In the uppermost corner of Canada is the Inuit hamlet of Cape Dorset, nestled on its own tiny island at the southern tip of Baffin Island, on Hudson Bay. In the Inuktitut language it’s called Kinngait, or “high mountain,” where ancestors date to before 1000 BC. Originally a place of isolation — of drifting ice and nomadic hunting — for the last half-century Cape Dorset has been a place for art. With more artists per capita than anywhere else in Canada, drawing, printmaking and carving are the defining economic and identifying activities.
In 1948, Canadian artist James Houston, in search of something to paint, hitched a ride on a single-engine plane to an Arctic meteorological station. He’d packed a sleeping bag, toothbrush, sketchbook and a can of peaches and meant to stay for a few days. Though archaeologists were familiar with the soapstone sculptures of early Eskimos, it wasn’t widely known that the modern Inuit were still carving. One day, after giving away some of his sketches to the local villagers, Houston was gifted in return with a small carving of a caribou. He assumed at first that it was a relic, but lit up at his mistake. He’d been struck by the suffering of the Inuit with the decline of the fur trade and the erosion of their nomadic way of life. Houston, who they were calling “Saomik,” or “Left-Handed One,” would organize the first major exhibition of Inuit art in Montreal the following year. He would then settle in Cape Dorset for the next fourteen years.
In 1957, Houston visited with his friend Oshaweetok, a Cape Dorset carver. Oshaweetok had been studying the logo on a pair of Players cigarette packets and remarked on how tedious it must be for the artist to repeat the same drawing. In an attempt to explain the printmaking process, Houston laid a thin piece of toilet tissue over an inked tusk incised with a sketch. When he pulled up the paper, it showed a clear negative image of the drawing. Oshaweetok sparked, and The West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative — a printmaking workshop for Cape Dorset artists — was born.
Houston modelled the Co-op after the ukiyo-e woodblock print workshops of 17th and 18th Century Japan — setting into motion skill-building and economic agency among Cape Dorset’s residents. Between 1959 and 1974, over 48,000 handmade prints were produced by the artists there, including etchings, engravings, lithographs and silkscreens. They made an annual catalogue and mailed it all over the world. Today, Inuit art is collected globally, connecting art lovers to Inuit culture and trading at more than $10 million per year. The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative is the longest-running fine arts studio in Canada.
PS: “I saw rocks, the autumn tundra, long skeins of ice drifting south to melt in Hudson Bay, and I knew this was the place I’d been looking for.” (James A. Houston, 1921-2005)
“There is no word for art. We say it is to transfer something from the real to the unreal. I am an owl, and I am a happy owl. I like to make people happy and everything happy. I am the light of happiness and I am a dancing owl.” (Kenojuak Ashevak, 1927-2013)
Esoterica: Soon after we graduated from art school, the classmate I admired most sent me some prints she’d made in Cape Dorset. Lisa had accepted a teaching post there and, when not in school, made art at the Co-op. Her stone lithographs revealed a quiet unfurling of wonder — exquisite renderings of arctic animals and constellations, people, dreamscapes and snowy isles. Also in the mail from Cape Dorset came a small, hand-stitched Eskimo doll furnished with a rabbit hair-trimmed parka and mukluks, strapped at the back with a tiny baby in matching snow gear. Books and catalogues of Inuit prints came, too. These were soulful records of contemporary and ancestral life — graphically sound and magically universal.
James A. Houston published thirty books, half of which were for children, many about Inuit Life — including the wonderful Eskimo Prints (1967) and his Arctic memoir Confessions of an Igloo Dweller (1995).
The National Film Board of Canada made a short film about 36 year-old Kenojuak Ashevak and her printmaking process at the Co-op. Just 19 minutes long, it’s a sensual and inspiring portrait of an artist, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1963. You can see it here.
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“Well, the whole world opened up for me and, I thought, anything could happen from this.” (James A. Houston)