A place for art


Dear Artist,

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.


“Enchanted Owl”
1960 stonecut on paper
by Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013)

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.


“Innukshuk Builders”
1968 stonecut on paper
by Pitseolak Ashoona (1904 or ’07 or ’08 – 1983)

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.


“Shaman’s Dwelling”
1975 stonecut and stencil
by Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1992)



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)


“Caribou Family”
2001 stonecut on paper
Kananginak Pootoogook (1935 – 2010)

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.


“Resplendent Owls”
2005 stonecut Edition: 50
by Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013)

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.

If you find these letters beneficial, please share and encourage your friends to subscribe. The Painter’s Keys is published primarily by a team of volunteers, with a goal to reach as many creative people as possible. Thanks for your friendship. Subscribe here!

“Well, the whole world opened up for me and, I thought, anything could happen from this.” (James A. Houston)



  1. Norine Spurling on

    I find these letters so exciting to receive. They don’t always meet my specific interests, but they help to enlarge my view of the Art World, which is where I live!

    Thank you Sara for continuing this.

    Norine Spurling

  2. We read a lot about reproduced art images in the responses to the last letter from Robert’s archive. There was much ado about what is or isn’t a print. This letter from Sara is about PRINTS. Big difference and these, as the letter more than implies, are truly artist pulled prints. Good!

  3. steve chmilnitzky on

    Now Sara in many other communities along both sides of Hudson bay the natives were given the opportunity to also express themselves with their art. I was fortunate to work in the printshop at Povungnituk Quebec for a few years (1964-1965). Almost everyone was an artist and were uninhibited and willing to convey a story or image as a stone print. Here was a place where people were pure, honest and heartfelt accepting….everyone was family. Have a nice day!

    • Steve, Did you know the artist Pitseolak? I have one of her prints “Fisherwoman” that was purchased for me by friends who went to Baffin Island about 1967.

  4. What a wonderful film! I used to live in Churchill, Manitoba and my work took me to the Arctic. I did not paint then, but appreciated art around me and started collecting Inuit soapstone carvings.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and those of the people in the film.

  5. Sara, Thank you so much for continuing your father’s columns. Our late calligraphy teacher, Char Cruze, introduced us to “Arctic art” and it has fascinated me ever since. This column is wonderful, from the art work to the film. A heartfelt thanks!

  6. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Sara. So lovely. I look forward to these newsletters very much. You have the same gift of words and instincts for investigation of thoughts as well as visuals as your father did.

    Unrelated note:
    Could you post some of your work and talk about your thoughts on what your goals, struggles, and final feelings about the work are? Sorry if you have done this before and I missed it.

  7. Thank you Sara for sharing all of these posts on Painter’s Keys. They are always enriching and inspiring, and I look forward to receiving them. Thanks again!!!

    • I love the work of the Cape Dorset artists. I am determined that I will one day own a work by Pudlo Pudlat! I had forgotten the story of the tobacco pack. Thank you for a great letter

  8. Sara:

    Great letter and a great video! You have to wonder at the miracle that brought James Houston to Cape Dorset and what happened after his arrival. And what goes on to this day.

  9. After watching the beautiful film on Kenojuak, I followed it with “I Paint like Andrew Quappik”. He paints/carves his paintings on soapstone and was showing a class of young students who then in turn made their own. Such enthusiasm and joy abounded. The Inuit people are themselves a beautiful depiction of symbolic cultural teachings as their joy really comes through in their art. Would that we ALL could be that joyful with the process we call art.

  10. Thank you for such a wonderful write-up on the Cape Dorset prints. You mentioned “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.”

    Currently, Inuit art have enjoyed a successful auction results in Canada. Of these sales, none of the artists/printmakers see any cent of it because we do not have the Artist Resale Rights in Canada. At the point of initial sales, the true value is not always recognized. It is only at auctions that the true value is recognized, largely due to the artists’ dedication to their craft and their reputation that they have built on.

    For example, the featured print in this article, Enchanted Owl, by Inuit artist, Kenojuak Ashevak, was sold in 1960 for $24. It was later resold for $58,650. Ashevak got nothing from the resale.

    CARFAC and RAAV has a campaign to bring the Artist’s Resale Right to Canada, and would ask of you and your Canadian readers to write to their MPs asking them to support our initiative. For more information, please visit http://www.carfac.ca/initiatives/help-bring-the-artists-resale-right-to-canada/

    Again, thank you so much for such a wonderful article, and I hope you would share this information with your readers.

    Laurie Landry
    Member, CARFAC BC

  11. Sara, you have created and also re-issued many wonderful columns since your father died, but this one is absolutely superb!!! Thank you for taking the effort to create it, including the stunning art works and the link to the video. You blessed my soul today. These are the kinds of stories that make struggling as a full-time artist worthwhile.

  12. Jeanette Rybinsky on

    There is a wonderful collection of Inuit art at The Dennos Museum Center on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College, located at 1701 East Front Street, Traverse City, Michigan.


  13. Thank you for a wonderful article, Sara. Makes me wonder how much has changed in 50 + years since the film was made. (‘m thinking I won’t complain anymore about the winters in Maine.)

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