Buyers warm to works of Arctic carvers
Montreal — SAILA I. Kipanek figures he could buy ``a good Ski-Doo'' with his earnings from about a month's output of stone carvings. He could use a snowmobile these days. The ground is covered with snow where Kipanek comes from - Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island, 1,280 miles north of here in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Kipanek is one of some 50 or so Inuit (Eskimo) carvers in that community of some 2,500 people.
``In the last year, the quality of his work has improved drastically,'' says Steven Garber, the Sherbrooke Street dealer who brought the young carver to Montreal for a brief visit. ``It could go in any museum in the world.''
Like other ``native'' artists in Canada, Kipanek is benefiting from a resurgence of interest in both Inuit and Indian art.
During the 1970s, the sale of Inuit soapstone carvings and prints boomed, so much so that the quality of the work began to deteriorate. ``More and more marginal stuff was being bought by everybody,'' admits Michael Casey, general manager of Canadian Arctic Producers Ltd., the largest wholesaler of Inuit art.
That quality factor, plus the economic slump in the industrial world, resulted in slow sales in the early 1980s.
Now, according to Mr. Casey, there's a new enthusiasm for Inuit art ``everywhere.''
``These have been the best days I have seen for the past 10 years,'' says Mr. Garber in Montreal. Similarly, ``Indian art'' - considerably more varied than Inuit art - has been enjoying vigorous collector interest.
``It is getting more and more popular every year,'' says Jill Fisk, general manager of the Indian Arts and Crafts Society of British Columbia. ``There are more and more retail stores opening all the time.''
In that West Coast province alone, some 2,000 Indians make their living producing arts and crafts.
Both Inuit and Indians have far more ``artists'' per capita than does the non-native Canadian population. Why?
One reason is that both cultures had no written language before the arrival of the white man. Through art - carvings, drawings, basketry, etc. - an Inuit or Indian would express his or her culture and beliefs for those out of earshot. There was not even a word for art in the Indian tongues. ``Art existed,'' says R. James Schoppert, a Tlingit sculptor from the West Coast. ``Art was a way of life.``
For the Inuit, art was also an interesting occupation when the weather was too hostile to leave their igloos or other shelters.
Another reason is economic. Indians have been selling their arts and crafts for hundreds of years. The Micmac Indians of the East Coast were trading miniature canoes for food as early as the late 17th century. They were selling porcupine quill boxes in the 1750s.
The Inuit, a term meaning ``the people,'' are more recent entrants to the art market. They had carved tusks and soapstone for their own pleasure for many years. Being nomads, hunting and fishing for a subsistence living, these works tended to be small.
In the late 1940s, however, the Canadian government began encouraging the Inuit to carve for a living. The first major show of Inuit carvings was held in 1949. Prints were added to the Inuit repertoire at the end of the 1950s.
Stimulated by the tragedy of starvation nearly wiping out some nomadic groups When the hunt failed, the Canadian government established settled communities for the Eskimos. Aside from government welfare payments and some seasonal hunting and fishing, art became one of the few sources of extra income for the Inuit.
Today, Canadian Arctic Producers lists some 1,250 artists in the Northwest Territories. Probably a few hundred more Inuit carve or draw in northern Quebec. Younger artists have been taking up the chipping hammers, electric grinders, dust respirators, and safety glasses of today as older artists drop these tools for good.
``Art is a very important economic aspect of Inuit life,'' notes Casey. As art revenues go up, government welfare payments decline.
A top, prolific artist can make as much as $150,000 (US$108,000), according to Garber. A more average income would be $10,000 to $15,000. Many carvers spend a good chunk of their time hunting and fishing - or watching television.
Kipanek, for example, says that fish and game are part of his living. More than that, though, he enjoys the ``quiet environment'' of the hunt. ``The town is getting pretty noisy,'' he complains of tiny Frobisher Bay.
Kipanek learned the art of carving from his stepfather. ``I admired what he was doing,'' he recalls. Soon he was helping his stepfather sand some of the carvings. And eventually Kipanek was also carving. ``It makes me feel good inside,'' he says.
Inuit art has changed a little in style over the years, depending on the region and the individual artist. Casey finds it less ``primitive ... more sophisticated'' today.
In the case of Indian art, most artists still embrace traditional ethnicity and exoticism in varying degrees. Within the last two or three decades, however, some Indian artists have moved into the world of Western art in general. The fact that the artist has an Indian heritage is only coincidental.
The variety of Indian art is natural, according to Lee-Ann Konrad, a native art specialist at the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine.
``Indian people come from a diverse background and range of experience,'' she notes. ``They don't have to be restricted within certain art traditions and media.''
Unlike the Inuit, with their relative isolation in Canada's north, most Canadian Indians now live in urban areas, off reservations. Their modern art reflects this fact.
Mr. Schoppert, the Tlingit sculptor, sees the possibility of a new style of North American art arising from the merger of native art and the European-based art of modern times.
``We are witnessing the beginning of something unique,'' he said at a recent conference at the University of Maine. ``Perhaps in time it will be perceived as having a profound impact.''
Schoppert speaks of Indians, once oppressed, disillusioned, and confused, finding those burdens - whether from within or without - lifted.
``We are in that time when our people are rising above the hurt and anger; are developing the vocabulary necessary to articulate the events that have affected our people,'' he says. ``The future of native art is indeed promising.''
Indian art has moved beyond its original anthropological interest to greater acceptance as genuine art. Some of it still incorporates traditional iconography: Indian legends, symbols, totem pole designs, etc. Other work is quite modernist.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization has amassed a collection of some 2,000 Indian and 7,000 Inuit contemporary art works.
These include prints, drawings, sculptures, paintings, and fine crafts. But except for special traveling art exhibitions, this work will not be available for viewing by the public until the museum's new Ottawa building, now under construction, is complete. That should be sometime in 1989.
The museum has an even larger collection of anthropological art.
Gerald McMaster, the museum's curator of contemporary Indian art, notes that the collection will not be shown as the work of a ``vanishing race,'' but as that of ``a viable, recognized, modern ethnic group.''
``I am an Indian and an artist,'' says sculptor Luke Simon, a Micmac who has moved to Santa Fe, N.M.
One important influence on modern Canadian Indian art has been the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. Indeed, Mrs. Konrad plans to pull together an exhibition of the work of Canadian artists who have studied at that American institution.
Another influence on Indian art is the summer gathering of artists in Banff, Alberta. The artists, some of them Indian, critique each other's work and sell some of it to the multitudes of visitors in that scenic mountain town.
A third influence has been government money, helping to train artists and artisans and to market their works.
Many Indian artists launch out on their own, away from the numerous cooperatives that sell Indian arts and crafts. Thereby they hope to give themselves status as artists, not craftsmen.
But both the crafts and the art are important to many groups of Canadian Indians.
``It is integral to their society,'' says Konrad. ``It gives them clothing and food, just as hunting and trading did 200 years ago.''