It’s been a busy few years since sculptor and installation artist Couzyn van Heuvelen was shortlisted for the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award (KAMA). Longlisted again for the KAMA 2023, the Iqaluit-born, Southern-Ontario-based artist discusses how his practice has evolved in this interview. He also shares how working at a larger scale and reaching a broader audience have been valuable ways to challenge himself, foster community and increase visibility for Inuit artists in urban centres in the South.
Inuit Art Quarterly: The last time we were able to speak with you like this was for the 2021 KAMA cycle, when you were a shortlisted artist. Should we start off with some of the things that have happened since then?
Couzyn van Heuvelen: Sure. On right now—but not for very much longer—is Arctic Amazon at The Power Plant, a group show that I was excited to be a part of. I made some new work for the show and included some older work as well but reframed it in a new way. So that was a couple of years of work and really exciting to see it come together. That was all happening at the same time as INUA at Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq, which was a huge highlight in the last two years.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Stone Qamutiik (2019) Soapstone and polypropylene rope 243.8 x 91.4 x 91.4 cmCOURTESY THE POWER PLANT PHOTO TONI HAFKENSCHEID © THE ARTIST
IAQ: And you were also able to realize your giant Avataq project last year with Nuit Blanche Toronto? I know that’s a project that’s been on your mind now for a few years.
CvH: Yes, it took a couple of tries but this time around we really got it right. I received some great help from the folks at the City of Toronto and the manufacturer who did the fabrication of the balloons—they were really good.
IAQ: How did it feel to have work that large and imposing in such a public space?
CvH: It was hard to comprehend or even envision what it would be like. Of course, the day of, I wasn't there. While it was being inflated, I was inflating another installation at the Scarborough Town Centre. By the time I got downtown, I saw it from all the way down Yonge Street and was so excited. And surprised, somehow. I thought I understood the scale but it's so different in a populated environment, in between these huge buildings. To see my artwork from that far away and to have it be so visible—that was really amazing.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Avataq (2022) Nylon fabric and helium Height variable, 35' circumferenceCOURTESY CITY OF TORONTO © THE ARTIST
IAQ: It strikes me it’s one of those moments that might make you feel differently about the work that you're doing?
CvH: I think so. It's something I've been working towards, to have my work in public spaces. Part of the reason for that is we have large Inuit populations in a lot of major cities in the South and for the most part, it’s not really visible. My work is grounded in making Inuit presence visible in public spaces and across the landscape of contemporary Canadian art. When I create art for a public place, my approach involves responding to the space and community where the work is to be installed, and bringing my own experiences, stories and culture into that space.
IAQ: We've talked about this in the past—who you make art for, how that context can vary and the fact that who you make the work for isn't always who is going to see it. I think INUA was a really important moment considering the number of Inuit who were able to see the exhibition in person and engage with the online aspects of that show. Can you talk about the work that you made for INUA, Sealskin Rug (2021)?
Couzyn van Heuevelen’s Sealskin Rug (2020) sits in the foreground of an installation view of INUA, 2021. Pictured in the background from left to right: Elisapee Ishulutaq’s Yesterday and Today (2012), Lindsay McIntyre’s Ajjigiingiluktaaqtugut (We Are All Different) (2020) and sugar lifts by Elisapee Ishulutaq Aavuniq (2012), Arnaquk (2012) and Malaiya (2012).COURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO SERGE GUMENYUK © THE ARTISTS
CvH: That piece was made specifically for that exhibition. I was really excited about being included in the inaugural exhibition at Qaumajuq and I wanted to make a work that seemed fitting but it was also, you know, right during the lockdown. I was thinking a lot about not being able to see my family and looking forward to the day when I would be able to see everybody again and be able to spend time with them. I was thinking about sharing a meal and how we might share food on the floor, as you tend to do.
A lot of my works are really large or they are hybrid objects so I was imagining a sealskin also being a rug. And maybe that seal was big enough to provide a skin that brings comfort to my whole family and feeds a whole community.
IAQ: In the past we’ve asked you about challenges you’ve faced as an artist, and talked about going to art school and committing to being an artist. What would you say are some of the challenges that you deal with now as an artist?
CvH: I think there are a lot of day-to-day, small challenges: things like finding budgets and using them wisely, and being able to keep creating work.
A constant thing is making sure that the work itself challenges me. In a lot of my work, the concepts or the themes that I'm thinking about, they're usually things that I'm grappling with. I'm trying to find a space so that I can learn.
I think also as the work ends up in more places, I’m talking with more curators, and people out there that I have to keep up with. I have to make sure that I'm staying on top of that, which is another challenge for me.
IAQ: But different people are also going to come to the work from different perspectives, which I would imagine is quite generative?
CvH: Yes,especially if it's something unexpected. It being in a different context or in a different environment can change the work for me—change my thinking about the work.
IAQ: It's your second time on the KAMA longlist. What would winning the 2023 award mean, for you and the future of your work?
CvH: It would mean that people are seeing my work, that they're connecting with it, and that other people maybe recognize that the work is important. It's definitely important to me.
I'm sure that's true for all of the artists about their own work. It means a lot knowing that their work was recognized by the award—the jury—but also that they're speaking on behalf of a larger audience.
IAQ: Are there certain professional development opportunities that you feel would be made more possible through this award?
CvH: That’s a trickier-to-answer question than I thought it might be. Sometimes it's hard to know what opportunities are available to you until they're in front of you, or until you find them. And so I think this award can also connect those opportunities to the artist.
I've been very fortunate that my work is reaching a larger audience and more people are becoming aware of my work. A lot of the connections I've made have been, you know, people reaching out because they saw my work in one place or another. I think being longlisted puts me on other people's radars. Once you're recognized by something like this, it gives you a stronger footing.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Qamutiik and Arctic Char Steaks (2014–2022) Found pallets, styrofoam and cardboard 242.6 x 48.3 x 91.4 cmCOURTESY UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO ART GALLERY PHOTO SCOTT LEE © THE ARTIST
IAQ: Do you have any advice for anyone who's on the longlist for the first time?
CvH: It’s funny ‘cause I feel like I'd also be open to advice. Even if I was to give advice to myself, it would be to just enjoy it. It's a good thing to recognize when good things are happening and when you're receiving support—to focus on that.
Read interviews with the other longlisted artists.
This interview was conducted by phone in January 2023. 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.