As the main door to Jens Haven Memorial School in Nain, Nunatsiavut, NL, opens, the light breeze lifts the silk off the walls in a slow wave to reveal images of Artic fish, the bears that have made Nunatsiavut their home and Inuit dressed in traditional clothing out hunting and gathering. Throughout the halls you will find surfaces lined with these artworks created through the process of lithography on a printing press. Pieces by former students, made throughout the 1990s, join original work by former art instructor Bill Wheaton. Though Kinngait Studios in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, is known worldwide for its printmaking program, many other Inuit regions in Canada, even Nain, have their own rarely discussed histories with this important medium.
In 1976 William Ritchie, a recent graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, was sent to Nain through an outreach program organized by Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. He was tasked with introducing various forms of art to pre-school and elementary school children and to study how these creative mediums impacted them. That was, until he met Gilbert Hay on the road in Nain.
Michael Massie Homage to Kenojuak (c. 1980) Lithography and collage 84.5 x 61 cm
Now a well-known artist whose works have been exhibited across Canada, including his lithograph Inukshuk (1981) recently on view with the travelling exhibition SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut (2017–19), Hay was primarily a stoneworker and sculptor when the men first met. Ritchie had a great interest in Inuit culture and heritage and, in turn, Hay had a great interest in printmaking as well as in Ritchie’s work.
The pair applied and received grant funding to attend St. Michael’s Printshop in St. John’s, NL, where they spent two weeks learning about printmaking and lithography. Both men returned to Nain and worked together with relief painting. The following year, they reapplied for the grant and once again participated in the two-week session. This time, upon their return, both Hay and Ritchie knew that in order to continue making prints, they would need to find a way to bring a printing press to Nain.
Together, they worked with the Town of Nain to establish the Craft Council and were able to open the first Craft Centre where artists in the community could sell their works. This Craft Centre was also intended to have a dedicated printing studio in it. Unfortunately, due to limited funding, the council disbanded and the centre closed. Ritchie was invited back to St. Michael’s and was soon offered a position at Kinngait Studios. With nowhere to practice, no etching press and with his now long-time collaborator gone, Hay returned to stonework and sculpting.
Five years later in 1993, Wheaton, an art instructor from Manitoba, arrived in Nain after three years living in Hopedale, NL. Once settled, he applied for a grant through the ArtsSmarts program and bought a press. With no space for a studio, the press was housed in the art room at Jens Haven Memorial School. Wheaton spent years teaching students how to create a variety of pieces on the press, and how to use the machine for different purposes, such as copying scripts for the drama program. He would even print onto fabric, creating costumes for the school plays performed at the annual Labrador Creative Arts Festival.
Wheaton was also a traveling artist. He had visited the Kinngait Studios and, after learning about its operation, had a similar dream for the community of Nain. Through the remainder of his career, he would continue work towards making the etching press an economically profitable cultural project for the community.
However, due to its location, there was little access for public to explore or learn how to work with the etching press. Rather, it was to be used only during school hours. With use of the machine limited, it was difficult for Wheaton to market the press to the public. Few members of the community had the knowledge to work with or the time to access the device, and many were simply not interested. Financial costs coupled with little support for such a small project in such a small community halted this grand vision of a printmaking program.
Wheaton left Nain in 2001 and suddenly passed in 2003. The rapid decline of printmaking in the community followed. In 2017, for the first time since Wheaton’s departure, the press was briefly used by current instructor Tony Tibbo and his class to create Christmas cards. To this day, the etching press remains in Jens Haven Memorial School, waiting for another generation of artists to cover the walls in Nain and beyond.
This Community Spotlight first appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.