Carving out a rewarding career near the Arctic Circle

Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, RCA, has been described as the world's best-known living inuk.

The letters after her name identify her as a recipient of two of the highest honors a Canadian artist can receive: memberships in the Order of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy. This venerable printmaker and sculptor has work in the collections of the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as prestigious museums of her nation's capital.

But on this brilliantly sunny spring day not far south of the Arctic Circle, she is a grandmother in hot-pink pants and a parka. She has ridden on her granddaughter's snowmobile to the office of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative to drop off her latest drawing.

She is a deep thinker who realizes the power her work has to engage imaginations. "When I draw, the effort I put into the art sometimes overwhelms me," she says, "but I try to make it so that people from all over the world will like it."

But when she talks about what her art really means, she focuses on what it has done to support her family. "My son Adam lost his father when he was very young, and so I wanted to make sure he didn't grow up in need," she says.

Here is the paradox of modern Inuit art - it is reflective of the culture of its creators in its traditional subject matter and in its newer role as provider. In the challenging environment of the Arctic, an ethic of sharing - whether of freshly killed seal meat or the bounty of an artist's bonus - has been key to survival, in a quite literal sense.

For half a century, Inuit carvings have served as gentle ambassadors in stone from a harsh land. The highly polished sculptures of the animals the artists have lived close to for so long combine lightness with gravitas, strength with a particular sweetness that silences the claim that this is an unforgiving place.

Within a larger national culture nagged by the fear of being derivative or mediocre, Inuit art offers authenticity. Unmistakably Canadian, Inuit art has become a state art, the official "gift art" from Ottawa on special occasions: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, for instance.

Inuit have been carving for centuries - leaving small pieces behind at campsites as gifts for whoever would be next. But modern Inuit art can be said to have "begun" in 1948, when the Canadian government, mindful that the collapse of the fur market spelled poverty for the Inuit, purchased and marketed carvings as an "export industry."

Modern Inuit art thus had a commercial aspect from the beginning, which inspires mixed feelings in the art world. But this movement would never have been possible without a remarkable pool of artistic talent.

James Houston, the Toronto artist who with his wife, Alma, organized the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, later introduced printmaking to the Inuit, going to Japan himself to study traditional methods to teach them to artists of the Far North. Ms. Ashevak was one of those "pioneers" in the late 1950s.

Working on paper is more challenging than carving in stone, Ashevak finds. "On paper you have to shape something out of nothing." When sculpting, however, "You can almost tell from the shape of the stone when you look at it what it's going to be."

In the beginning, she represented traditional legends in her drawings and prints. Nowadays she works mostly from her own fantasy. "What comes into my mind, I offer up to the paper."

Cape Dorset, a hamlet here in the new territory of Nunavut, is often described as the Inuit art capital of Canada. It might be better to describe it as the art capital of Canada, period: This little community of about 1,500 people has produced six members of the Order of Canada.

At another level, for dozens, maybe hundreds of Inuit, art is their day job - perhaps the only job in the cash economy they will ever have. Art enables many to maintain traditional lifestyles: It provides cash for items from the co-op, which acts as a trading post, leaving them free to hunt, fish, and otherwise live off the land.

But that income is now threatened. "The market [for Inuit art] is not down so much as evolving," says Toronto gallery owner Terry Ryan of Dorset Fine Arts, in a brief interview during a recent visit to Cape Dorset. But he worries about the younger generation coming up. "Their interests and latent talent are distracted."

The Arctic region is not without the kind of social problems - poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence - that often serve as grist for an artist's mill.

When younger artists are asked why they don't incorporate more social comment into their art, they answer "Because it wouldn't sell," Mr. Ryan says.

Inuit art is "echoing a lifestyle no longer in evidence," he says, although some younger artists are motivated to continue with traditional forms precisely because their culture is "under threat," Ryan adds.

"The new artists are trying to support themselves and make a name for themselves," Ashevak says. "Financially it will help all the Cape Dorset people if you get a name known through all the world."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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