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.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“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)

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