There is no word in the inuit language for ‘art’, but in the memory of the people there has always been carving for decorative and shamanistic purposes, and embellishment of objects in daily use.
At this same time, a young artist from Ontario, James Archibald Houston, had begun a lifelong connection to the North and its peoples and was living among the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic. He was painting and filming what he experienced in the north and he and Inuit artists were encouraging each other and trading works. He took some carvings with him on one of his trips south and they were snapped up and created a stir in Canadian art circles of the time.
Soon the Department of Northern Affairs hired Houston to do economic development, centred around the significant skills and exciting work of the many emerging artists of the norh, and the rest is history.
What ensued was a way in which supplies were sourced and distributed, work was authenticated and prices were agreed upon for work done by the artist – thus ensuring a fair price for work done and ensuring an authenticated supply of carvings for sale in the south; as many quick and dirty imitations had sprung up. Having come of age during this period in Canada’s development of its national art, I recall the excitement with which these Inuit works were greeted and also the concurrent exciting development of First Nations artists such as Norval Morriseau, Carl Ray, Benjamin Chee Chee,and Bill Reid. At the same time, artists such as Riopelle, Harold Town and the more regional groups such as the Magic Realism group in the Atlantic Provinces were reaching prominence, and the Canadian art scene had ‘found’ East Coast folk artists such as Maud Lewis, Joe Norris, Elmer Killen and many others.
Canada had developed an international lustre both for its arts and culture, and also for its moral highground in choosing to become the Peacekeepers for the world.
It’s been a hard act to follow!
Back in the north, a chance question arose as Houston and a fellow artist sat sharing a smoke in a tent – the inuit artist asked if it weren’t very boring for a man to sit painting the same little picture on each cigarette package – the technology of printing on paper being a foreign one to him – Houston demonstrated using an incised carving on ivory that the man was working on and some soot to make a rudimentary print and the Inuit printmaking movement was born.
After studying in a Japanese printmaking studio, Houston returned to the north and established the first cooperative, along the administrative lines of Japanese workshops – and many other cooperatives soon followed, although the one at Cape Dorset has remained the most prominent and most successful of them all. Houston finally left the morth in 1962 follwing the brak-up of his marriage, and setlled in New York state as the Artistic Director of Steuben Art Glass.
At first, output was limited as emerging artists experimented with a technology that was for the most part very new to them. The north is a treeless land and the concept of paper an unknown one until explorers and missionaries brought the product with them.
The traditional manner of making the matrix for the print from carved wood was modified to use stone instead, and in some cases artists saw the print all the way through, while in other cases they simply made the drawings that were incised by stone carvers.
Colours were limited at first, and we were used to the play of black on white, negative on postive, space filled and space vacant. Gradually colour began to creep in that was limited at first to what could be obtained from coloured pencils, crayons and felt tipped markers. The first acrylics entered the northern repertoire when brought in by Kate Graham in 1970. Currently, the use of colour is very exciting to see as it reaches full development.
For the most part, the first generation of Inuit printmakers is gone now, but they have left a body of work which is highly respected throughout the world, and in many cases have left large extended families still involved in making art in the north, and bringing their message to southern communities through workshops, lectures, demonstrations and travelling exhibits. Each year, the Cape Dorset collection is watched for expectantly and has been now for over 50 years……
Not strictly a print, rather a watercolour, but this work shows the current use of colour to completely fill a page and depict the richness of summer in the north!
You can explore Inuit art and specifically Inuit printmaking using the following links. Especially interesting are the connections to recent years Cape Dorset print collections.