Having returned to her creative practice within the last decade after raising her family, Maureen Gruben jokes that she could be considered an emerging artist. Since 2015, however, she’s built an impressive body of installation, performance and textile work; exhibited across Canada and landed on the longlists of the 2021 Sobey Art Award and this year’s Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award. We talk to Gruben about her career trajectory, finding space to create and some of her big dreams for future projects.
Inuit Art Quarterly: Let’s talk a little bit about your start as an artist. What made you take up your practice?
Maureen Gruben: That happened so many years ago, when I was younger. Probably I could trace it back to when I was a teenager, sewing with my mom. I think that's where it all started—watching her and listening and learning.
The one thing I remember is her breathing as she was sewing. It was almost like a whistle. You know, when you hear a strong wind in the wintertime, you hear it coming into the cracks and windows—back when things weren't as efficient as they are now—you’d always hear a really low whistle. If you're working it's almost meditative. Beautiful breathing, like a soft, slow whistle. She had that naturally—just a very meditative, quiet practice.
IAQ: Your career has changed a lot since those early moments with your mom. Can you tell me about how it's unfolded over the past years?
Maureen Gruben Message (2015) Polar bear guard hairs, cotton thread and black interface 457.2cm X 60.96 cmCOURTESY COOPER COLE COLLECTION NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA © THE ARTIST
MG: I didn't produce art works for many years because I raised my children. I only began again in 2010, when I went back to university after the kids were all grown. I got my degree in 2012, and then just created for like, four years. I built up all these pieces, not even thinking of showing at all. I was just kind of creating, and that's when Message (2015) was made as well, and a lot of polar-bear pieces.
I think the first time I was invited to show was with Tania Willard in Kamloops in Custom Made. That was my first show! That's really not that long ago.
I am almost an emerging artist, as old as I am, because I started so late! I think 2015 was when I started showing. It just progressed from there. I never really had to apply to any gallery—I was mostly invited. I don't think that's the normal kind of way it happens. Usually you have to send in your proposals and whatnot, but I've never had to do that. I think I've been in over 50 shows since then.
Installation view of Custom Made (2015) at the Kamloops Art Gallery featuring Maureen Gruben, Moosehide #3 (2015) in the foreground, and behind, from left to right: Maureen Gruben, Moosehide #2 (2015), Phil Gray, Becoming Tsimshian (2007) and Maureen Gruben, Moosehide #3 (2015)COURTESY KAMLOOPS ART GALLERY PHOTO DEVON LINDSAY
IAQ: What made you want to go back to school?
MG: Well, my youngest son was nine and really interested in hockey. That's one of the big reasons we moved out. I wanted to be in a place where we could be close to the ocean and Victoria seemed like it had everything we needed. So that's really what brought us South, and then I just went back to school because he was going to school.
IAQ: Can you talk a little bit about some of the artists and themes that inspire you in your work?
MG: There are so many. Rebecca Belmore, for sure. Frida Kahlo. Of course, Kenojuak Ashevak. Ningiukulu Teevee—I love her work too.
Maureen Gruben Waiting for the Shaman (2017) Bones from polar bear paws and resin 55.9 x 2.54 cm© THE ARTIST
IAQ: What is it that drives you to create every day?
MG: Well, I wish it was that easy. I do have to work—it's not all about art. I run a bed and breakfast. If I could create every day, that would be absolute bliss, from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. That's a dream!
It would be amazing to do that and not have to worry about guests and bookings. It’s a great job, but it would be my preference to have a studio where I could just go in, with everything laid out. I keep saying I need a studio, but then I have my kitchen table, I have my living room. I think your studio is wherever you create. Even when you're outside, you're always shifting things around or collecting. It never stops. Your thinking never stops. You're always creating in your mind.
IAQ: Can you name what it is that makes you create in your mind all the time?
MG: I think it's just part of the makeup of who I am. Like, it’s not a drive that I have, it's just who I am.
IAQ: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
MG: To feed the world so that we're all equally well taken care of.
IAQ: Between 2015 and now, your career has really changed and grown and morphed wildly. How do you feel about where you are now?
MG: I’m pretty excited. I'd really like to do much bigger works. I need a team of many people to help me fulfill a couple of dreams that I have. One has to do with the coastal erosion that's happening in Tuktuuyaqtuuq. There's just a bank washing into the ocean, very very rapidly. I’d like to work with someone that can handle clay and kilns because I know the material I want to use, and that’s where I want to start. I like to work in multiples of like, thousands. It will be something huge. It’s something that we can capture a part of, before it's gone.
Maureen Gruben Moving With Joy (2021-2022) Installation on The Bentway Skate Trail, Toronto, ONCOURTESY THE BENTWAY © THE ARTIST
IAQ: Are there other dream projects that winning an award like the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award would enable you to do?
MG: Yes, I'd like to do some big public art pieces. I put a call out a couple of years ago for hunters to bring me caribou legs. So I've been working with hooves. I clean them, and I’ve recently sent them to a fabricator to do a 3D image of one that’s sized up. My dream is to have these beautiful caribou hooves—20 to 30 feet high—in steel. I have big dreams! But I need people behind me. I envision it across Canada, in every community, so that you can start these conversations about Indigenous sovereignty, food sovereignty and security, our animals, our stewardship. There are all these conversations that we can have under the protection of these hooves, because they're very concave. They're like shelters. They're just a beautiful form. I can see them making these tracks right across Canada.
IAQ: Do you have any thoughts about why opportunities like this award are important?
MG: I think it's incredibly important because I think we all have dreams, we have projects that may need support.
Not only that, it's honouring those that have gone before us and opened those doors, like Kenojuak. I admire her ability to speak her own language, not have to speak in English, and put her beautiful contemporary work out there. She put her ideas out in such a grand way, but it was done so simply.
Read interviews with the other longlisted artists.
This interview was conducted by phone in December 2022. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.