• Feature

How 3 Nunatsiavut Women Artists Contribute to the History of Labrador

Jun 23, 2021
by Heather Igloliorte

Every community in Nunatsiavut has its own well-known art history. These narratives remain largely oral histories, as yet untold to the outside world. However, local residents know well, for example, not only who you should ask to get a pair of fancy kamiks made today, but also whose mother is an expert at cleaning sealskins, whose grandmother did the finest grasswork, and whose great-grandmother passed down her knowledge of how to make a perfect waterproof stitch. In each community there exists a living history of Inuit women’s intergenerational artistic practices, evidenced in the art and craft items proudly displayed in coastal homes, community museums, craft centres and town offices. In Nunatsiavut, Inuit women artists and craftspeople are celebrated and appreciated for their vital role in preserving our culture, knowledge and heritage through their work.

This article highlights the superb talents of three Inuit women artists whose life and work have made important contributions to Labrador Inuit art history and who have created a path for the next generation of women artists to emerge. Nellie Winters, Garmel Rich, and Josephina Kalleo are well known throughout Nunatsiavut for their lasting artistic legacies: Winters is a celebrated master seamstress; Rich is an artist who has perfected the meticulous craft of grass basketry; and the late Kalleo is widely recognized as one of our first and most significant graphic artists. Like those of countless other women artists and craftspeople throughout our region, these three talented and innovative artists have made a lasting and significant contribution to our shared cultural heritage. This essay provides an entry point into appreciating their leadership and influence over generations of Labrador Inuit artistic production.


Josephina Kalleo (1920-1993)

Long celebrated as one of Nunatsiavut’s earliest graphic artists, Josephina Kalleo’s corpus of work comprises an important visual archive. Josephina, also known as Josephine, was born in Nain, Labrador, and lived there throughout her life, attending the Moravian mission school as a child and growing up to marry and raise a family in the same community. Interestingly, Kalleo did not start out as an artist. Rather, it was not until her children were grown and had started families of their own that she began to draw. Kalleo felt compelled to put pen to paper after working on an oral history project for the Torngasok Cultural Centre in Nain, where she was responsible for transcribing the recordings of the late Titus Joshua. In listening to the Inuit elder’s stories of his life in Labrador, she too became inspired to record her own memories through art. Using vibrant felt-tipped markers, Kalleo undertook the creation of a detailed record of her lived experiences and recollections from childhood.


Josephina Kalleo
Festive Dress (c.1984) Felt-tipped pen 17.7 x 22 cm
Courtesy The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery

With the support of a grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, Kalleo’s project began to grow and take shape. Her vivid drawings, each accompanied by brief and elegiac written descriptions—often tinted with nostalgia—were published in their entirety in Taipsumane: A Collection of Labrador Stories (1984). An exhibition of the collected works, Taipsumane: Drawings by Josephine Kalleo, was also held at the Memorial University Art Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland before touring to other arts and culture centres across the island. The forty-five drawings are now held in the permanent collection of The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery. This body of work comprises a lasting visual record of the north coast of Labrador in the early twentieth century, rendered in a visual medium and style reflective of the artist’s singular approach.

What makes these drawings so remarkable is Kalleo’s commitment to documenting the history of a community in transition in fascinating detail. These curiously fastidious drawings reveal many insights into the history of Nain over several decades of development. Most interesting is the manner in which Kalleo plays with scale, depth of field, saturation of pigment, and perspective. Her drawings not only depict life, but create micro-collusions of movement, place and history. For example, in Festive Dress (c.1984), Kalleo depicts four women, each garbed in a slightly different style of Inuit clothing and footwear but paired with printed skirts or high- collared shirts. Although simply rendered in coloured marker, each akulik or amauti bears distinguishing features such as a variety of floral patterned “parka bands” along the hood or differing colours of contrasting trim along the cuffs and hems. Frequently focusing on women and children, Kalleo creates scenes of every aspect of Inuit life showing seasonal clothing and activities, games, weddings and other festivities. These include images of camp scenes as well as interiors and exteriors, often illustrated in the same image to denote simultaneous activities or demonstrate the differing roles of Inuit inside and outside the home, school, or church.


Josephina Kalleo
Life Long Ago (c.1984) Felt-tipped pen 17.7 x 22 cm
Courtesy The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery

Kalleo’s occasional commentary on the changing roles and responsibilities of Inuit women is equally interesting. In the colourful narrative work, Women as Trappers (n.d.), for example, Kalleo said in her accompanying description: “The women, too, used to go hunting and trapping. But not anymore. I miss that freedom very much.” In both Schooner (n.d.) and Women Preparing for Winter (n.d.), Kalleo depicts women actively engaged in activities such as trading, fishing, preparing sealskin, and picking berries. Kalleo’s nostalgia for the independence of her youth and admiration for the labour of Inuit women is apparent across several of her works. While there are few other graphic artists of Kalleo’s generation, artists today such as Dinah Andersen and Heather Campbell discussed elsewhere in this issue, carry on her artistic legacy through their own painting and drawing practices.


Garmel Rich (1939 -)

Grasswork, like many other Inuit craft practices, has a long history within Labrador. The community of Rigolet in particular is renowned for its finely made grass basketry. While today the market and prices for even the finest works is still largely based on small scale local production, a number of master grass sewers such as Garmel Rich, alongside contemporaries such as Elizabeth Tooktoshina and Jane Shiwak, and have elevated this practice to new heights and inspired generations to take up this centuries-old practice.

Born in 1939 in Bluff Head, just north of Rigolet, Garmel began weaving grass at the age of seven and by the time she was in her teens was greatly skilled in the technique. In 1958, she moved to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but returned to Rigolet some years later where she now resides. She learned this meticulous craft by watching family members practice it and perfected it herself over time.

“You’ve got to have a lot of patience. […] When I was growing up there was a lot, lot of people, almost everybody [sewing grass]—you know the women and I guess a few men too—you know you see it all the time and when I was growing up there was no television and you know you be there - little kids be tired of playing I ‘spose – so you’d kind of sit down and watch and see what somebody is doing and try to listen to their conversation.” [1]


Garmel Rich
Fruit Basket (2015) Salt water grass and raffia 57.3 x 76.2 cm
Courtesy the Nunatsiavut Government Collection

While Rich frequently produces highly sought-after decorative and functional bowls, vases, and lidded vessels, she is willing to experiment and is interested in new forms and, like other notable grass artists such as Naomi Williams, Josephine Jacque and Belinda Palliser, Rich has created some surprising and delightful sculptural works out of this humble medium.

“It takes a long time – it’s the slowest craft there is. But once it’s done it’s nice. And I always thought it was more of an art than it is a craft. You have to mold it to the shape you want it – say if you was working with clay you would do that – and you can make almost anything you put your mind to. Like little novelties, you know; I’ve made a tea set and a tray for it to go on; a komatik, boat and motor… anything you put your mind to almost […] Oh yes, I made a Stanley Cup too one time. It was nice too when it was finished. [It was about] a foot high and five inches or so at the bottom. My son wanted one and he figured I could make one, and so I gave it a try.” [2]

Garmel has also taught this art form, leading many community-based workshops and passing on the skills and knowledge to her daughter and others in her community and region. Now a senior artist, Rich continues to weave beautiful grass pieces, and galleries, museums, and eager collectors have long sought to include her work in their collections. Most recently, the Nunatsiavut Government acquired a large basket featuring a blue and black zigzag pattern, which has been selected to be displayed in the Illusuak Cultural Centre slated to open late in 2017. In 2012, in recognition of her lifetime contribution to the arts and cultural heritage in the province, Rich was inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Art Council’s Hall of Honour.


Nellie Winters (1956-)

Nellie Winters is a respected and prolific artist who lives and works in Makkovik. She first learned to sew as a child in boarding school, where she was taught how to embroider the popular “inukuluk” designs of Inuit figures frequently applied to textiles such as tablecloths and duffel coats. After finishing school Winters refined and diversified her skills as an artist, leading her to become one of the region’s best known seamstresses. As a mother and grandmother to several talented and well known craftspeople and artists—including Dinah Andersen, Jason Jacque, Polly Jacque, Roxanne Nochasak and Blanche Winters, among others—and as a teacher, Winters has passed on her knowledge to generations of Inuit artists in coastal Labrador. Because of her unique style, technical proficiency, and role in the community as a mentor, Winters is regarded as one of the most influential artists in the Nunatsiavut region. A highly prolific senior artist, she is imagining new pathways for her practice. Says Winters, “I just think of something to do during the night when I can’t sleep. I’ll think up something I want to do, so then I try it the next day, and it goes on.”


Nellie Winters
Short Tail Silipak with Embroidery (2015) Commander cloth, sealskin lining, ric rac and silk embroidery 57.3 x 76.2 cm
Courtesy the artist

Winters thrives on learning techniques and produces a range of objects in a variety of materials, constantly varying her practice and adding new works to her repertoire. As her daughter Polly Jacque notes, she also has a keen eye for proportion and innate knowledge of garment construction.

“She’s a really good craftsperson, all self-taught. She doesn’t need patterns. […] She just spreads her stuff out and cuts it out. She’ll measure you and put the material on a table and measure for your coat and it’ll fit perfectly.” [3]

Today, her varied practice includes grasswork, embroidery, moose hair tufting, sewing, doll making and more. Like Rich, Winters appreciates experimentation and sometimes transforms practical objects into works of art through unexpected materials and elaborate embellishments. Having worked with these materials over decades, Winters has acquired an intimate knowledge of the varied kinds and characteristics of sealskin. This knowledge combines with a unique sensitivity to fit and style, as well as an acute proficiency in elaborate stitching techniques—such as waterproof stitching—to make her work exemplary. Winters has been featured in many exhibitions and her pieces can be found in collections across Canada and the United States; her work has been frequently honoured with awards and other recognitions.


Nellie Winters
Sealskin Hat, Mitts, and Kamiks (2015) Sealskin, silver fox, sheepskin, moosehide, pile lining and duffel
Private Collection

The three artists featured here are far from being the only women in Nunatsiavut who deserve to have their histories in print. They are recognized for being among a significant group of Inuit women artists who are still largely unknown outside of Nunatsiavut yet justifiably celebrated within our region. They have pushed the limits of their respective mediums. They simultaneously represent the great continuity and innovation characteristic of our region. Through their artwork, their artistic legacies, and the sharing of their knowledge and skills, they contribute to the history of this place.

This Feature was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


1 Garmel Rich quoted in John Gaudi. “A Labour of Love… Garmel Rich’s Love of Grasswork Nominated for Art Council’s Hall of Honour Award,” Labrador Morning. cbc.ca, February 17, 2012 (radio).

2 Ibid.

3 Personal communication with Polly Jacque in Postville, June 9, 2015.

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