Known for “making big things little and little things big,” Couzyn van Heuvelen’s preoccupation with scale, as well as materials and fabrication techniques, is driven by an observational instinct that is both decidedly personal and also deeply cultural.
Here, IAQ Editorial Director Britt Gallpen speaks with the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award longlister about his fascination with tools, the impulse to revisit them time and again and what can be gleaned by looking through new perspectives.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Avataq (2022) Nylon fabric and helium Height variable, 35' circumference COURTESY CITY OF TORONTO © THE ARTIST
A beloved work, and arguably the artist’s most recognizable form, van Heuvelen’s Avataq—ongoing in various configurations and scales since 2016—have catapulted him to public attention. Most recently installed as part of Toronto Nuit Blanche 2022, this work was reimagined as both a giant 30-foot inflated balloon as well as in a variety of configurations of human-scaled multiples along the city’s waterfront as well as floating in an atrium at Scarborough Town Centre. “As an object, the avataq is very tied to Inuit ingenuity,” explains the artist. Avataq evokes histories of Inuit printmaking practices through the use of screenprinting while winking at modern art's most notorious silver balloons—those employed by Andy Warhol in his 1966 installation Silver Clouds.
For van Heuvelen, these sculptures are fundamentally an invitation to the various publics that encounter them for dialogue, shared understandings and a chance for reflection—literal and metaphorical. “Why do we make things monumental?” asks van Heuevelen, when speaking about his proclivity for scale. “It's because they're important, they deserve a monument. That, in turn, continues to build the narrative about what's important.”
Couzyn van Heuvelen Arctic Char Steaks (2021) Steel 27.9 × 45.7 × 15.2 cmCOURTESY VISUAL ARTS CENTRE OF CLARINGTON PHOTO LAURA FINDLAY © THE ARTIST
Arctic Char Steaks
“Each of them is a really big chunk of solid steel and about 205 pounds for each steak,” explains the artist when asked about his 2021 work Arctic Char Steaks, featured in From the earth we grow at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington. One of three artists invited to create new site-specific public artworks for the exhibition, van Heuvelen opted to create a piece that would be responsive to its local environment with atmospheric conditions oxidizing the untreated steel over time. “There was a really nice moment in time where the top of the work became bright orange so it looked like the animal that it was representing,” van Heuevelen recalls. “They'll continue to rust and change colour. I like that they're kind of slowly changing.”
One among a number of recent public art projects, Arctic Char Steaks creates space in an urban Southern context to foreground issues of cultural heritage, food sovereignty and food security among Inuit communities—issues that were made more acute throughout the pandemic.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Sealskin Rug (2021) Wool yarn 384 x 260 cmCOLLECTION WINNIPEG ART GALLERY-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO SERGE GUMENYUK © THE ARTIST
“I really wanted to be a part of INUA (2021). It felt like a really big deal,” recalls van Heuvelen when asked about his commission, Sealskin Rug (2021), created for the inaugural exhibition at Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq. “I can't remember how far into lockdown we were [when I was working on this piece], but I was really missing family, missing home and missing the food. I was also spending a lot of time indoors.” The resulting soft sculpture created with a rug hooking gun spans an impressive 12 by 8 feet in all.
“I think it's obvious in my work that I have an imagination about really large creatures,” explains the artist. “I thought a plush rug would also provide comfort and support, especially for elderly members of my family to be able to sit on the ground but in comfort. I was imagining this kind of magical moment where we can all be together and share food and share each other's company.”
Couzyn van Heuvelen Nitsiit (2017) Mixed materials Dimensions variableCOURTESY SHERIDAN COLLEGE TONI HAFKENSCHEID © THE ARTIST
A colourful celebration of cultural and daily life, van Heuvelen’s Nitsiit (2017) series, as installed in the Creativity Commons of Sheridan College’s Hazel McCallion Campus in Mississauga, ON, recasts the role of viewer to that of prey, while transforming the glass atrium into a massive fish bowl. “Those types of spaces have that effect already, I find,” explains the artist. “Especially behind glass in a brand-new building. I had the opportunity to create a work that was viewed from below, which puts you in the perspective of the fish. Even just to imagine that a fish has aesthetic appreciation, I think the work changes your perspective in a few ways.”
The collection of life sized lures—each is approximately the length of a torso—pays homage to traditionally carved objects in wood and bone as well as contemporary cast lures in neon plastic and shiny aluminum. “Both felt important to me,” says van Heuvelen on the choice to reinterpret and reimagine old and new forms while utilizing innovative materials and fabrication techniques. “That's my approach to making. I'm going to think about what materials I have access to, what tools, what my method is going to be and that will be the form it takes.”
Couzyn van Heuvelen Stone Qamutiik (2019) Soapstone and polypropylene rope 243.8 x 91.4 x 33 cm © THE ARTIST
“I think the reason I keep coming back to the qamutik is because there's more to think about,” answers van Heuvelen when asked about his interest in regularly revisiting this archetype of Inuit culture. “Qamutiik are such a common form in Inuit art, in stone carving—especially in miniatures. I was thinking about these small stone qamutiik, and about how they're a miniaturization of a tool or a method of transportation, a common sight. I wanted to see that brought back to a one to one scale. I was interested in what happens when we take an object and make it miniature—it feels precious—and then what happens when we bring it back up in size, so it's like a monumental version of a miniature. In the end, it's just a one to one to one to one replica.”
Read more about the other longlisted artists
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.