Art is woven into the fabric of Inuit culture. For centuries, we have used natural materials collected through hunting and gathering. Materials such as bone, hides, wood and steatite were, and are, still widely used and continue to be an important part of what makes Inuit art unique.
I grew up in a small community on the north coast of Labrador called Postville. With a population of 180 people, it is the smallest community in Nunatsiavut and like most places in the North, it is isolated. I have been carving since my early teenage years, starting with wood as my primary material. I would run down the dirt road to the workshop of an elder named Fred Decker, who was known locally for his dog team carvings, to watch and learn. I can’t remember where I acquired my first piece of steatite, but at the time, there were no artists in town working in it and no proper tools to work with; I had teach myself how to carve it. With no quarry nearby, it is difficult and expensive to get good quality stone here. Despite the lack of guidance, resources, or market to sell my art, I continued carving, and through trial and error, I began to get the hang of it.
Since the 1950s and 60s, the absence of arts infrastructure and federal funding for Nunatsiavummiut artists has left us to fend for ourselves. As recently as 1991 we were not permitted to use the Igloo Tag to market our art as “authentic” Inuit art—a trademark I became aware of only a few months ago. Although we face challenges in growing an arts industry, it has not diminished our desire to create. I think this is a trait all Inuit share: a need to create things with our hands. Recently, one of my carvings was chosen to be included in SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, the Inuttitut term meaning “to be visible” is fitting because for too long Nunatsiavummiut have been unseen in the art world. To be seen and heard is desired by all artists; to have their art valued, this is the driving force behind creativity.
The internet has also brought visibility and opportunities for artists. Sites such as Iqaluit Auction Bids on Facebook have become useful tools for me to sell my unique style of jewellery made from ivory, baleen, seashells and muskox horn. I still carve with steatite, but rarely, given how difficult it is to get, and there remains no market to sell it in Postville. But a quality every artist should have is the ability to adapt. Jewellery has become my new passion, and the growth in popularity for what I’m doing has sparked a new energy in me to create. Even though things are not ideal, art will always be a part of my life, and hopefully, in the future, Inuit artists in Labrador will continue to gain ground and respect in the world of Inuit art.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.