Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award 2023 longlister Maureen Gruben is no stranger to moving between media.
From land art to video, to sculpture made from found materials, to sizable public art, Gruben is known for her highly intuitive and collaborative approach to art making. While projects with community members, organizations and other creatives play a central role, the artist says her ultimate collaborator is nature itself.
Here, IAQ Editorial Director Britt Gallpen hears from Gruben on five works that have shaped her approach to art making and continue to offer generative potential.
Maureen Gruben Stitching My Landscape (stills) (2017) Video, edition of 3 + AP 6min10COURTESY COOPER COLE © THE ARTIST
Stitching My Landscape
Commissioned as part of LandMarks2017/Repères2017 and curated by Tania Willard, the performance and land work Stitching My Landscape (2017) catapulted Gruben onto the contemporary Canadian art scene. “I still have a strong affinity to this piece because it has so much meaning,” explains the artist. “I think people find their own meaning in it, which is very interesting to me. It doesn't get old because it's a collaboration with nature, so there's that unknown there. It's like, I'm not the only creator.”
In the spring of 2017—in the midst of Canada's sesquicentennial—the Inuvialuk artist transformed the frozen ocean surrounding Ibyuq Pingo (an ice-cored hill at the Pingo Canadian Landmark) and 300 metres of bright red broadcloth into one of Inuit art’s most striking and recognizable contemporary images. While a small team of community members worked with Gruben to prepare the site, the laborious unravelling and stitching of cloth was undertaken solely by the artist. Today, the work continues to evolve and is used as an educational resource, regularly referenced in university art classes. “It's so important to educate broader audiences, especially in situations where people are wanting to learn.”
Maureen Gruben Breathing Hole (2019) Dricore insulation board, stainless steel pins, sealskin and white cotton thread 121.9 x 76.2 cm© THE ARTIST
Breathing Hole (2019), one of Gruben’s most treasured works, was created from small scraps of sealskin left over from a local mitt-making workshop in the artist’s home community of Tuktuuyaqtuuq (Tuktoyaktuk), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. “They had all these little pieces left over, so I took them to Victoria,” remembers the artist. “This one was tedious, but I wanted to prove a point—not only to myself, but just to see how far I could push [the material]. I wanted to use everything to prove that you can still make something out of what was thrown away.”
Painstakingly cut using a vintage three-hole punch, the “sealskin confetti” was helped along by family, friends and students at the Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City, YK, where the artist and her longtime collaborator Kyra Kordoski undertook an artistic residency. The resulting work features 18,000 punched sealskin circles across 40 panels of light blue Dricore insulation board, a material more commonly used as subfloor over concrete. “It's very minimal,” says Gruben. “It has light and strength and this beautiful ice blue of the foam. It’s very striking to me.”
Maureen Gruben Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019) Archival inkjet 304.8 × 107.95 cmPHOTO KYRA KORDOSKI © THE ARTIST
Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun
A loving and beautiful portrait of Inuit community life across the circumpolar North, Gruben explains the motivation behind Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019). “This piece encompasses the whole North—not just our town, but all the communities across the North. It's all Inuit. This is who we are.”
To create the work, Gruben sourced 14 hand-built sleds from families in Tuktuuyaqtuuq, which she positioned in a loose semicircle. The resulting images document this short-lived site-specific installation. “This is what carried us,” she says. “We put our whole life, all our belongings, all our necessities that we need to live out on the land into those sleds that also carry our families so that we could live with joy, right out on the land. That's our happiest time.”
Maureen Gruben Aidainnaqduanni, Aurora (2020) Archival inkjet 81.3 × 121.9 cmPHOTO KYRA KORDOSKI © THE ARTIST
“These polar-bear skins were a gift from Dr. Sue Rowley at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia,” explains Gruben. “They were given to the museum and they didn't know what to do with them because they were already deteriorating; they weren't in good condition. And so, when we moved back home, I brought them with me.”
Paired with tripods sourced from an abandoned local industrial site, the three polar-bear skins that make up Aidainnaqduanni, Aurora (2020) were positioned on the edge of the Arctic Ocean as the ice began to freeze. “When I put the bears on [the tripods] I didn't have them facing the sky. It was a full moon so there was overflow, the water came right up and then it went back down, which pulled the bears into the water. That’s nature helping me. It's a collaboration with nature—making it so much better than I ever could.”
Reflecting on the site specificity of the piece, Gruben recalls that “a fox came to check it out–I call it my ‘ice gallery,’ and you know the fox is always following the bear. I was happy to see those tracks around the work. Even if the work isn’t in a white-cube gallery, I love the idea of creating work that’s not necessarily for people, it could also be for the animals.”
Maureen Gruben Untitled (in process) (2022) (Installation view) Broadcloth Two panels, 8.5 x 17.1 m eachCOURTESY TUK TV © THE ARTIST
The artist’s most recent work, an as-yet untitled project, reimagines the red cloth of Stitching My Landscape (2017) into a new form—in this iteration a global call for help. “I was living in Victoria at the time [I made Stitching my Landscape], so I left it out on the ice knowing that I would get somebody to retrieve it,” recalls Gruben. “When the ice melted, I asked a couple of young boys to haul all that material and to just put it in my basement. And that’s where it stayed while I was thinking about what to do with it next. I made two panels, each is 28 feet by 56 feet. The fabric has all these sun streaks from being out in the environment and it already carries all that energy from the ice and snow and the sun and the water. In April last year, some community youth from Tuktuuyaqtuuq were working with an organization called Tuk TV to create a documentary on climate change so I suggested we work together to install and document this new piece. Same as with Stitching My Landscape, this piece was out on the ice for two months. It melted through so I have images where it's like a pool in the middle of the ocean— a red cross pool.”
The resulting work harnesses the power of this recognized symbol of humanitarian need to demand attention for how the climate crisis is affecting the Arctic. “There have been many attempts to protect the erosion of the shoreline,” says Gruben. “Our coastal shoreline is eroding very, very rapidly. I chose a cross because it’s a global crisis symbol. We are in crisis.”
Read more about the other longlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through RBC Emerging Artists and the caring of the larger Inuit art community.