Did you ever stop to wonder why Inuit art is so expressive? Swept up in its mystery and magic, did you ever wonder if you could learn anything from it? In my books, there are five main elements that have brought us this gift from the north. I think they’re worth taking a look at:
The natural, childlike nature of the artists. The Eskimo are playful. Traditionally, they met the stresses of long winters in close quarters with games and amusements. I once visited a famous carver, who happened to be a murderer who was doing time in the Yellowknife jail. While a guard watched us closely, the convict, Moses, carved and giggled. When he needed me to help him turn the big whalebone vertebra over so he could work on the other side, he had a good laugh at his own ineptitude. That night I wrote in my journal, “What a benefit!”
The limitations of the available raw materials. Bones, stones, antlers and tusks are pretty well the media of choice. Apart from the spirit and myth within these found objects, they are creatively unforgiving. Their obstinacy largely determines the direction of the art. Rather than fighting nature, the Inuit generally see fit to cooperate.
The seriousness and reality of the local issues. The Inuit live in a constant round of natural disaster and renewal — sickness, health, joy, birth, life, death, spirit, brutality, misfortune, struggle, addiction and gentleness. Their art speaks of real happenings to real people — it does not imitate something else nor does it describe something foreign. Inuit art is made from experiences.
The scarcity and suspicion of academic expectation. In the beginning, Inuit art was a respected pastime. The best encouragement and education was limited to loose guidance, not instruction. Southerners who go north to help out are astounded at this independence of vision. The main thing to do is help with the tools and stand back.
Economic pressure. The earliest carvings were joyful amulets that were passed from hand to hand. Today they are as monumental as the southern market can bear. Great changes have taken place in the north. A way of life has been uprooted. Art has been the prideful salvation of a people.
PS: “I think over again my small adventures, my fears, These small ones that seemed so big. For all the things I had to get and to reach. And yet there is only one great thing. The only thing. To live to see the great day that dawns. And the light that fills the world.” (Inuit song)
Esoterica: The north flourishes with creative spirit because it’s bred in the bone. It has only been magnified by the march of progress. For many in the south the creative spirit has been bred out of the bone. We artists have an obligation to breed it back. When other shibboleths fail, why not express our worlds with the life-enhancing gift of art?
Simplicity captures essence
by Hap Hagood, Clover, VA, USA
Having long studied the sculpture of indigenous people, including the Inuit, I find these sculptors, by not including a great amount of detail, capture the essence, the inner spirit of their subjects. Because it has always been my desire to capture and express the essence of the animals I portray in my sculptures, I abandoned the strict, realistic style I once worked in for a more contemporary style. I feel that I am more able to capture this inner spirit by leaving out what I consider “non-essential detail,” in much the same manner as the indigenous sculptor (whose art, today, would be called contemporary, rather than primitive). The art of those of us who create contemporary sculpture is said to be modern. I, however, feel our art is not modern, but is simply a continuation of a very ancient art form.
Romanticized and idealized?
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
The West has been overwhelmed with useless information and products, but many Western artists keep the guard – the good stuff can be found. It is often based on “lessons learned” from the community and passed on through history – just the same as the Inuit art. What bothers me in your letter is the romanticizing of a nation, and secondly the idealization of their art. I am afraid that the “art bred in/out of the bone” is one of the less reasonable things I have read in your letters. There are many people north, south, east and west with an “astounding independence of vision.” Even an odd artist from Mars shows up with a good stuff, they must have a good community up there too. You are a hopeless romantic.
(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. Romantic or not, my point is that these five significant elements are valuable for any artist to look at. “Economic pressure,” which can hardly be called romantic, has and will continue to be a generator of some superior art in many cultures.
Authentic and visionary community
by Mimi Scoretz, West Vancouver, BC, Canada
I recently saw a display of Inuit art lining a concourse in a Canadian airport. The sculptures were breathtakingly beautiful, each piece unique, complete and exquisite. You identified many of the Inuit art qualities I saw that day–art grounded in nature, materials restricted to bone, leather, stone, the “reality” of imagination and storytelling and an indifference to outside “academic” influence. What struck me as I admired the astonishing variety and accomplished beauty was that I felt as though I were looking at a whole community of people who knew, without doubt, that they were artists. I felt as if no one had ever said “You can’t do that,” or “That isn’t Art!” Each sculpture was authentic and visionary, full of confidence, skill, joy and humor.
Living among the Eskimos
by Minaz Jantz, Vancouver, BC, Canada
A child of the ’60s with a father in the air force took us to live in many parts of the world. We lived with the Eskimos in a shack with no toilets (bucket), carpet frozen on the floor and no TV. Outside, a Polar bear once thought I would make a nice appetizer. On a dream journey back to the north I was guided by a spirit who showed me where my abilities of intuition and creativity were germinated. I realized that my intuition, imagination, and creative seeds were germinated in Churchill on Hudson’s Bay during the ’60s. Starkness, intensity, the pure simplicity of visual stimulation, the danger of playing outside, no sounds from technology of any kind, all of this emptiness and lack of external stimulation allowed me to turn within and rely on my own landscapes to entertain me. It was now clear that my gifts where originally implanted by the Northern Earth Momma. Like a seed sprout that wants to go to the light but the dark encourages to build stronger roots by going down so that eventually when everything thaws the flowering is celebratory and the greatest of joys.
Inuit art an influence
by Ursula Kirchner, Stuttgart, Germany
I love the art of the Inuit. We have some examples in the Museum Gotze here in Stuttgart. The material they use is so beautiful. I like to use paper. I use newspaper photographs and I cut quite different pictures and you can’t recognize any more what was on the photograph. And I also make my own paper from bits and pieces. It’s arte pobre, but it’s fun.
Do what you know
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
I am a stone sculptor. Your analysis, in my view, comes back to the old maxim, “Do what you know.” For the Inuit, this maxim refers to not only their environment but their social structures as well. Inuit Art has sunk deeply into the Canadian psyche. This is demonstrated to us on a regular basis when many visitors to our studio (several thousand a year) are at first puzzled by our work and regularly ask whether we “do” bears. We three sculptors who exhibit together come from a European tradition, and our work tends to reflect our origins and influences — more of “do what you know.” My hero is Barbara Hepworth, for example.
The embedded image of stone sculpture in Canada, outside of monumental work, which tends to have a European origin anyway, is strongly Inuit with some First Nations influence thrown in. This is as it should be, and perhaps reinforced by the multitudes of Inuit appropriators. Yet this strong Inuit tradition does not extend to painting and drawing in Canada. In these two-dimensional media the practice seems to be predominately Euro-centric with some serious American influence. I have my own ideas as to why this may be, but I would be interested in hearing your views on this matter.
(RG note) Thanks, Mike. Isolated communities tend to appropriate from their immediate environment. Exposed communities appropriate more promiscuously. In a world of creative promiscuity, there is something to be said for these sorts of less influenced environments.
Child-like Maud Lewis
by Lynda Anderson, Rosedale, BC, Canada
Child-like painter Maude Lewis of Nova Scotia also suffered a tough simple life and her paintings depicted the natural simplicity of her surroundings. She could not afford to buy paint and the town folk would drop off leftover house and boat paint at her one room house. She painted on old or unused pieces of scrap wood found or passed on to her (not fancy stretched canvas). She would stand at the side of the road with a sign selling her wares for $10.00 each. Now that she has passed on they fetch amazing prices. The conservators have taken down her home — one wall at a time — and refurbished all the art she had done on them, her stove, her breadbox, anything she could get her hands on and then put it all back together in the Halifax Art Museum. It’s a story to take a chapter from.
Art and the Maori people
by Alan Miles, Wellington, New Zealand
Here in New Zealand, the Maori certainly have faced somewhat similar issues, (including the lack of any written language until the arrival of Europeans) giving rise to a rich heritage of traditional art forms. It was the last sentence in your letter, “Art has been the prideful salvation of a people,” that got me thinking about Maori art. There has recently been a significant resurgence in Maori culture — traditions, language, and particularly art. Art is something that touches all races and backgrounds, so it has been a unifying force here in New Zealand. Art has been a significant part of recent advances in pride and independence of the Maori people. Although this change may be uncomfortable for some, ultimately it is enriching and empowering for all.
Until the development of modern air travel, New Zealand’s relative isolation from the rest of the world has given rise to some strong national traits. Certainly we are known for a “can do” attitude, and have traditionally been creative and inventive in overcoming limitations. Our artists have often developed quite independently of outside influences – style, subject and even media used have at times been unorthodox. As our society now becomes even further integrated with the traditions and cultures of the wider range of people that have come here, so our art is evolving to reflect this richness.
Hunger within the soul
by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
The Inuit live in a hostile environment and must, for their life, be covered from head to foot with thick layers of animal skins to protect them from the cold. There is nearly no skin visible except for a small area surrounding the nose and mouth. They therefore, even in a society where the stresses of everyday life may have seemed much less of an influence on their lives, were deprived of the touching of other individuals by the layers of garments. My theory is that Inuit art, which started as smaller pieces that could be concealed and carried under their clothing, in some ways provided them with the contact they required. Early Inuit were more nomadic than today and so therefore everything they valued had to be taken with them. Because of this portability factor and partially because of the absence of suitable materials such as ivory and bone and even stone, most art pieces were small in scale. The pieces were smooth and sensual and, when carried next to their abdomens under their clothing, would be kept warm to the touch. The Inuit could then reach inside their clothing whenever they wished to feel these pieces and get that warm and comforting feeling. This gave them some satisfaction. This was one way that the Inuit were able to deal with, and in many ways remain happy in, their bleak land. These beautiful forms were then much more than just sculptures to please the eye, they also fed the hunger within the soul. It was only after the contact with white men that the pieces got larger and more complex but the best still retain the beautiful, sensuous lines of their predecessors. Even carving the pieces, which involves touching the piece over and over again, can give one the same feeling of satisfaction and sense of tranquility.
by Perrin Sparks, Heriot Bay, BC, Canada
I received an e-mail from a “Michael Scott” at the following address: Michael Scott, Pochtovaya str. 26, Lugansk, 91055, Ukraine, asking (in very poor English) about purchasing my work using a credit card or money order and “would I please send him my URL so he could see more of my work.” I thought that was strange, how did he see my work in the first place if he didn’t have my URL. I told him I didn’t do credit cards and was wary of foreign money orders, but I’d look into it. I have a gallery who will sell my prints (turns out the two pieces he wants I only have prints available), but I don’t want to involve them in a scam. Are you familiar with similar requests from someone like this in the Ukraine? Maybe I’m just having growing pains adjusting to the global economy, but I’ve heard of so many scams. Suggestions?
(RG note) Thanks, Perrin. These sorts of offers arrive all the time mainly from Nigeria and London, England, but this is the first we have heard of from the Ukraine. As usual I suggest it’s a scam –and there will be complications — generally overpayment by phony banker’s draft or money order “and send me the change right away” type deal. I’ve advised everybody to simply state their price (including shipping) and explain that as there are so many scams around these days that the buyer needs to send the exact amount by cheque in the regular mail, and have them understand that you will wait until the cheque clears and you have cash in hand — often several weeks — before the art will be shipped. Honest buyers understand this caution. The other kind tries all kinds of ruses to get you to comply. They’re not interested in your art — they want your change.
Phytosanitary Certificate for art?
by Marilyn MacDonald, Sechelt, BC, Canada
A recent article in Preview, the Gallery Guide by the well known art advocate Ann Rosenberg says that all crated art must now have a valid Phytosanitary Certificate and be free from living pests. This apparently applies to the USA, Canada, Mexico and many other countries. It is referring to wooden crates and stretcher bars. It could cost the artist a great deal to have any unsold art shipped back to them. The art may even have to be destroyed. What do you think of this?
(RG note) Thanks, Marilyn. This regulation, in effect on many borders since September 30, 2003, is designed to prevent the spread of plant diseases and pests associated with agricultural products. I’ve not yet seen it applied to stretcher bars, canvas or frames. Re-used or older wooden crates with worm-holes or potential beetle infestations are the main concern. Art made from food, fecal matter or other biologically sensitive material has always been difficult to get through borders.
by Teyjah McAren, BC, Canada
Regarding what is called Support Induced Discoloration in acrylic painting, the problem with Masonite is that, if you work with a lot of Gel or Medium, before the gel or medium dries it has time to pick up the impurities from the Masonite panel and wick them to the front of the painting. This leaves a yellow tinge on the surface. A solution is to coat your Masonite board with a couple of coats of GAC 100 or GAC 700 (harder film surface) from Golden Artist Colors. These coats act as a buffer and help prevent the migration and discoloration. After these have dried, you put a couple of coats of Gesso and then do your painting. I agree that it is important to seal the back and edges as well. This should afford the maximum amount of protection.
(RG note) Thanks, Teyjah. Teyjah McAren is a Golden Working Artist, a graduate of “Golden U,” who demonstrates the virtues of Golden products.
Acrylic over oil?
by Brian Warner, Vernon, BC, Canada
Please clear up a point made by Coulter Watt in the previous clickback. In his letter Priming Department he says that acrylic can be used over oil, but not oil over acrylic. Expert and respected artists have told me that oil can be used over acrylic, but never acrylic over oil. Who is correct?
(RG note) Thanks, Brian. And thanks to all the others who noticed this and protested. Actually, Coulter is right. If an oil surface is prepared properly, acrylic with a proper amount of medium stays put on thoroughly dry oil paintings. Oils need to have any varnishes removed — and should be lightly roughed up with fine steel wool or other abrasive. You might note that the medium of choice for repairing certain kinds of damage on old oil paintings is acrylic fillers and acrylic paints. Coulter Watt also notes, “Archival Varnish for oils is an acrylic varnish, too. It can be removed for restoration purposes as well as being a good protector of the underlying oil painting. Here’s an interesting jumping off point, part of the Gamblin site: Working with oil painting mediums We need to be students, no matter how developed our painting skills may be.”
Finding motivation again
by Gayle Hookerman
I never would have known about these letters if it wasn’t for a good friend of mine who died last year from cancer. She was my creative coach. As a struggling artist I needed some stimulation to develop my inner self and find what motivated me to continue painting. My friend’s name was Sandra Nickeson. She was a very loved artist in our community — talented and full of creative ideas. I enjoy your letters because they constantly remind me of my friend — a warm and fuzzy feeling I have remembering her beauty and her love of people and the arts. If you have any ideas how to get someone motivated to get back into art I’d appreciate your opinion.
(RG note) Thanks, Gayle. Of the many ways to find motivation, one of the most effective is love. You must know that when you love something you must serve it. Something or someone. Something happens by doing some thing. Someone happens by doing it for some one. Do it for Sandra. She wants you to.
Egalieres Apres – Midi
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Josefina Aguirre of Mexico who wrote, “Sometimes I have tried to paint on board but it is not the same.” (RG note) Thanks, Josefina. Painters continue to write every day and tell of their stretched-canvas preference.
And also Bob Posliff of Brampton, ON, Canada who wrote, “I met a carver in Inuvik who is given a new Mercedes every year as a signing bonus to commit his work to a southern gallery. He is delighted by his good fortune.”
And also Margaret Neerhout of Portland, OR, USA who wrote, “I’ve noticed that Inuit paintings and prints seldom shows borders, which must be like their great white spaces, unconfined, unrestricted.” (RG note) Thanks, Margaret. Yes, the use of vignette, popular among the Inuit, gives the feeling of emergence, as a figure appearing out of nowhere.
And also Alice Ann Noel of Bowling Green, KY, USA who wrote, “I am facing death soon with cancer. Your quote at the end of your letter is very powerful to me. I want to remember it.” (RG note) Thanks, Alice Ann. We are deeply sorry to hear of your circumstances, and I’m sure you have the sympathy and understanding of your fellow travellers. Many artists write to say they appreciate the quotes we manage to find in our Resource of Art Quotations. This one seemed to be particularly poignant for many, and we appreciate those who wrote to let us know. Your note reminded me of visiting an Inuit home in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT some years ago. The man had recently lost both his mother and his son. We sat together and looked at the floor for some time. Finally, he said, “I’m remembering that we know a lot about death in this place.”