
Diamond Jenness and Vihjalmur Stefansson. The Hudson's Bay Company
also tried to develop a market for Inuit handicrafts in the 1930s,
an effort that sputtered during the Great Depression.
What made the 1949 show different was its recognition
of Inuit carving and art specifically as "art" Scheduled
for a week, it sold out in three days Its success drew the attention
of what was then the federal Department of Mines and Resources,
which provided a grant to support Houston on further buying expeditions
into Arctic Quebec and Nunavut, which were greeted with similar
Perhaps ironically, the Inuit to that time had no tradition of
art among themselves, at least not in a European sense. Originally,
carvings were made for utilitarian purposes: combs, fishing implements,
lamps, and so on. It was the pervasiveness of stone in the Arctic
world that made many of them skilled carvers Using hard stone
upon softer stone or later, adopted metal tools men made the
implements they needed for hunting and fishing, and sometimes
shamanistic objects. Women probably also carved domestic or ornamental
pieces All were very small, in keeping with the nomadic lifestyle
in which people carried very little between camps.
Kimmirut, Cape Dorset and Sanikiluaq
delivered a pair of speeches in the legislature warning of trouble
in what has come to be known as the "carving industry".
Reporting on radio call in shows and public meetings in his constituency,
he warned that carving needs help to remain viable. Specifically,
he called for increased marketing efforts to combat decreasing
sales and prices as well as an education and information campaign
to improve the quality and diversity of the work
By summer, local newspapers were carrying stories
from frustrated carvers who were having trouble selling their
work At the end of October, carvers and artists from around Nunavut
gathered in Cape Dorset for a three day conference to discuss
the current problems, express their frustrations and attempt
to find solutions
While the issues carvers face today are not exactly
new, they are perhaps a little more poignant. The year 1999 marks
the 30th anniversary of the landmark show coordinated by James
Houston and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild that introduced the
world beyond the Arctic to the simple elegance, beauty and vision
of Inuit carving. Could it be that such an important anniversary
also marks the end of an era? That's very doubtful, but 50 years
later the world of Inuit carving is not everything it once was.
The concept of art did not begin to arise until it was
understood that carvings could be exchanged for other goods.
That period arrived with the missionaries, traders and whalers,
who bought or traded for carved objects such as incised walrus
tusks and small figurines as curios and souvenirs.
Houston's achievement was to go beyond that limited
view and encourage people to share his insight. "What James
Houston did was really good," Sam Pitsiulak says. "He
said 'make something that is in your heart'."
In the years that followed, James Houston and other
government arts officers pioneered carving and printmaking in
a number of Arctic communities. Cape Dorset developed the greatest
reputation, but artists and workshops have flourished in Baker
Lake, Arviat, Holman Island, Pond Inlet, Igloolik and Rankin
Inlet. Southern critics and major institutions, meanwhile, took
note, recognizing the striking achievements in the 1950s of early
master carvers such as John Tiktak of Rank in Inlet and Henry
Evaluardjuk of Pond Inlet. During a long period of expansion
in the 1950s and 1960s, collections were acquired by major museums,
among them the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Civilization
(formerly the Museum of Man). Private collectors, notably the
Toronto-Dominion Bank, became enthusiastic buyers as well, and
Canada's public officials purchased hundreds of creations as
gifts for VIP visitors.
Despite the attention and growth, Terry Ryan, the
manager of West Baffin Inuit Co-op in Cape Dorset since 1960,
recalls the earlier years of the carving phenomenon as a fairly
peaceful time People still lived close to the cycles of the land
Although they took great personal pleasure in creating
art, other activities such as hunting were more primary. It wasn't
uncommon, Ryan says, to arrive in a camp and find an incomplete
carving sitting on rock, waiting for the right time to be finished
"There was a certain tranquility in the North in those days,"
Ryan says. "(A carving) wasn't something you needed tomorrow,
so you set it aside."
But that era was not to last Carvers felt the first
rumbles in the 1980s, coinciding with the arrival of an economic
recession that hit all segments of the art market. Consultants
brought into investigate the downturn in Inuit works also warned
that the tastes of the art buying market had changed and that
wholesalers had acquired large inventories, particularly of lower
end works one reported that, at least in dollar terms, the existing
stockpiles could meet market demands for the next three years
Efforts through the 1980s and 1990s to redress the
imbalance never quite got off the ground, although the market
did enjoy some upswing But external factors such as recessions,
declines in production from aging artists and even the withdrawal
from the market of the first generation of buyers prevented long
term stabilization. Nunavut communities, meanwhile, continued
to grow in turn, more and more people turned to carving and other
arts as a way to pay the bills and put food on the table.
Glenn Wadswortb reaches for his filing cabinet at
the mention of some of the negative commentary that has swirled
around Inuit carving in recent years He digs out a quote from
John Houston, the owner of the Houston North Gallery in Lunenburg
NS and the son of James Houston He reads from the catalogue of
a recent show of new jewelry by a new generation of Inuit artists:
"Each decade, more Inuit gain a living from their art and
each decade more journalists predict its death" Wadsworth
picks up the theme "In spite of the fact that people think
Inuit art is dead," he says, "there's more good art
being made and sold every year.
A 20 year collector of Inuit art, Wadsworth today
manages the Northern Images store in downtown Yellowknife, one
of five across the country. From his busy office, you can see
into the gallery's showroom, once upon a time the main floor
of the local library. The broad collection of sculptures, carvings,
paintings, prints and clothing on display from communities across
the NWT carries no hint that the public has lost interest in
Inuit carving or Northern arts
"It's a problem of matching supply and demand and you are
always dealing with a fickle market," Wadsworth says. More
to the point, he continues the market is still there; it's just
not the same as it once was.
Indeed, the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s when economies
were strong and Canadians took to Inuit carving as a kind of
national symbol have passed, disappearing into history for a
variety of reasons The first generation of collectors and carvers
that fueled the original growth, for example, are no longer active,
leaving new generations of collectors and artists to discover
each other. The market has also become more sophisticated. Buyers
today are not drawn as much to simpler carvings with repetitive
themes or styles, a type of carving that is sometimes called
the "craft" or "souvenir" market that the
makers could once sell for quick cash The inventories that have
put the squeeze in recent months on sales by artists is largely
populated by these
But the market for, and interest in, finer works
remains strong, Wadsworth says. Dealers and serious collectors
still clamor for serious art by top artists. The evidence lies
in the fact that many artists now sell directly to galleries
or other suppliers, rather than through the co-ops and Northern
Stores that were so critical to the success of the early days.
Inuit art is also featured in many world class galleries, not
just in Canada, but also in Europe and Asia. And the very best
carvings can still fetch tens of thousands of dollars. In the
shorter term, Wadsworth also notes factors that bode well for
the market, such as the strength of the American dollar and greying
population that has time and money to travel.
Terry Ryan echoes Wadsworth's comments. "The
reality check," he says, "is that the market for Inuit
art is strong There is nothing wrong with the market for good
things There is a market for lesser works, but it gets flooded"
Goo Arlooktoo grew up in Kimmirut during the 19605 and 19705.
Now in his mid 30s, he recalls his high school years as a time
when some of the people he grew up with had a choice between
continuing their education or becoming carvers. He even tried
carving himself for a short time, but did not possess a personal
talent. His first carving, a bird, earned only $3. His
second didn't sell at all Arlooktoo decided to stay in school,
attending Arctic College in Fort Smith.
Today, as the elected representative of three communities where
carving and art contributes $3 million a year to the local economies,
he has a difficult message for his old friends and constituents:
"Not everyone can become a carver," he says "In
order for the market to stay alive, only real artists and the
really good carvers will be able to survive. We can have a lot
of them quite a lot, but not in the numbers we had a few years
ago. Some people will have to decide what to do besides carving:
It's not that the world has lost interest in carving.
Despite the current concerns, Inuit art has been, and remains,
a success story. It has inspired many others, from the so called
"fakelore" that attempts to make a quick buck off cheap
copies, to the flourishing of native art forms from other places.
(When Arlooktoo made his first visit to southern Canada, a school
trip in 1977 or 1978, the teacher made a point of taking them
to stores that sold carvings from their home community, many
by the fathers or uncles of the children on the trip. In many
stores, these carvings were the high ticket item," Arlooktoo
says. "Beside them were a few moccasins, a few baskets.
If I go to those stores today... a carving is not the only thing
that will catch my eye if I'm looking for native art.")
But the world has changed, as has carving. The challenge
carving faces today probably relates less to its viability than
it does to the expectations placed upon the art. It's doubtful
"souvenir" or "craft" carving will be as
reliable an income earner as it once was. Other opportunities
for people have to be explored. Last summer, Sam Pitsiulak and
a geologist explored marble and granite deposits around Kimmirut
and Cape Dorset, quarrying some of the material to see if it
could be made into other objects, such as table tops, tiles and
clocks. A display of some early tests in Cape Dorset were well
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to improve the
promotion of Inuit art and the development of new art form. A
new group, the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, was founded
last summer to promote art and represent the interests of artists.
An interim board was appointed during the carvers' meeting in
Cape Dorset last October, which is now working on getting the
organization up and running.
Officials are also scrambling, Arlooktoo says, to
take advantage of a string of upcoming promotional opportunities.
World attention will focus on the Eastern Arctic next April when
Nunavut officially enters Canada as its own territory. The new
legislature under construction in Iqaluit could become a focus
point not only for traditional and contemporary works, but also
as a showcase for new ideas. Further opportunities flow from
the 30th anniversary of the first exhibition sponsored by James
Houston and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild.
Finally, government has a role in supporting arts
education programs to ensure that future carvers and artists
work to standards the market now demands. Nunavut Arctic College
runs such programs, which also include business training to help
people deal in what is a commercial as well as an aesthetic world.
Sila Kipanak followed in the footsteps of his father
and grandfather both renowned carvers from Cape Dorset and took
up the art full time in the 19805. He sells his sculptures directly
to galleries. "It was good," he says of the industry
in the early 19805. "Much better than today. The price was
More recently, Kipanak has signed on as one of two
instructors on a carving program in Iqaluit to teach students
the finer aspect of shaping stone, while trying to instill a
sense of pride in themselves and their work. Speaking above the
whirring of half a dozen power machines biting into rock, modern
tools to make the work faster and easier, he says We're looking
to have individuals have more self-esteem." Kipanak gazes
at the hive of activity surrounding him. Twenty students ranging
in ages from their 20s to their 60s, originally from communities
across Nunavut are hard at work. Dressed in coveralls and covered
in soapstone dust, they work individually or in pairs on their
It's Kipanak's first stint as a teacher and he's
eager for his students to succeed. And what is success? "So
they can stand on their own two feet," he says.