Here in the Mackenzie Delta the wildlife enriches — Arctic terns, Loons, Scoters, Trumpeter swans. The tree-line ends and the tundra begins. At a deserted place called Reindeer Station where the reindeer experiment flourished in the early part of last century, we remain only briefly — repelled by a thundering herd of mosquitoes. We pass volcano-like “pingos” and move out into the shallow Beaufort Sea. Here and there Inuit in small metal boats dash back and forth hunting Beluga whales. We shut off our motor and hear them before we see them. It’s a powerful, uncannily human gasp for breath as they briefly surface. The Inuit hunting method is to artfully drive in a harpoon with an attached float to stop them from diving — then shoot them a couple of times with a rifle. Successful hunters head for the village of Tuktoyaktuk with their catch tied alongside.
“Should we be killing whales?” I ask 70 year old Laura Panatalok when we are safely ashore.
“Every family needs to survive the coming winter,” she says. “It’s how we live. You have your way of living and we have ours.” I’m looking at the fresh blood and guts spilling as the women flense the animals on the beach. They have a use for virtually everything except the large intestine. The prize is maktuk — a delicacy that looks like square wads of lard mounted on white leather. A few feet away my modest sketches — records of a gentle travel — are on the bow of our boat. These will be exchanged down south for someone’s cash, I’m thinking. I will be able to pay some invisible person to butcher my steers; to kill and pluck my chickens.
A little girl with a chunk of blubber in one hand and a lollipop in the other is looking at my paintings. “What are those good for?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say.
PS: “Art, being quite useless, except to the soul, is the highest of all human endeavors.” (Bruce M. Rogers)
Esoterica: We are all hunters and gatherers. When you feel Beluga blood sticking to your gumboots you tend to have an idea of your place in the order of things. And in more ways than one you know you are not very far along.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Sophie Marnez, Lyons, France
I have no idea what “pingos” are, let alone know how to translate them. Another couple of trips on that river, and you speak fluent Inuit… and you’ll have to change your translator! I’m kidding. I’m alone in my room, in front of my laptop and thinking of your adventures slipping in beluga guts makes me measure the cosmic distance there is between people living regular lives and the ones who just open their eyes on life wherever and whenever that can be. The day after to morrow, I’m off to the Alps. The letters in French may be delayed!
(RG note) Pingos are a geological feature unique to the arctic. They are small mountains, often several hundred feet high, which appear here and there on the tundra and are caused by the buildup of permafrost ice under the surface over a long period of time. In some places the Inuit put doors on the sides, hollow out icy caverns, and use them for summer refrigeration and long-term freezing. It’s estimated that the Inuit have been using this kind of refrigeration for 7000 years.
Dick Stollery, NYC, USA
We may be sophisticated and “highly evolved” in the way we earn our daily bread — but we artists have an obligation to stay in touch with the basic forms that make the family of man the proper subject of art. Writers and artists are the eyes and ears of all civilizations and it is through us that the greater world can be brought into focus for all. We are only limited by our imaginations.
Elzire, Princeton, MA, USA
When I read Mary Ann Mountain’s letter in the last responses I was jolted, and a sad vision of the future struck me. While it is so exciting for us to have the world opened up to us, learning about other cultures, travelling, so readily from one and reading of others, my fear is that 100 years from now, we will slowly meld together, losing our exciting separate identities and cultures. While location and climate will force some things to be separate, how sad it would be to lose the total uniqueness one finds in travel to another culture. How sad, to get there and find a Micky D’s or a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Hard to sit down
I have relatives I correspond with via email that live in Finland. What a different lifestyle my cousin there has in a village of 600 people. Their mornings start very early with tending their cows, chickens and what have you before sending kids to school. She lives on a small inlet lake and their house is very modest. I envy her at times that her life doesn’t seem to be on fast forward like mine. This has been a very rough year for me and inspiration is not coming easy. My father passed away last Fall and I just spent the last week in Michigan with my mother since my stepfather passed on the 21st. My mother just turned 80 and is telling me she will be fine living in the middle of nowhere and not driving. I’m hoping she will come to visit and maybe rethink this idea that she needs to be around family. It seems our adult lives are becoming more complicated as we get older. I am finding it hard to sit down and concentrate on doing a painting. Maybe its time for me to schedule a sabbatical.
Russell W. McCrackin, Corvallis, OR, USA
I can understand your answer to the little girl when she asked “What are they good for?” You are correct in one context, but very wrong in another. Paintings (not all, but some) are very valuable when they give pleasure to the owner looking at them. And the thought that I am giving pleasure to others with my effort is worth more than the monetary pleasure that lasted only a little while for me.
Alice Smith, Kent Island, Maryland, USA
I doubt that you have been harmed in any real way by someone else using acrylics on canvas as you do. It has all been done — so what’s left? It can only be small variations, twists and turns on what has been done before. When I studied Impressionism I found that although the French can claim the name for the movement that that style of painting was simultaneously happening all over the world. Did the fact that the French coined the name for the movement give them the right to go out and shoot the Italians, British or anyone else that was doing the ‘same thing’ with the same materials in the same fashion? For the record, I am not a ‘copyist.’ My work is based entirely my own vision. However I would imagine that somewhere there is someone who looks like me and another someone who paints just like me, that’s life and I accept it. As for the rest of you who can’t accept that I say that your egos and insecurity need adjustment. If want to base your life on being ‘unique’ you are going to have to use something other than paint and canvas. And by the way, did you invent paint or canvas? Should we all start painting with various shades of mud now that bright colors are being appreciated? Or eliminate the effects of light, now that one artist out there is claiming to be the ‘painter of light’? Of course I think ‘he’ should be known as the ‘master of pink sky’s and the king of saccharine’ but nobody asked me, however I have to believe he laughs all the way to the bank. I say, get over it, get a grip and live and let live! True imitators are always seen for what they are in the end in any event, as the cream always rises to the top.
Harold H Horwood, UK
Thank you for taking a hard stand on the club plagiarism issue. The artists who are most in favor of laissez faire tend to be the most imitative. Jurors these days have a particularly difficult time figuring out who the originators of a style or a process are. This is particularly true for jurors from another area. Juries ought always to include someone from the locality in order to point out the imitators. We are talking hard core imitation here — not just influence, which is inevitable, but the juror homework must be done.
Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
It’s incredible and its very exciting, the girl carrying the maktuk is seemingly out of touch with our system but in fact right in touch! As we humans assume the top of the food chain we make food out of all below us and manipulate our talents to produce worth. Its corollary that some of us will change the top of the food chain so that it no longer is based on the food unit. Some humans are always creating and finding new ways to express feelings, needs and, of course, value. Artists paint and exchange paintings for money which they then can exchange for food, or if they wish, directly for food. That evolution is what Darwin was able to show us on the Galapagos Islands, we even more than the finches have evolved to fill a niche so that we not only survive but we prosper. Our ability to change that system of exchange is what makes the human race unique. That little girl is proof. It’s exciting to be reminded that our place is constantly evolving — but there are still vestiges of ourselves that permit us to be one with the natural sequence. Artists make a living exchanging something that has no value for something that might — and others exist doing the same things man has been doing since Lucy first walked here nearly three million years ago.
Hugh Brody’s north
Hugh Brody was being interviewed today and he spoke of his travels in the north, particularly the High Arctic. He spent time with the Dene and Inuit and also lived among the Beaver Indians of northern British Columbia. He was also promoting his latest book “The Other Side of Eden”. His other book “Maps and Dreams” gives a fascinating portrayal of these people historically, economically and socially. When he made the comparison between hunters and gatherers and artists my ears perked up. He claimed that each person in their own way sought out and retrieved the most palatable to be put it to the best use.
What I am is what I paint
Judy Aldridge, Victoria, B.C., Canada
I am an artist and a vegetarian. I feel most people are addicted to meat like other things in our society. I was a big meat eater at one time. Not because I really liked meat but to change was to buck the society that brought me up with the notion that I could not live a healthy life without it. Not only do I feel healthy I also feel I have integrity in my eating habits as they now fit in with my beliefs of not killing or using others for my benefit. I feel so much stronger now that I am living this belief and not just mouthing it. I feel this comes out in my paintings also. How could it not? What I am is what I paint.
P.S. It’s not invisible people killing and butchering those steers and chickens. They are real people like you and me.
How do you send my letters?
Brian Wallace, Perth, Australia
I can’t figure out how you get an email letter from a remote place in the northern arctic to my inbox — and on-time.
(RG note) The letters are written in the usual fashion — these days often in the cramped quarters of the “dog house” on the boat. The laptop can be recharged from the boat’s motor. When the letters and clickbacks have been figured out Richard Thompson sets up on the boat’s roof and connects my laptop to our Globalstar satellite telephone. Transmissions are somehow made into the marvelous sky and then to Ken Hu and Bryce Jackson in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and half an hour later they go out to you in Perth. Thus we send and receive. We check our email once a day. The farther we are from civilization the better the satellite connection seems to work.