• Feature

The History of Sealskin Stencils

Jun 16, 2020
by Susan Gustavison

The prevalence and popularity of Inuit prints remains, some 60 years on, a driving force in the Inuit art world, garnering considerable attention on both the primary and secondary markets. However, there are certain prints, namely those out of the Kinngait and Ulukhaktok studios in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that continue to captivate the attention of collectors, curators and scholars for their unlikely origins. At issue are the whys and hows of these early works, made—or so the story goes—from the most ubiquitous of Inuit materials: sealskin. 

Stencilling, used alone and in combination with relief printing, has been a vital element of Inuit printmaking for decades, in both Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, and Ulukhaktok (Holman), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. In this technique, used for millennia, ink is applied through a cutout onto a second underlying surface. Used to mark crates, it is a very simple process. When used to apply colour or shading to a fine art print, however, stencilling requires finesse. The ink must be properly applied once, before the process is repeated, up to 50 times, for an edition. 

The story begins in Kinngait [1]. In 1958, the second year of experimental printmaking, stencilling was adopted. The technique is ideal for adding touches of colour and shading to an image, possibly inspired by Inuit women’s skillful use of skins to decorate clothing, boots and bags, either by inset into the main fabric—which most closely resembles stencilling—or by applique. Use of the technique may also have come from James Houston’s printmaking training in Japan. The earliest stencil experiments involved sealskin, scraped clean—the fur carefully removed—and tanned. An image was then transferred to the skin and cut out, before being placed on the print paper. Ink was sparingly applied, first with shaving brushes, which proved too pliable even after cutting the bristles shorter, and later with proper stippling brushes. 


Harry Egotak
Stencil for print Two Men Hunting a Bear (1961) Sealskin 27 × 41.5 cm

These early sealskin stencils, making use of local materials, were experimental, but they never really worked. The pelts were too stiff and tended to ripple— a disaster as ink would creep outside the image’s contour. Furthermore, the skins were a valuable commodity that Inuit could put to important, more practical, uses. The printmakers soon devised a method of heating a copper sheet on a stove, melting wax on the copper, and laying a piece of drawing paper on top while the wax hardened. This stiffened the paper, making it perfect for stencilling purposes. Each colour required a different stencil. 

In the 1959 Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection, of 40 prints, 19 were inscribed “stonecut and sealskin stencil” or “sealskin stencil.” This identifying practice continued in each annual print collection until 1962 when Terry Ryan, then General Manager of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, stopped it. In conversation with me, many decades later, the now late Ryan confirmed that no print using sealskin stencils was ever fully editioned. Yet for the four years between 1958 and 1961, there are 72 print editions inscribed “sealskin stencil” and three with “stonecut and sealskin stencil.” Why is unknown. Perhaps there was a desire to create the aura of links from traditional art and craft to modern printmaking. 

Ironically, it was the inclusion of “sealskin stencil” on a Cape Dorset print that caught the eye of Father Henri Tardy [2]. and the Holman Eskimo Co-operative [3]. Seeking avenues to relieve the dire economic conditions of the community, when Father Tardy saw “sealskin stencil” on a print, he immediately thought the Inuit artists in Ulukhaktok could do that too. Sealskins were readily available, and he knew of the drawings made by Helen Kalvak, CM, RCA (1901–1984). In a 1962 experimentation led by Father Tardy and Victor Ekootak (1916—1965), one of the printmaking pioneers, began. Fur was shaved off the skin using Father Tardy’s only razor and an image was cut out.  Toothbrushes dipped in ink were used to apply colour. Five of these original sealskin stencils are still held in the co-op’s archives. 

By the end of 1964 an initial Holman collection of 30 prints by 5 artists was exhibited in New Brunswick. A total of 16 prints using sealskin stencils were editioned from the early 1960s collections. As in Kinngait, however, sealskin stencils were ultimately abandoned in favour of wax impregnated paper stencils and more recently stencils cut from Mylar. 

The short but remarkable history of sealskin stencils represents an inspired attempt by the artists and printmakers, in both Kinngait and Ulukhaktok, to adopt and adapt a local material to develop an art form that was new to them. At the same time, these industrious creators had the ingenuity and dedication to seek out more effective materials to create today’s legacy of beautiful, fine art prints. 


1 I am indebted to the following authors’ research on sealskin stencils in Kinngait: Norman Vorano, Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration: Early Printmaking in the Canadian Arctic (Gatineau: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2011) and Christine Lalonde and Leslie Boyd, Uuturautiit: Cape Dorset Celebrates 50 Years of Printmaking (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2009). 

2 Father Henri Tardy ran the Roman Catholic mission in Ulukhaktok (then Holman) from 1949 to the early 1980s. He was one of nine founding members of the Holman Eskimo Co-operative in 1961.

3 The story of sealskin stencil use in Ulukhaktok has been compiled from the following sources: Visions of Rare Spirits: 20 Years of Holman Prints (Ottawa: Canadian Arctic Producers and Port Colborne Library, 1984); Father Henri Tardy, “The Beginnings of the Holman Eskimo Co-op,” Inuktitut (Winter 1979), 68-75; Darlene Coward Wight, Holman: Forty Years of Graphic Art (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2001); and Evelyn Blackeman-Crofford, Holman 1990 Annual Graphics Collection (Holman: Holman Eskimo Co-operative, 1990). 

This Legacy was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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