Inuit art


Dear Artist,

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:


bone, stone, baleen 
sculpture, 15 x 8 x 5 inches
by Karoo Ashevak (1940–1974)

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.

Karoo-Ashevak_Figure with Birds_1972

“(Fantasy) Figure with Birds” 1972
whalebone, antler, walrus ivory, stone, and wood
sculpture, 48.5 x 47 x 26.5 cm
by Karoo Ashevak

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.


“Figure” 1974
whalebone and black stone
sculpture, 16.1 x 17.4 x 4.1 inches
by Karoo Ashevak

Best regards,


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?

This letter was originally published as “Inuit art” on November 24, 2006.


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“When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams to reality.” (Paul Kauffman)



  1. What a beautiful and respectful discussion of the Inuit art! There is such incredible knowledge within Indigenous cultures, unfortunately often discounted and/or trivialized by non-Indigenous people. For years, I’ve received this newsletter and enjoyed Robert’s thoughts and now Sara’s. At my suggestion, my father, a former artist and literature professor, also receives and values it.

    • Marilyn Bielstein on

      I agree Alison. These letters and thoughts of Robert and now Sara are invaluable and encouraging to me as well. I have been following for a few years now, and look forward to the arrival of each one.

  2. Could the second paragraph of this letter be MORE racist? I don’t see how!

    I haven’t read the rest of the letter because I am so shocked and appalled.

    It was bad enough the first time around (which I didn’t see, I’ve only been reading the letters for 5 years or so), I cannot believe you reprinted this!

    • Most people find what they’re looking for. Many years ago, I worked with Eskimo patients (then known by that name) in a TB hospital. I was struck by their acceptance of the limitations imposed by their situation, and by the lack of materials with which to create their art. But they produced beautiful, detailed sculptures in wood, as that was what was available, and when it became possible to bring soapstone from the north, readily transferred their skills . And always with joyful acceptance.

    • Sharon Tillinghast on

      I find the “big stones” are cathartic; while the small ones are not worth mentioning.
      I am not offended, nor do I find a reason to “look” for shining examples of racism.
      They are everywhere but often times within each race we see a glimpse of how
      Tribal peoples or minorities see themselves. This is not “racism” but another opportunity to see and learn.
      Thanks for sharing the second time Sara.

        • “The natural, childlike nature of the artists”. ,,, is this the offending line you drew your conclusion from,,, PLEASE read it slowly,,, OF THE ARTIST does not even come close to suggest a racist slur to the artist or an entire people,,, or is it this line and the next,,, The Eskimo are playful. Traditionally, they met the stresses of long winters in close quarters with games and amusements. ,,, I sure hope they are playful and can find amusements in the close quarters,,, if your gonna throw that stone ,,, here catch,,,

    • Reading to this point could give you cause to wonder but I think if you read it again and all the way through you might have a different response. A charge of racism is a rock that many well-intentioned folk hurl at others. Perhaps there is some cultural insensitivity in the comment about the generalized nature of Inuks, but I doubt you would call the author out for her comments in later paragraphs about the brutality that has been suffered, although this too is a generalization. It is a tough situation and I’m grateful to Sara for bringing this art forward. And to answer your question, I would say yes, there could be a much more hateful racism shown – I’ve heard worse many times. I’m glad you haven’t.

    • I don’t get it,,, what part is offencive,,, Have you ever met an Inue,,, have you ever even been to the far north,,,the person who wrote it has and is relaying thier memory as they saw and understood their observation and expience,,, in five years of reading these letters is this the first time anyone felt this way ,,, I ask because in five years thats a lot of oportunity to be racist ,,, I expect no one has,,, so why sling this stone now,,, could it be over sensitivety to an issue that doesn’t exist ,,, Thanks for sharing,,, everyone,,,

    • It is unfortunate choice of letters to reprint. While the images are wonderful the comments are patronizing and stereotyping.

    • It is easy to confuse the meanings or connotations of individual words. The comment from Kit seem to be a reaction to the word “childish” rather than “childlike” as Robert actually wrote. Look at the paragraph again. Without misunderstanding the word “childlike” there is nothing to offend.

      Online dictionaries are available:
      Childlike: “having good qualities associated with a child.”
      Childish: ” having or showing the unpleasant qualities (such as silliness or lack of maturity) that children often have.”

      If one had read the whole letter, one would see that the author expresses admiration for these ethnic artists. Essentially, Robert clarifies what he means by “childlike” and it is consistent with “having good qualities.”

    • Kathleen Garcelon on

      Kit Lang, you are right.

      I lived in Alaska for 23 years. I learned at least a little about the native Alaskans while living there. I’ve seen ancient to modern carvings. More often than not the carvings contain life spirit—a claim that may be foolish to a lot of people—the carvings exude an “other life” that has to come not only from the artist but also from those people who have touched the artist’s heart. I wish I had the words to properly describe the essence of every piece I saw.

      The carvings so often revealed a greatness of spirit in the artist that, to me, included all Inuits—ALL the people, regardless of an individual’s talent or contribution to the group. Perhaps I read things in the carvings that weren’t entirely there but I don’t think so. It is the vastness of spirit, the encompassing of all the Inuit people that the carvings often contain and give simultaneously that is extraordinary and rare in art.

      After almost 27 years away from Alaska, my still heart surges when I recall some of the pieces I had the opportunity to see. Feeling as I do about Inuit carving/art, the author of this article did seem disrespectful in his writing. Maybe he simply was not one of the fortunate ones whose heart was changed—a little or a lot—by the Inuit spirit.

  3. I lived in Anchorage, Alaska from 1980-1987. During that time, I listened to many stories from Alaskans and these people loved to share with hearts wide open. Although I was too busy earning a living while raising two sons, many of my friends were native Alaskan and were always generous, kind and joyful. It was only when I left Alaska and came home to Minnesota that I felt a ‘culture shock’. Nobody wanted or had time to visit, you must call first, everyone wanted privacy, didnt’ have time to tell stories, nor cared about any stories. Life is fast paced, dog-eat-dog, stepping over others to get ahead. I miss Alaska, the Last Frontier and like Jack London, maybe the call of the wild is still calling to me….

    • My husband and I spent two weeks in Alaska in 2004 and felt like we were in another country. Not only the vast stretches of land but the appreciation for nature in its natural state. I treasure the simplicity of the sculptures I bought at the museum in Anchorage – a sleek polished sea lion with a minimum of detail but perfect in shape, carved from a mottled green stone; a walrus shaped from a porous lightweight bone; a graceful curving whale in wood; a green jade bear with a pink coral salmon in its jaws. All proudly signed by each artist. I visited with an Inuit artist in his studio and he spoke about his style of representing the native creatures. It was an inspiring experience. We left with great admiration and respect for the native Alaskans.

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