Shary Boyle and Pierre Aupilardjuk, artists from Toronto, ON and Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU, respectively, have one of their collaborative ceramics included in the National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition of global Indigenous art, Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel, which runs until April 2020. Their piece, Facing Forward (2016), was made during an artist residency they, along with John Kurok, attended at Medalta in Medicine Hat, AB, and was included in the national touring exhibition Earthlings produced by Calgary’s Esker Foundation in 2017. Boyle and Aupilardjuk spoke over the phone about their collaboration, and about Aupilardjuk’s experience at the Matchbox Gallery in Kangigliniq, where he’s been making ceramics and teaching for over 20 years.
Shary Boyle: I want to start by asking you about your father, Mariano Aupilardjuk. He’s a respected artist and elder who also was very close to traditions and life on the land, so he had many stories that he’s passed on to you, is that right? How have the stories he told you impacted your work?
Pierre Aupilardjuk: He had many stories, and I try and do some of my artwork based on the stories that both of my parents told me.
SB: Do you think that ceramics are good for telling stories like that?
PA: Yes, I think so. It’s easier than stone.
SB: You enjoy it more than carving stone?
SB: Do you have to plan your piece out in the same way, or can you be more natural in telling the story with clay?
PA: Yes, sometimes when I’m thinking of something and when I try to make it, it turns out differently. Clay is almost the same as stone, but I find it easier to make.
SB: So you enjoy working with clay?
PA: Yes, I like working with clay. If I have my own clay I will work with it everyday, at home or on the land.
SB: What do you feel when you’re working with it?
PA: When I’m almost done making it, I feel very happy, because at first it was hard, figuring out what it’s going to turn out to be—what story I will make—but when I’m almost done, it makes me feel so good.
Pierre Aupilardjuk and Shary Boyle Facing Forward (2016)
SB: I like that too. What’s the hardest part about working with clay? Is there anything that frustrates you?
PA: The hardest part would be when your piece is in the kiln, broken–
SB: Yeah (laughs). That sucks–
PA: Yeah. I try very hard to do a good job–and the kiln ruins it–
SB: I know! I know! I just had this happen! You work so long, you work so hard, and so many days and hours and try to be so careful, and then, well, you know. I recently made a figure, a walking figure and she’s standing on a base, and it all came out perfect except the base! The base cracked, but the figure’s perfect, so now I think, ok, I have to glue the base together, and maybe get a piece of wood that’s the same size and shape as the base, and glue the base onto the wood so that the wood keeps it together. But sometimes it’s just so bad, you just have to throw it out.
PA: Yes, I know!
SB: It’s awful!
PA: (Laughs) Yes, we can do that with the clay, but with the stone it’s much harder.
SB: Leo Napayok told me the same thing. He said it’s so hard to fix the stone. If it breaks, it just doesn’t look good. You can’t help it, you know?
PA: Yes—one time I carved a polar bear in stone—I’m almost done and the leg broke. I got so mad I threw the polar bear on the floor—
SB: (laughing) No, you didn’t!
PA: Yes! I went back to it and all the legs are gone, and I thought, maybe I can make this into a swimming polar bear.
SB: That’s really smart! That’s what artists do: they figure out how to problem-solve. Sometimes in art, it just leads you, too. Sometimes the work has its own way of telling you to go in a direction that you didn’t think of in the beginning. And if you’re patient you know you can just follow it, and make a new thing.
PA: Yes. That’s what we always do on the stone. The stone that we pick from down there, and, when you see it, going to turn out like a polar bear, or human, or finger, or something.
SB: I want to know how the stories help you: Do they make you feel good to tell them? Or do you feel like you have a duty to your parents, or to your people, to tell the stories through the art?
PA: If I say something in words you can hear it, but you cannot see it, and it’s easy to forget. But with art, you make it and you can see it and tell the story, people can feel better and see it and hear it at the same time. It’s much stronger than just words.
SB: Do you think maybe people remember the story better when they see it?
PA: I think so. That’s how I feel right. Sometimes I have too many things on my mind, and I forget the stories that somebody tells me. But when I see something with my eyes and hear it with my ears, I can remember it easier.
SB:I think many people feel that way because we live short lives but the art might live longer, right?
PA: Yes, that’s very strong. The artwork’s going to be there for a long time. Long after you’re gone. We live short lives but the art lives longer. And so, maybe young people and people in the future can look at that art and those stories are there for them.
SB: When you first started at Matchbox Gallery, or even through the years you worked there, did you have an artist that really stood out to you?
Pierre Aupilardjuk Giving Without Receiving (2016)
PA: Laurent Aksadjuak. I watched him tell stories about his artwork and from there I started thinking about my dad’s stories.
SB: The collaborative works by artists at Matchbox are very special. When did these collaborations start?
PA: I’m not sure when we started doing that, but Leo Napayok was, I think, one of the first ones and then Roger Aksadjuak and Jack Nuviyak started to collaborate, and it was fun watching them do that.
SB: I think collaboration is so amazing because sometimes two people have very different ways of working and different imaginations, and when you put them both together it becomes very interesting. Like, even better, sometimes, than just one person.
PA: Yes, it is very special. Like the work that you and I did together.
SB: Yeah! It looks so good together. It makes a whole new thing that’s very unusual, and special. I feel like the piece is so good because of the heads you put on it. (Laughs) And your heads look so interesting now because of this body that I made. And so, together we made something even better, and that’s why people like it so much, I think.
PA: Yes, I think so. My father told me about the way people should work together, to get along together, and everything will be better. A better life.
SB: It takes a very big, generous thing for your father to say that. He was a wise and generous man. As a White person, I wasn’t taught to think about anybody else in school, so I had to learn it myself, learn how to be a better person. I have always felt very lucky that I had art, because, in art you can collaborate with others as equals. With my collaborations with Shuvinai Ashoona, we didn’t have to use the English language, which is white language, we could just use pictures to communicate because pictures are everybody’s language. That’s human language.
SB: I felt, this is a good way to start fresh, try to start again with pictures, where we could meet as equals.
SB: If you had a magic wish for the future of the Matchbox, what do you imagine the best thing could be?
PA: I would want to have somebody working there to keep the Matchbox Gallery going. It would be very nice to help people who need jobs up here. It should be a little bit bigger so there’s more room to work there. And also if it could run by itself, that would be very nice.
SB: Do you think that it can be Inuit run?
PA: It could be whoever. Inuit or southerner, anybody. As long as the Inuit and southerners are working together, it would be very nice. Like, a southerner could work there, and that person would know about south, and Inuk person would know about north. They can help each other, and it would be very nice.
SB: Together, yeah. With respect and equality. It could benefit everybody.
PA: Yes. They can help each other, and it would be very nice.
SB: I know, that sounds–
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.