After nearly 50 years working with Inuit art, gallerist and former IAF board member Patricia “Pat” Feheley was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada this year by Governor General Mary Simon for her long-standing contributions to the Canadian art scene, and for her promotion of Inuit art and culture. The IAQ spoke with Feheley to learn the ins and outs of her career over the years, and how working collaboratively with Inuit artists has made all the difference.
Britt Gallpen, Editorial Director: How did you get started working with Inuit art?
Pat Feheley: Well, that was actually just my childhood. My father was one of the early collectors of Inuit art. He started with La Guilde in the early 1950s and was a great champion of it, and he took me up to the Arctic in the late 1960s when I was a teen. At that point, he was serving on the original Canadian Eskimo Arts Council and he also was putting together the TD Bank Collection for 1967. So I was surrounded by Inuit art.
It was really just environmental, I never intended to actually end up with it [as a career]. I just became very much in demand once I graduated university—my master’s was in Renaissance and Baroque iconography with a museology component, but I had knowledge of Inuit art and there were no Inuit art books in those days, there was very little research, and very little photographic reference. There were [George] Swinton's books, but that was pretty much it [except for] obviously, catalogues and ephemera like that. So when TD Bank wanted to re-catalogue their collection, bring it in from around the world and do some deaccessioning, they hired me. That was a baptism in Inuit art.
BG: That was your first big project out of school?
PF: Actually, no. From 1974–1975 as part of the museological component of my master's I was hired by the Ontario Science Centre on a four-month contract to propose a hands-on Inuit science and technology exhibition. Four people were hired out of the master's program at the University of Toronto, including myself, one for each of the four areas: Northwest Coast, Plains, Woodland and Inuit.
BG: Do you think working in that way—travelling yourself and visiting communities, having conversations with artists and makers, having a commitment to bringing artists down for opportunities and making them feel very comfortable and at home—prepared you for your work today?
PF: Yeah, very much so. From travelling up there and having meetings with people and getting comfortable going into people's homes, to staying in weird places. In what was Broughton Island and is now Qikiqtuarjuaq, NU, we actually slept on the co-op store floor because there was no hotel. It really did immerse me in being comfortable up North, and knowing what to do down here to make people comfortable.
BG: How did you evolve from these early curatorial projects with different institutions, research projects, writing projects, and then into the gallery?
PF: I took care of the TD Bank Collection for many years until the late 1990s–2000, doing travelling exhibitions, educational things and working with their Chief Interior Designer to create the Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art—I actually got permission from human resources to train bank employees as docents. As a freelancer, I did exhibitions of Inuit art in Stockholm, Sweden, for Denver, Colorado, and curated a number of local corporate collections of Inuit art.
By that point, Budd [my father] had a private business dealing art and talked me into helping him catalogue and get it going. I began working for the gallery and then he decided to sell it. I took it over, consigned the inventory, and opened it to the public. That was my first gallery: second floor, Avenue Road. I took it over in 1992, and we moved to Hazelton Avenue in 1998, which was much larger and had a main floor space.
Annie Pootoogook Group Portrait (Pat, Annie and Nancy) (2006) Coloured pencil and ink 22 x 12 in Courtesy Feheley Fine Arts Reproduced with Permission Dorset Fine Arts © the Artist
BG: What were the first public exhibitions that you mounted?
PF: I think the first major one I did was Osuitok Ipeelee, followed soon thereafter by Kenojuak Ashevak and Joanassie Igiu, who at that point were living and carving together. I actually did a serious catalogue for the Ashevak/Igiu show. We didn't have websites at that point, so we sent out newsletters.
The response was really good. This catalogue was a very beautiful and expensive little publication, and I think that grabbed a lot of people's attention. Then people just started coming in, because we were advertising everywhere from The Globe and Mail to enRoute magazine. I learned a lot from both of those exhibitions: you can't just say, ‘here, come and buy this,’ you actually have to position it within a continuum and talk about what aspects of these pieces are stellar.
Then I segued into the first really contemporary exhibition, where I found Sheojuk Etidlooie’s work in the Arctic, and then showed it in two solo shows. Sheojuk had been in the print catalogues in the 90s so I was aware of her work—in fact, they gave her a number of [catalogue] covers— but I was poking around in the studio in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, and found her original drawings, and loved them. I was up there long enough to arrange for her to come in for an interview, and we went through her drawings together.
That was the first show where I actually was interviewing the artist and using her words in the exhibition and just putting some context around it. I also flew her down to Toronto, which was her first experience here. She was such a dear lady. So then I began to work on her next show in 1999 and again went North and interviewed her. She'd started on oil sticks, and for her second show we did a catalogue. She died a month before it opened.
Sheojuk was a breakthrough for me, setting a pattern that fairly quickly evolved into our gallery modus operandi – for many artists such as Shuvinai [Ashoona] and Annie [Pootoogook], focusing primarily on contemporary drawings.
BG: What other artists did you work with during this period?
PF: I first met Tim [Pitsiulak] in 2008—he came in at the Studio and had this drawing of a rifle. I have a picture of him with it, but I had just met him. I bought that drawing and then planned his first show. We later had three more shows for him. I was also looking at Annie’s drawings up at the co-op—I was going up deliberately, not only to interview artists that I was having shows for, but also to find out what was new and what was going on.
It was a real shift from Osuitok and Kenojuak back in the late '80s to that, to shift from dealing with the well-known to looking for new works. Itee [Pootoogook] was very similar, I was looking at his drawings at the co-op, and Ohotak Mikkigak…who else? Oh, Jutai [Toonoo], my wonderful Jutai, who I really did establish a very close relationship with. Sadly, many of these artists are gone now.
BG: For a period of time a large portion of your programming was very focused on graphic work from Kinngait; but in recent years the artists that you're featuring have completely opened up in terms of medium and regionality. Why is that?
PF: I've shifted from going somewhere and finding somebody who hasn't really been featured to developing these relationships with artists who are establishing themselves. I have an upcoming solo show with Mike Massie, who's established, but also we featured Darcie [Bernhardt] last June in her first solo exhibition. We have had several shows with Niap and a solo with Mark Igloliorte.
I love drawings, it's my favourite form of two-dimensional art. There are so many artists who have such great talent, it's just gratifying and wonderful to see. We held the first solo exhibitions for Quvianaqtuk [Pudlat] , Ooloosie Saila and Johnny Pootoogook. We have also featured contemporary sculpture from artists in Kinngait and beyond. It's just that [fabulous art] is everywhere, and it's so exciting.
Pat Feheley with Padloo Samayualie at the opening of Padloo Samayualie: North and South in October 2017 Courtesy Feheley Fine Arts
BG: Have you found that your audience is with you in that excitement?
PF: Oh, absolutely. I had some initial pushback about new media and contemporary sculpture because sculpture has always been a more traditional market. But I'm slowly getting less and less pushback
BG: What would you say your hopes are for the evolution of the Inuit art field?
PF: My hope is that the opportunity [to create] will be open to more and more people, particularly in Nunavut. Because in Nunavik and Labrador, for instance, there are artists who have had the opportunity to attend art schools in the south.. But there are so many settlements where there's just no encouragement of the arts. Terry Ryan had a vision years ago of Kinngait being a centre for art and culture—he actually said, ‘art, writings and everything, for the Arctic,’— which would be held in Kinngait. I would love to see more regional opportunities for people in small settlements.
It's gratifying to see things like the Inuit Art Quarterly, for example. There was a time when there was really nothing available. The earlier Inuit Art Quarterly was more about training and now it’s the celebration of some of these artists who otherwise wouldn't be known without the IAQ. That, to me, given my time working with the Inuit Art Foundation myself [as a board member], is just so wonderful to see how it's blossomed. It's really essential.
BG: We pour a lot of love into it. So it's really gratifying to hear that it comes across. What advice would you give to artists living and working in small communities who don’t really know how to get started or how to reach out?
PF: I always had a dream of trying to get corporate funding or regional funding to have somebody who either goes into a settlement or who's there for a while to call out to artists and anybody who wants to come in. But particularly Nunavut, where it's so spread out, but it's a bit cost prohibitive.
BG: If an artist came across your gallery, would you want to hear directly from them?
PF: Oh, absolutely! I do get that, but not that much, which surprises me. But I think it's tough for people out there to cold call. I would hope that by now, my gallery would be considered a safe and nurturing space. But does that mean anything to somebody in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), NU? I doubt it.
BG: Your approach is relationship based; it's much more than transactional. You chose to work around artist development, career development and professional development for your artists, and I think it has made a huge impact.
PF: Yeah, I hope so. But I have no sense of ’Gee, I did this,’ by any means. In my mind, it is always about the artist and how brilliant they are. And it strikes me as kind of a no-brainer: you can show these artists’ works, [but] it doesn't mean you're necessarily brilliant, it means that they are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.