An excerpt from Making Art in Nunavik: A Brief Historical Overview, written by Marybelle Mitchell and published in Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ), vol. 13, no. 3 (fall): 4-17.
STONE AND TOOLS
Before Houston arrived on the scene, people used bone or ivory to carve objects for trade or domestic use. Houston encouraged people to use soapstone, the general assumption being that stone was plentiful and easily obtained. We now know that stone is difficult to obtain and it is no longer plentiful, if it ever was. Soapstone - what Inuit had called "stone for making lamps" - had always been a precious commodity. Possibly this had more to do with the difficulty of extracting it from the ground than with its distribution. It is hardly surprising that the difficulties of securing stone should rise proportionately to the increased demand being placed upon it. In the early days, especially near Inukjuak, it appears not to have been too serious a problem. Houston (1977, 10) said that the people broke off chunks of dark green serpentine carving stone found along the bank of the Inukjuak River. He also mentioned some semi-soft stone near Sywollie's camp and at the Nastapoka area. "There was lots of stone on that coast," he says, "and it would all oil and polish beautifully."
There are many references to the lack of stone in the minutes of the Arctic cooperative conferences (1963, 1966; see "In Retrospect," p. 22). By 1977, if not before, the procuring of raw material was considered a major problem by Nunavik carvers. Kasadluak painted a bleak picture of the task of procuring carvingstone (1977, 21-2):
Summer or winter, each brings its own difficulty in obtaining the stone. This is something which I believe the people in the south do not understand. You have to think of where the stone comes from and the problems one goes through gelling it out. The problem of locating it in the first place and the distance one has to carry it ... Maybe it is exposed on the surface of the earth. Maybe it is beneath the water ...It is hard in the summer because you have to carry the stone to your canoe all the way from the quarry where you extracted it by hand ... it is backbreaking work. Even when you do not have to carry the stone so far to your canoe on the shore, there is always a certain amount of danger in transporting the heavy rock by canoe ... Getting the stone out of the ground - even in summer when the ground is not frozen - is hard work because we do not have any fancy equipment ... In winter, it is particularly difficult to get at the stone. The snow can drift five to 10 feet over the site so that you are still left to dig in the hard frozen earth ... The stone we are using now in Inukjuak is mined from the site about 40 miles out of town. It costs a lot of money even to get to that place. You need proper equipment - skidoo or canoe - to go there and proper maintenance so you will not break down. If you go by canoe, you go through huge swells and waves along the way because part of your journey is through the open Hudson Bay where there are no little islands to shelter you. It is not much better in the winter because your snowmobile needs gas [which costs 98 cents a litre in 1998] and your route lies over the unevenly frozen sea ice.
As in other areas of the Arctic, the difficulty of getting carving stone worsens with each passing year. This major problem for artists tends to be underestimated by southerners who find it hard to appreciate the labour that must be expended before the work of carving even begins. The situation in Inukjuak at this time is that the best stone is inaccessible because of boulders, some as large as a room, and water must be bailed out of the quarry side by hand. Most communities - in Nunavik and elsewhere - continue to report serious problems in obtaining stone.
PRINTMAKING: ANOTHER USE FOR STONE
Puvirnituq was the first community to follow Cape Dorset's successful venture into printmaking. Unlike Cape Dorset, where printmaking was systematically nurtured and guided by such professional artists as Jim Houston and Terry Ryan, advice given to Nunavik printmakers tended to be erratic. Co-op manager Gordon Yearsley and art advisor Viktor Tinkl provided some consistency in the early years, but clashes with the federal bureaucracy and the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council soon resulted in the printmakers being left to their own devices. In later years, FCNQ contracted a few short-term advisors to work in Puvirnituq. The lack of tutoring and quality control of prints from this community, now valued for their spontaneity, was often deplored by the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council.
Perhaps the outstanding features of Pov prints are the inclusion of the irregular edge of the stone to contain the images and the narrative indignation that is evident in prints by Leah Qumaluk, Davidialuk, Joe Talirunili, Lucassie Tookalook and others. The earliest prints were monochromatic, usually black, but sometimes blue, red or green, raw colours used directly from the ink cans. Typically, printers in this community did not work from drawings but cut directly into the stone. As Erla Socha wrote (1978), "there [was] no attempt to conceal material origin in the uncritical acceptance of scratches and blemishes of the stone surface. A Povungnituk print cannot be mistaken for a wood engraving, a serigraph or a drawing-board graphic."
There were some attempts to develop printmakers in a few other Nunavik communities. A printmaking workshop was held in Inukjuak in 1972 under the guidance of Thomassie Echaluk and his nephew, Noah, who had participated in an earlier FCNQ-organized workshop in Puvirnituq. An abandoned portable classroom, being used by the co-op as a warehouse, was turned over to the Echaluks. It took days to clear out the merchandise (mostly hundred-pound sacks of flour) and weeks more to locate big flat pieces of stone and to set up the working area.
The Inukjuak print shop was used as a community resource. In 1974, artist Johnny Inukpuk - weaponless except for a stick - survived being trapped in a small igloo by three bears. The story was told and retold in the village and people wanted it recorded. Someone suggested that Inukpuk make a carving but, in the end, it was decided that a print would be a better choice. A few men accompanied Inukpuk to the schoolhouse-cum-warehouse -cum-print shop where Thomassie organized a space and materials for him. When a southern artist/advisor, there for a few weeks and apparently unaware of what was happening, attempted to show Inukpuk how to do printmaking, he was quietly restrained by the co-op manager. What was happening had little to do with printing technique; it was, rather, an effort to record a piece of history, the creation of an image to convey one man's experience. The resulting print was entitled A true story of Johnny being attacked by three bears while in his igloo.
Although the Inukjuak people were reluctant to follow the example of Puvirnituq, a co-op was eventually established there in 1967.
Although much of the early work from Nunavik is in important collections, the contemporary work is not as much in evidence. In his editorial, Mattiusi Iyaituk attributes this to the fact that young people are not taking up carving as an occupation because of the difficulties they have amassing enough capital - for equipment and expenses - to get to the quarry sites for stone and because they do not have the knowledge to travel on the land. It may also have to do with a marketing system that favours the production of souvenir quality work - technically accomplished and some of it displaying a beguiling humour - rather than what used to be called "fine art." Stepping back from immediate concerns and priorities, it just may be that carving is no longer as central to the rhythm of Inuit life as it was in the not-so-distant past when there were few other options than to hunt or carve, the latter encouraged by various agencies - the missions, trading posts, governments and co-ops - as a way for Inuit to support themselves. It is no longer the case that whole villages are supported through the proceeds of carving.
Although jobs remain scarce, Inuit now have more choices, a change that can only be welcomed. Not only does it relieve the pressure on people to take up an occupation for which they have little interest or talent, but it also opens the way for those who do.Credits: