Squeezing Money From Stone

As the pioneers of Inuit carving pass on, many worry about the new crop of artists that is churning out ubiquitous polar bears and souvenirs for quick money

“POLAR BEARS ARE KILLING ME,” says Bill Nasogaluak. The 53-year-old Inuit artist recently left Yellowknife to escape a five-inch-high stone bear – the bane of his career. A carver for 20 years, Nasogaluak now lives near Toronto, closer to high-end art dealers who will buy his expressive, unconventional sculptures. His works depict ancient legends and vent social issues, but, as he puts it, “they couldn’t compete with a $200 polar bear.”

A few thousand kilometres due north, in the Baffin Island community of Cape Dorset, you can find Johnny Saggiatuk on most days sitting outside his parents’ house, bent over a grinder and shrouded in gusts of stone dust. He’ll be carving his trademark walking polar bear, one of three or four he bangs out each week. Like Nasogaluak, 41-year-old Saggiatuk has been carving for about 20 years, but he sticks to bears because he’s good at them, and he knows they’ll sell to the community’s two co-ops or directly to “white people” around town. Since learning from his father as a teen, Saggiatuk has been carving “to make money for gas, ammo and food,” he says, because “there aren’t enough jobs in town.”

He’s not alone in Cape Dorset, where some 23 percent of residents call themselves artists. And though considered an artist hotbed, Dorset isn’t unique among Arctic communities. Few peoples depend on art as much as Nunavut’s Inuit. Some 4,000 people in a territory of 30,000 earn at least part of their living producing arts and crafts, the majority of which are affordable souvenir carvings of predictable Arctic icons. A slim minority of carvers, like Nasogaluak, create for the fine-art market, usually larger, more thoughtful sculptures. As the stable of pioneering Inuit artists dies, many worry about the new crop – young carvers who produce potboilers for quick money.

This isn’t a new complaint. People have been bemoaning the commercialization of Inuit art since its well-engineered beginnings, when a merry band of bureaucrats, Hudson’s Bay managers and a plucky art school grad coalesced to create an economy for the impoverished peoples of Arctic Canada. And so far, dancing bears have done well by them.

THE DANCING POLAR BEAR is the much-maligned symbol of souvenir Inuit art, an often-produced theme for the masses selling amid disparate Arctic-labelled trinkets at Northern airport gift shops. You can be sure that a bear will not be dancing at Marion Scott, a Vancouver fine Inuit art gallery. No matter the size or quality of the bear, “if it’s made for the market, it’s a souvenir,” says Robert Kardosh, the gallery’s assistant director. From a family of Inuit art dealers around since the industry’s infancy, Kardosh worries about an unimaginative generation of young carvers using their talents just on bears. “The vast majority of art today is soulless and slick,” he says. “A lot of young people today are exposed to different influences, and don’t have anything to say aesthetically or artistically.”

“I used to be like them,” says Toonoo Sharky, a 36-year-old carver from Cape Dorset. “When I was younger, I used to carve every day. I was always in a rush. But I’ve recognized that I have to take more time and work on the details.” Today Sharky’s mixed-media spirit figures and birds have the attention of the fine-art world and he is one of the most sought-after young artists. “I see lots of young carvers doing mostly inukshuks and polar bears because they need the money. I don’t think it’s good.” Sharky picked up carving when he was 11 by watching his grandfather. By the time he was 16, he was already making enough money to support himself. Today, even with a rising reputation and the backing of high-art dealers, Sharky isn’t wooed by the prestige; he carves for his family in the way his grandfather carved for his.

“Most artists in the North don’t look at art-making in the kinds of romantic ways that we do,” says Norman Vorano, curator of contemporary Inuit art at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. “In the south we have this gallery system that depends upon a whole class of artists who have gone to university and art school … whereas in the North art is taught from father to son. So sometimes it really confounds our understanding of high and low art.”

Feheley Fine Arts is a narrow, brick townhouse-like gallery set among a row of posh boutiques in Toronto’s swank Yorkville neighbourhood. Owner Patricia Feheley sells only the finest contemporary Inuit art – some sculptures to the tune of $50,000. She notes “the market-drive has always been pretty strong for Inuit artists; they make no bones about why they carve. But down here (in Toronto) an artist would give you some poetic explanation.” Although Feheley displays the best and boldest in Inuit art, she won’t deny a spot on her shelves for a dancing polar bear. “I sell good ones. I don’t limit subject wise, I limit quality-wise,” she says, adding that her one lonely dancing bear has been on the shelf for six months. “Maybe it’s suffering from prejudice,” she jokes. But, since the early years of the Inuit art industry, it was the bear buyers loved.

In the mid-1920s, the Canadian government first mulled the idea of an Arctic handicrafts industry, a means for Inuit to “develop themselves by practicing the handicrafts which nature has fitted them.” But nothing much happened until after the war, when white-fox fur prices plunged and economic prospects for Inuit trappers were grim. In a stroke of serendipity, around the same time a Toronto artist named James Houston was on a sketching trip along the east shore of Hudson Bay. He fell in love with the people and their small, striking sculptures. And he recognized an inherent knack many of them had for carving, a skill honed over generations making tools with whatever animal parts were around.

Houston was bright, eager and knew what Canada’s art-buying public wanted. He was just the man for Ottawa’s daunting task. With generous government funding, the Canadian Handicraft Guild hired Houston to go north to encourage and direct a craft industry. In 1949 he flew to several settlements east and west of Hudson Bay examining and buying carvings and dropping off cash to local trading posts so managers could continue buying. When Houston returned to Montreal, people bought up all the 1,000 pocket-sized carvings  made by their exotic fellow Canadians in the hinterland. It was the first inkling of a market.

Almost immediately industry honchos began to steer production. Houston illustrated an instructional pamphlet called Eskimo Handicrafts, suggesting the creation of “objects which are useful and acceptable to the white man” – items like cribbage boards, small figurines and model tools. But carvers soon figured out that people wanted bears, walruses, seals and depictions of traditional Inuit life.

Though Houston wanted to guide the direction of production, he was careful not to control. He also cautioned that his suggestions
“should in no way limit the Eskimo…that he should introduce new ideas.” But an early carver in Arctic Bay once recalled: “Abstract carvings were a waste of money as they didn’t represent an animal and no one could tell what they were.” In some ways, this early souvenir market hasn’t changed much. Most people still want the polar bear.

By the 1980s, sculptures were bigger and more elaborate in theme. Individuality shone, new styles were forged, celebrities emerged. Carvings sold in galleries and were identified by the artist’s name, rather than the generic “Eskimo Handicraft” label of the 1950s. A firm distinction between “high art” and “souvenir art” had solidified. Today sculptures can fetch up to $50,000 at tony art galleries, or $100 at Costco, a ubiquitous American wholesale chain that sells everything from sliced ham to all-weather tires. Inuit art is out there. But, while the highbrow market bolstered the reputation of Inuit artists – both in Canada and abroad – the majority still considered carving as simply a livelihood.

ALTHOUGH HE REFUSES TO SELL IT at his gallery, Robert Kardosh appreciates souvenir art as the lifeblood of the market, funnelling money to communities, local co-ops and artists. “There’s a place for dancing polar bears,” he says. “In Cape Dorset, souvenirs make the co-op the money it needs for infrastructure and programs for new artists. Some really talented people have emerged there because of that infrastructure.”

Jutai Toonoo is one of these artists. His eerie sculptures of piled faces and intertwined bodies sell at Canada’s best Inuit art galleries. Well represented and well known, Toonoo is still unromantic about his success and where it came from. “Everything we do is so we can eat. Inuit art has fed us when we would have had nothing whatsoever.”

Since the early days of acculturation, many wondered how a people could keep their art alive if their culture was dying. But carving became a constructive means to preserve a fading lifestyle while grappling with a new one. Creating art brought about cultural pride and independence, jobs and an economy. It did what its early architects set out to do. Toonoo doesn’t have to ply his trade with souvenir art, but he has no problem with those who do. “There’s so many kids doing the souvenir inukshuks and stuff, and I think it’s a good  thing. I think people who buy Inuit art can differentiate between souvenirs and what’s coming from our hearts.”