In the Mackenzie Delta the great river slows down. We wind through countless channels, past silent, watching eagles. At occasional summer fish-camps there are teepees with racks of smoking whitefish. Teams of huskies bark at their stakes or swim out to meet us in hope of a handout. At Inuvik we scramble up a muddy bank and find our way through the dusty town to a large green building. It’s an annual event called the “Great Northern Arts Festival.” Here are the carvings, prints and paintings of Pootoogook of Baker Lake, Elisapee Itulu of Kimmirut, Bill Nasogaluak of Yellowknife. Over a hundred artists are making watercolors, acrylics, beadwork, jewelry, gloves and moccasins of beaver-down and musk ox wool. Sculptors are set apart in tents which swirl with soapstone-dust and whine with the unfamiliar sound of power tools. In the display area there are a great many styles and influences; realistic wolves, seals and polar bears, as well as tortured personal visions loaded with fear and apprehension. Stone figures beat on drums or thrust harpoons into walruses or beluga whales. Visitors hang out with the artists and there are plenty of red dots.
Something else is happening here. They’ve invited outsiders this time. On the stage an Inuit fiddler and a Scottish woman on an electric organ play traditional jigs and reels. Carver Gustavio Clavio of Merida, Mexico takes the microphone and thanks everyone for having him north. Surrounded by a crowd of native children, Cathy Henderson of Dublin, Eire gives a demonstration of pen-and-ink portraiture of Inuit and Dene who sit for her. A tourist with two cameras watches. “She’s good eh?” he says, “She’s lookin’ with fresh eyes.”
PS: “Something’s happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.” (Buffalo Springfield)
Esoterica: Like it or not we are now truly a global village. No technique or understanding is the private possession of one tribe or individual. The concept of “cultural property” is an endangered species. Influence is the gasoline that powers art.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Protection of cultural property
Ralph Sawyer, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Eskimos are anxious to legally protect the anorak, the amauti (a distinctive woman’s dress) and other cultural forms such as the kayak, which they invented and for which they currently receive no royalties. These sorts of intellectual property are similar to the unique use of soapstone for (originally) small play figures and spirit fetishes, and now the wider range of “Eskimo sculpture,” which has worldwide popularity. The idea is to prevent outsiders from appropriating these styles and methodologies and taking advantage of them in a commercial way.
Kuna women of Panama
Garcia Herez, Panama City, Panama
The Kuna women of Panama are internationally known for their mola panels. These fabric designs which are actively collected originated in body painting are now protected as cultural property by the Republic of Panama. Only they can make them. This is a precedent which is being closely watched by copyright lawyers and others with culture to protect because it may eventually affect all indigenous peoples who might wish to apply for protection of their art forms.
Positive side of globalization
Eva Oddo, Brisbane, Australia
I don’t know much about globalization apart from what I see and hear from other people, and from the little that I have read about it. I can see its negative side with giant yellow archy Ms every 500m, and every coffee-shop becoming one with a mermaid as an icon. On the other hand I find it absolutely excellent the way we have access to so many different cultures which offer us new perspectives, and influence us, even though we may not realize it. I’m not saying anything new, of course, but it’s refreshing to find someone else who sees the positive aspects of this exchange of knowledge. And even though in some cases it may be superficial (like the new trend of having Chinese calligraphy on clothes, candles, etc) hopefully it’ll inspire people to deepen their understanding.
Memories of a kinder time
Mary Ann Mountain, Seattle, Washington, USA
I have been trying to contact my reps in congress about changing the deductions for donating paintings to charities and have had the royal run-a-round. I was getting so frustrated! If we in USA donate a painting we can only deduct the cost of materials, but when we kick off the heirs are dunned full market value. We are trying to change that, but getting through to them is like WW2! Thus your gentle letter describing the river and the fair has calmed me — I will be able to sleep. I assume you are resuming your trip down the river after beaching the boat for the winter. Your observations take me back to my youth working in Alaska and I immediately lose my anger at these bloody politicians. In fact I will retire with images of blood-red sunsets at 12 midnight on the Chilkat Range and think of a kinder time. Thank you for your sanity and your ability to convey what you are experiencing.
Downside of travel
Radha Saccoccio, NYC, NY, USA
I returned NYC from my trip to Ireland on Tuesday. I think I need a little time to process the experience. It is such a dramatic shift from Ireland to NYC. It throws me off balance and I wonder how long I can continue to find something to sustain me in this city at the expense and sacrifice of natural sustenance. The modern ability to travel to foreign lands may only torture us in the end. I thought I was quite happy here in NYC before going to Ireland… Stillness is key for me in order to create. Empty to receive.
Prayer for a Song
Elle Fagan, Connecticut, USA
I am warming up for writings on the truth and beauty of the lovely area here. Connecticut was the cradle of America, the waterfalls our first power source, making this town one of the richest in the world a hundred years ago. I have begun the work of peering into the mists of the past, into the nature that propels us… I will want my words to reawaken appreciation, a sense of the Big Picture, and the excitement of our own evolution… a winning vision of the third millennium. And I start with a prayer that my song may not fall into a key so minor as to lose its effect.
Francine Buffon, France
Just as Picasso used masks and other regalia from Africa, I think there are many motifs still to be exploited from the north. The Inuit particularly have images that are useful to modern painters and sculptors. I for one would like to apply to the Festival you mentioned with the idea of taking part, making my own contribution, and seeing what is available from that area.
(RG note) The Great Northern Art Festival can be found at http://www.gnaf.org/
Helen Simcox, Isle of Seil, Oban, Scotland
There seems to be some concern, indeed unpleasantness, in our Art Group that painting in the style of — i.e., using similar colours & subject matter of another well-known very successful local artist is a mild form of plagiarism. The reason I am raising this point is that the current trend in this area — indeed in many areas — is for vibrant colours as used by this successful artist. One artist in our society submitted a painting to the annual summer show and was refused hanging because it had a resemblance to the style of the aforementioned artist. The art member I refer to is adamant that it is not a copy, only that she admires the work of the professional whose work she is inspired by. Please give us your considered opinion so that we may try to clear this point up.
(RG note) It’s an ongoing problem that all artists, at all levels, have to deal with. Every situation is different—but here’s my take on it: I have been generally wishy-washy about all of the artists who copy my style, technique and colors. Some of them do it flagrantly and raise nice little families with the proceeds. My inclination has gone from being philosophic, permissive and generous-hearted — to trying to arrange ways to have the offenders quietly taken out and shot. I believe clubs whose honorable jurors decide not to hang for this reason are justified and going only a little way toward my more extreme solution.
Here are a few I found:
“One always begins by imitating.” (Eugene Delacroix)
“He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds)
“If Picasso drips, I drip… For a long while I was with Cezanne, and now I am with Picasso.” (Arshile Gorky)
“I remember one day when Juan Gris told me about a bunch of grapes he had seen in a painting by Picasso. The next day these grapes appeared in a painting by Gris, this time in a bowl; and the day after, the bowl appeared in a painting by Picasso.” (Jacques Lipchitz)
“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” (Picasso)
“Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.” (Wilson Mizner)
Dennis Brown, Victoria, BC, Canada
How I love to hear of your experience in the north. I believe that some spirit grabs hold of you when you visit and never leaves. Is it the sky, the land, the ever changing wind or the people? It is spoken of but no one can really put a finger on it exactly. Just local magic that will eventually call an artist back. Land of mighty forces and always changing. So how do you capture that essence? Paint on and those of us in southern comfort will wait to see what spirit captured you. And good luck on your northern purchase of peanut butter.