The owl print or the soapstone walrus have become so fixed in the Canadian imagination it may be difficult to consider Inuit art as something other than inevitable. The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (as it has been called since its inception) celebrated its 60th year in 2019, and the anniversary programming includes an exhibit devoted to Kenojuak Ashevak that will be touring the country in 2020. That survey includes rare drawings, the artist’s original images of the bears, birds and mystical figures so familiar from the popular prints. But an exhibition of early silkscreened and block-printed textiles from Cape Dorset (or Kinngait) at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto tells a less well-known story and forces a reconsideration of how 20th-century Inuit art began.
As the Canadian government forced a people living on the land into permanent settlements, the Inuit began to need cash. The art projects run by the Cape Dorset co-op – the arm that would become Kinngait Studios – were initially introduced by government agents. The idea was that the skills used to carve stone, incise bone and sew clothing could be adapted to produce handicrafts for southern markets. But carving and printmaking were just two possibilities: This show offers a wide selection of rarely seen textiles, startlingly modernist and highly colorful designs created in the 1950s and 60s.
The show, curated by Roxane Shaughnessy, includes a small selection of clothing and boots decorated with stitching and appliqué that gave rise to the idea Inuit artists might excel at designing textiles. And then it includes bolt after bolt of the striking fabrics: Before they became prints on paper, drawings by Cape Dorset artists were conceived as potential patterns for interior design or clothing. Just as the prints were not pulled by the artist themselves but by master printmakers using their drawings, the textiles were also printed in the co-op using imagery from drawings. (One of the key printers was Kananginak Pootoogook, who as a young man was instrumental in establishing the co-op and later became well-known for his own imagery.)
So a black drawing of a large goose with a dog and walrus by the artist Parr (who used only one name and is a key figure in the exhibition) becomes a pattern of brown and red geese on cotton sateen twill. Pitseolak Ashoona creates an image of an owl for a stonecut print that shows up again as a repeating figure on a bolt of linen. A photograph of Ashevak shows her wearing a dress with her own images of birds printed down the long, bell-shaped sleeves. Twenty-one artists are represented – most of whom are now dead – but some of the pieces are anonymous: This show is preserving an artistic history as fragile as the textiles themselves.
To contemporary eyes, the bold but simple patterns in strong yellows, pinks, reds and blues echo the familiar imagery of the prints, but also look distinctly modern. Indeed, the show has a powerful mid-century vibe that evokes Mary Quant or Marimekko as much as Ashevak or Pootoogook. The exoticism of these art fabrics made them hip at the time: The show includes a few commercial images of southern models wearing clothes printed with Kinngait imagery posing incongruously in the Arctic.
One Toronto company does still license the patterns – and there’s a new, bright yellow shirt offered as an example – but for the most part, the textile project foundered on the logistics of trying to produce hand-printed yardage in the North. Prints and carvings proved easier to make and sell.
Still, the current nostalgia for 20th-century design suggests southerners might now embrace Inuit textiles. A handful of contemporary examples speak to some continuity in the tradition. These include a cotton dress designed by Martha Kyak of InukChic with a richly coloured floral pattern on a dark ground and a shape based on the traditional amauti, or women’s parka, with its long tail coat. It’s a striking piece of clothing and more evidence of the complexities of Inuit art history.
Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios continues through Aug. 30 at the Textile Museum of Canada.
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The opening of local photographer Jennifer Irving’s Uptown art gallery, Paris Crew, is another step in a lifelong entrepreneurial journey.
“I feel like it was something I’ve had since I was young, starting little businesses,” said Irving. “I’ve had a buckwheat pillow business, I’ve had a falafel business with my brother in the City Market, I had a nail polish business when I was 12. I just always loved business for some reason.”
She pursued the idea of operating a bricks-and-mortar gallery after she held a pop-up once at the Moonlight Bazaar two years ago.
“I was just so energized about talking to people about my work. Instead of doing an online interaction, I was able to talk to people and tell them about the photos,” she explained. “That launched me into a whole idea of working with galleries or starting my own so I could showcase my work.”
After a tip from her framer, she purchased 62 Water Street, the former souvenir shop Distant Waters and a historic property built in 1885 in the wake of the Saint John fire.
Paris Crew, named after the Saint John area rowers who won the World Rowing Championship in Paris in 1867, showcases the work of artists like Cliff Turner, Timothy “Bjorn” Jones, Melanie Koteff, Shannon Gates, Leigh Donovan, as well as Irving’s own photography.
COVID-19 threw a wrench into Paris Crew’s plans to benefit from the summer cruise ship and tourist season, as well as causing renovation delays, but Irving believes the gallery will help further develop the increasingly busy Water Street.
“It’s always boggled my mind that our waterfront isn’t more developed,” she said. “I’ve fallen in love with this little block, this little area which felt a little bit empty just a few years ago. It’s coming alive and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
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Irving wants the Paris Crew to be another gallery and creative space for Saint John artists. It’s going to be a multi-functional venue where visual and musical artists could hold concerts and pop-ups, even though the pandemic has changed the shape of those original plans.
Livestreamed events and bubble concerts are some examples of potential events.
“We’re so excited to explore new ideas and different ways of doing things,” she said.
“We want to bring the arts community together, whether it’s people interested in photography, painting, or music. I’d like to see the community come together [here] and be able to celebrate the art scene here in Saint John.”
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Thanks to a very generous donation from an art gallery in Montreal, Grace Village is giving out thousands of dollars-worth of art this week as a way of saying thank you to its staff members for their hard work over the last six months.
“They are dedicated, committed, and have really sacrificed a lot,” said Andrea Eastman, the home’s interim executive director, explaining that the donation was arranged through a board member following a discussion about how the community could recognize the work of the staff during the pandemic. “The board had been trying to come up with a way to thank the employees and do something that is a little bit different.”
The artworks have been put on display for the residents to enjoy, and workers are being invited to come and select a work of their choice over the course of the week, based on their seniority.
Looking back on the last few months, Eastman said that the word “challenging” only scratches the surface of the realities that people working in retirement communities and long-term care homes have been facing.
“Our focus has been on keeping our residents safe and healthy,” she said. “That has guided every decision about what we needed to do.”
Eastman underlined the importance of clear communication and trust as key pillars to the success of the Grace Village community since the start of the pandemic
“It’s a shared responsibility with employees, residents, their families and other people in the community; You have to have trust in each other,” she said. “The more you communicate about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, the clearer it is that we’re all in this together.”
Asked whether the home has faced the same sorts of difficulties with people failing to respect rules and guidelines that have been reported at other care homes in the region, the interim director said that there have certainly been cases where people needed to be reminded of the reasons why things are the way they are.
“We’ve remained quite strict, but we’re trying to be as sensitive as possible,” she said.
In matters ranging from employee scheduling during a time when multiple days off in a row might be needed for a test, to figuring out how to offer residents enrichment when gathering together is largely off limits, Eastman said that her key word has been optimism.
“I try to focus on what we are able to do, rather than what we are not able to do,” she said, adding that the support and commitment of the whole team plays an important role in making a challenging situation more feasible. “What they are doing goes above and beyond what their employer is asking of them.”
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