For many the names of Inuit artists such as Kenojuak,or Pitseolak are familiar, key to incorporating their art and names into Canadian art history. But how many, including readers of this site, have heard of Kavik, or Samgushak, or Tatty, or E2-290? These latter are Inuit ceramists and sculptors, in what used to be called Rankin Inlet – now Kangirlliniq – Nunavut. Their story arc, unlike Baker Lake, Cape Dorset or Povungnituk, had a lesser known outcome, not even rating a mention on Inuit art articles in Wikipedia or the Canadian Encyclopedia. This page will look at the artists and other players in the first of what could be called a two-act drama. This story is too big to be include in one article.The second, act, better known as the Matchbox Galley will be the focus of a second article. A few points need mentioning to clarify what is and what is not included in this page:
- For consistency’s sake for this article, I will use the earlier more familiar name for the community, Rankin Inlet
- There are various spellings of Inuit names, of place and of people. For consistency I am using a version that has been used by such major collections as the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
- The format of this page is different from my usual postings. The page is about a group of artists and their environment, rather than a single artist. By highlighting members of a community I will hopefully encourage further exploration into artists mentioned here and those, that for space, I unfortunately could not include.
- This article will not include the Cape Dorset Inuit ceramist, Makituk Pingwartuk, whose career followed an entirely different path including studies at the Kootenay School of Art and involved studies with such teachers as Walter Dexter. Her story can be seen at the website https://burntembers.com/2015/07/19/makituk-pingwartuk-inuit-ceramic-artist/.
- For those who may wonder, there will be a future page dealing with southern Indigenous ceramics including such artists as the Smiths of Ontario.
- This is also the story of what would become a community, and the role of governments, agencies and mostly southern artists/advisors who tenaciously fought to assist the local artists in their work and to survive. If that sounds a paternalistic, remember I am writing about attitudes of another era some sixty years ago – more than half a century, ago.
Contemporary Inuit ceramics have been a lesser known, inconsistent force in Inuit art, since 1964. Now, increasingly recognized and appreciated over the decades, they have played an often tenuous status compared to other Inuit at forms, such as soapstone sculpture, graphics and fibre arts.
The story of Rankin Inlet ceramics has two main and distinct phases, with a thin link of artists connecting the two: The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project (hereafter called the Project) and the Matchbox Gallery period.
The story of ceramics in Rankin Inlet is fascinating in its historical-social and artistic dimensions. The players are many. Their names and stories are familiar to devotees of Inuit art, but basically only to those devotees and some researchers. They need to be better known as part of the Canadian ceramic art story.
Why Rankin Inlet? Why Ceramics?
Rankin Inlet did not exist before 1955. This article, is, therefore, about a consequence of boom town mining economics – from 1957 on – and associated federal and territorial government policies and actions.
Although there is some scattered history of Inuit ceramics, the story of Rankin Inlet ceramics owes its existence to the persistence of what would become town members, the Inuit artists, southern committees and agencies, and the efforts of a handful of southern coordinators.
The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project Takes Form
First, some Background. Bear with me. Although we shall soon get to the artists and their work, we need to have some context into the back story of how their art came about. A story that is much different from the experience of southern ceramic workers.
Although earlier Thule culture pottery shards have been archaeological finds, there is no significant, inherent tradition of Inuit ceramics. Other media could be used for utilitarian and artistic items: stone, ivory, furs, and fibre. There are practical limitations to ceramics as a traditional medium north of the tree line: the need for suitable clay – its location and assessment/experimentation; the lack of firing material; the time required from start to finish to complete products that were non-survival based; and the dramatic seasonal climatic differences that are linked to hunting and other food gathering needs. This last factor would also play a part as a seasonal supply activity in the Project.
The history of Inuit art in general in the 20th century has much of its roots in governmental bureaucracy, with a focus on “authenticity.”
So why and how did the Project start? The short answer, a nickel mine and its collapse. Essentially, Rankin inlet did not exist before 1957. The North Rankin Nickel Mine (1957-62) needed employees; and many of the Inuit communities were in dire straits – and I do mean dire – including starvation. The federal government saw an opportunity to keep people off welfare and to provide employees for the mine.
“The hunters and their families came not to Rankin inlet with fish in mind but fetched by boats and with their sleds they came to Rankin Inlet and the mine[sic] they were drawn by promises of payments never heard before across the North.” 8
Many Inuit were settled in the new town and became part of a wage-based population. When there is a boom there is a following bust. Five years later, by autumn 1962 the mine was finished.8
The employment period was long enough to disrupt but not fully eliminate traditional lifestyles. But there were now families in town who had come to rely on wages and felt they had no other place to go.
Dr. Robert G. Williamson describes the situation:
“By autumn 1962 the mine was dead. … The government had made no plans of substance for the people when the mining ceased. They could go home to hunting or Relief [sic] or maybe to another mine up North to work along the radar line or something would turn up but for many most of all inland people there was nowhere to go.” 8
The emergence of art and artists in Rankin Inlet is in stark contrast to the experience of ”Southern” artists who normally follow the art school path that starts as an educational choice. Art/craft started for many Inuit as a necessity, a chance for economic survival. Now immersed in a wage economy returning to the land was not an option for many. Going on welfare was not a preferred choice. Creating items for sale was a preferred route providing a channel for government support. But southern help was required.
“… in response to a direct application for support, and prompted by the success of similar art projects in other Arctic communities, the Federal Government expanded the arts and crafts program in Rankin inlet. In 1963 Claude Grenier, an artist from Chicoutimi, Québec, was appointed arts and crafts officer.” 9
It is sometimes mentioned that Grenier was a unilingual francophone, as if this was some impediment to success. The number of southerners who were familiar with, let alone fluent in, Inuktitut at the time, were few, to say the least. He came to be well regarded by the artists who came to work within the workshops. The workshop also became family and social hubs. Originally the plan was for the Grenier and his wife to stay for one year. They stayed seven. 18
The goal was to provide income to the producers by selling marketable art in southern Canada. The results were mixed. Also, it seems his efforts were not always consistently appreciated by the oversight, Southern, expert government committees and departments who provided direction and recommendations to his efforts. These latter were also concerned with “quality” that would boost marketability in the south. “Authenticity” would be a concern too, although, again, the medium, ceramics, was not a traditional one. This was a tricky situation since the success of Inuit prints, sculpture and sewing were already big hits in southern markets. Was there a point in setting up another competitve market? Any hint of a lack of similar success kept the project under a stern eye.
Grenier assumed his role in 1963. Robert Williamson, a southerner resident, describes the arrival of Grenier and the situation he was facing:
”. Claude Grenier … [set] down his suitcase on the grimy bunkhouse floor. He had one room to sleep in, and three more for workshop purposes, and nothing else but quiet will and half a roll of woollen cloth. His budget was a little joke .“ 8
As an Arts and Crafts Officer Grenier, and his wife, Cécile, were to develop such activities as sculpture, printmaking, and clothing, already proven money makers in other Inuit communities. Cécile would be influential in helping with fashion design.
Sculpture was hampered by the nature of the local stone: a hard, coarse, dark, basaltic, type that did not lend itself to the polished and detailed soapstone forms with which most southern dealers and collectors were familiar and desired.
Competing market factors had to also be considered. Which arts and crafts would work? As mentioned other communities such as Cape Dorset and Baker Lake were already well positioned in printmaking and soapstone carving.
Grenier was, however, a potter and encouraged this medium. Further, his style was more of demonstrating the techniques and letting the artists explore the medium in their own ways; not telling them what to do.
The choice of ceramics also made sense in using some of the resources left over from the mine:
“Rankin Inlet had enough space for a studio and power to run a modern kiln, both thanks to the abandoned mine buildings. Plus, the people needed some way to earn money. And so began the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project.” 18
Grenier’s assignment was not an easy one: materials, ceramic techniques and the overriding power of the Council, that initially wanted functional ware with Inuit motifs, proved constant challenges. In short, tourist stuff.
He started the program in 1964 and imported commercial clays. This he supplemented with more local clays and occasionally used tailings from the now defunct mine to use as grog in his mixtures.
It would take Grenier another two years to obtain an electric kiln.8 Greenware, unfired work, would unavoidably pile up on the shelves. In 1966-67 an oil fired kiln based on an Ontario Art College model would be built. Its operation, however, proved quirky, due to dust from other parts of the workshop covering sensors, with a consequent piling up of unfired work.22
Dave Sutherland comments on the effects to enhance the viability of the project:
“The artists became discouraged and, in an effort to generate some income, several of the women were trained to make utilitarian objects on the wheel. Some souvenirs were produced for a Northwest Territories centennial. In the spring of 1970 as the Government of the Northwest Territories prepared to take over responsibility.” 22
The choice of clay thus met with some success as a new medium; the Art Centre was also part of this exploration:
”: the malleable quality of clay made it easier to work with than stone, and they used it to produce large sculptural forms and bowls depicting a mix of human and animal heads or hunting and fishing scenes. The Arts Centre became a magnet for artists from across the community — eighty of them in 1964 — who drew inspiration from each other.” 16
The Eskimo Arts Council, which sought to set overall standards for marketing Inuit art, meanwhile pushed for more functional work and work that was glazed. The results were not what they expected. Grenier’s experience was in low-fired work: the artists applied boot polish to their works and sanded and polished the surfaces. The Council was not amused. There was also a worry that such works would compete with the stone sculpture market. 10
“Grenier was directed to return to the original concept of “the pot” with Inuit motifs and to explore glazes other than shoe polish.” 10
Wight describes the Project’s further essays into ceramic production:
“1966 was a year of great momentum imported clay was mixed with local clay that had a pebbled texture and could give a variety of clay bodies. The local clay was also mixed with particles of crushed rocks to give the ceramic work a unique character. Adorned pots and bizarre human heads with animal parts were hand built using coil and slab techniques and grew in scale and imagination. Some work was done with low fire glazes in beige brown, olive green, blue and turquoise, but these were not very successful or popular with the artists.“ 10
1967, Centennial Year, saw a further development in the exhibition Keewatin Eskimo Ceramics, held at the Toronto Public Library. Reception was enthusiastic, and follow up exhibitions were held world-wide, but over the years sales were disappointing.
Although Grenier did bring a number of male artists to Southern recognition the labour was constant.
Grenier would resign in August 1970. He later received an Order of Canada and served as founder and President of the Amerindian and Inuit Museum in Godbout, Quebec. Some twelve years later he would reflect positively on his experience – perhaps mellowed by the years:
” These days I spend my summers at the Museum and often, as I admire the Rankin Inlet works sitting in the showcases, I think back to the big crafts studio where the artists sang softly as they worked, where everyone stopped at midday for a bite of whale muktuk and a good hot cup of tea. During those exciting years the community seemed to come alive. It not only prospered financially and economically, but also saw a great re-awakening of Inuit art and culture.” 5
The Project: Phase 2 and Robert Billyard (1970 -73)
While the focus on ceramics was to continue. the southern paternalistic attitude to the artists, the Project, and even the advisors, was even reflected in someone as supportive as Virginia Watt.
“The people in Rankin want to work. We are the teachers, the advisors, the experts, the administrators. In effect, we are solely responsible of Ceramics 1 [the Grenier years]. The moment we created Ceramics 2 [the Billyard years], we accepted responsibility for it’s (sic) success or failure. I don’t think we can afford to lose face a second time. The only course open to us is to meet our commitment with a responsible support of the program.” 2
The project was taken over by the Government of the North Territories. Bob Billyard, a ceramist graduate of the University of Manitoba, was hired as coordinator.
Billyard arrived in the Fall of 1970. Described as lanky, skillful … a good ceramist who came from Winnipeg to give his innovative best.8 He was given surprisingly little information on the project history. He recalls:
“It was like shooting in the dark, “.15
However, he had always had an avid interest in the North, gleaning much of his knowledge from The Beaver magazine. After a call from George Swinton to go and check out the Rankin Inlet Project he was on his way.15
It would, however, take him about a year to get things in order, to get the project up and running again:
- momentum in the project had stalled
- many of the artists had drifted away to find more lucrative, often full-time employment, and were unwilling to come back into the program;
- there was an inventory problem of unsold and unfinished works;
- there was also the matter of the kiln.15
Getting the kiln up and running consistently gives a sense of the constraints and opportunities of the job at the time.
But Billyard did acknowledge:
” They had a vary nice shop. The facility was a huge quanset building” 15
Virginia Watt had visited Rankin Inlet and recommended completely overhauling the kiln. It was still there when Billyard arrived, its automated features handicapped by the dust and debris from the workshop’s collocated carving and clay areas. He describes the kiln as
“… a huge, oil-fired, downdraft, fully automated but needing more manual controls for the fine tuning required for the air-fuel mix for high-fired stonewares to be produced.”15
To get things going he initially ordered pre-made, ready-to-go kilns from the Pottery Supply House in Oakville, Ontario. This was vetoed by the government. Instead Luke Lindoe was brought in. He essentially rebuilt the kiln as a car kiln with manual controls. Billyard was able to add a small salt-glazing kiln on the back to experiment with. This whole kiln reconstruction process set any operational plans back a year.
The above picture on the right gives a sense of the sculptural and functional work created.
In the meantime there was the inventory problem. The lack of sales from the earlier years had created a workshop with many earthenware and stoneware works taking up space, mostly still as greenware. There was a “huge warehouse” where the works could be stored. In discussing selections with with Robert Williamson, and with the artists themselves, Billyard was able to determine which works to preserve.
”There was a warehouse where they had put the stuff in storage and they just had to get it out of the way. The work was a mixture of greenware [and] stoneware but [we] couldn’t tell which was which so everything that was to be saved was fired to bisque temperatures.” 15
Part of the situation was not only the quantity of the work. But some of the work was quite large to say the least.
Billyard also gives insight into the another northern factor that affected the workshop’s momentum. The October Sealift. Resupply by ship, was the biggest community activity in the Fall each year. For example he would order about a ton of clay at a time from Plainsman Clay. Originally he tried tried ordering clay from the Pottery Supply House but the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) vetoed this idea, so only glazing materials were obtained from the Pottery Supply House. Air was a transportation mode for light materials such as kiln bricks.
But perhaps the Project’s biggest problem, he felt, was the sense of stagnation: many of the best artists had left the project, found other employment, and would not return to the project.15
Billyard also tidied up and restocked the ceramic studio by:
- moving the carvers into an adjacent school room;
- separating the glaze areas from the clay working areas;
- and installing a pug mill to recycle clay.
There was still and issue as to whether to glaze or leave works with bare, fired surfaces. There was some glaze spraying but most glazing was by dipping.15
Billyard invited southern artists such as Charlie Scott from the University ofManitoba to come and teach. Visiting southern artists would be an occasional event.
He also encouraged glazing and raku, However, glazing never really seemed to appeal to the artists.22
The grind of bureaucracy and artists leaving to seek paid employment took its toll. Billyard resigned in June 1973, further pursuing his own studio ceramist career, among other things creating a mural for the Sturdy Stone Building in Saskatoon. He currently lives in Vancouver.
The Project: The Final Years, Michael Kusugak et al.
Local talent had been developed in Michael Kusugak. He had worked with Billyard, spoke Inuktitut, and had a talent for ceramics.22 As the new Arts and Crafts Officer he too tried new features and techniques. Darlene Coward Wight comments on Kusugak’s style and developments:
“ He had a preference for work thrown on a pottery wheel, but the artists continued to hand build their pieces. Charlie Scott visited Rankin inlet again in 1974 and helped Kusugak develop a slip glaze from the local clay which gave a brown surface . A combination of this slip and salt glaze became popular over the next two years. Motifs on the pots became flatter, just slightly raised off the surface.” 10
A potential uptick in the appointment of Kusugak to the Eskimo Arts Council in 1974 gave him the opportunity to learn about the art market , copyright and funding. He believed he could develop a stable market, and proposed selling the ceramics across the country.
“what they wanted us to do was to produce all the pottery in the shop and sell what we could out of the shop and whatever we didn’t sell we boxed up and shipped to Yellowknife. They put it in a warehouse over there and from there I don’t really know what happened to it except that there was some, I guess there was some pieces that they took down south to the Toronto gift show.” 2
Stacey Neale gives a sad commentary on the situation Kusugak found himself in:
“Like his predecessors, discouragement with the lack of funding and of support and interest from the GNWT took its toll. in light of the Department of Economic Development’s reluctance to support the program, he recommended ‘that they close the place down because, you know … I wanted people to remember it as it was rather [than] what it was going to be, you know, a glorious pottery shop that didn’t ever market anything.’ ” 4
He left the project in 1975 settling initially on Vancouver Island and then Manitoba, becoming an author of Children’s books including Spirits from Under the Sea.
The Department of Economic Development and Tourism in one last effort hired Ashok Shah. His task was unenviable. Little is known about him. Sutherland comments;
”[He] had been in charge of a large production pottery in India and had worked with the Blue Mountain Pottery. Shah did not remain with the project for very long, however, and, when he left, the ceramics workshop finally closed. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre had first claim on the finished work. The rest was sold locally in Rankin and then in Yellowknife.” 22
Neale adds more detail to what still existed:
” When the workshop officially closed in 1977, artists Yvo Samgushak and Eli Tikeayak were still working, “learning new slip casting techniques under a federal initiatives program grant”. The closing was the result of the high operating costs (between $35,000 and $40,000 per year) and the overproduction of large pots that were difficult to ship and sell. 23
Wight further comments :
“The ceramics workshop officially closed in 1977. The craft shop continued to be a place where people gathered to sell carvings or sewing and to visit it until it was finally shut down in 1987.” 10
In retrospect the turnover of managerial talent, the lure of other employment on participants, the lacklustre sales returns, and the shifting of the project between government departments, with attendant funding issues, sapped the life force from the venture.
Another element was the disconnect between the northern community and the southern councils and committees. While Grenier, for example, not noted for his administrative preferences, did have the administrative assistance of Bernadette Kuki,2 and Billyard had the help of Michael Kusugak, perhaps the direct local Inuit management under Kusugak assisted by artist Donat Anawak came to late.
But perhaps it is better to say the Project did not die; rather its seeds lay dormant until the Shirleys and a mostly new generation of artists brought new vigour and life via the Matchbox Gallery.
Stay tuned. And now for a look at some of the artists and their works.
Selected Artists and Gallery
First a Few notes
- Although there was a potential for group or mult-part compositions as in the Angutituak work above, there was also less mixing of other media – stone, bone, ivory, wood – than in more “familiar” and popular stone carvings from other centres.
- Although multiple figure subjects were not common, rather, mostly single figures or forms, multiple figurative elements were applied onto, or incised into the major form.
- Many of the “rules” that apply in Western art history biographies do not apply in Inuit biographies. Name spellings are various; birth dates are often specifically unknown.
- Collaboration in creating works was more frequent than in Southern art; rather, creation and production reflected community norms of sharing and cooperation.
- Although I will be challenged I do not see ceramic sculpture as an “authentic” or traditional art form, not to the degree seen since the 1960s. Although clay forms or figures were possibly produced in the past they were clay, not fired ceramic, and their chance of survival would have been minimal. The modern clay movement basically had its start through one person, the ceramist and organizer, Claude Grenier. But the vigour and success in which the Inuit explored and exploited clay as a medium, and made it their own, is a testament to their creativity and ability to adapt the medium on their own terms.
- The pressure for economic results mirroring the success of Inuit prints and sculpture was constant from government departments – federal and territorial – and councils and southern sales outlets. There was a constant tension between the known successful market look and the new explorations that the Rankin Inlet Inuit chose to explore themselves.
- Although it is hard to precisely date works from the project, comments from Grenier and Billyard about clay and forming might give some clues. Grenier describes an initial clay source:
“The clay we used was dug up along the shores of Baker Lake, near Chesterfield Inlet, thanks to Pissuk, the hunter who found it. This stoneware clay contained iron oxides which gave it a reddish colour. Once washed and prepared, it proved to be an excellent modelling material which turned chocolate brown when baked in the kiln.” 5
Grenier further describes approaches that would give the works the much desired Northern, even signature, look to many works:
“We even received a motorized rock crusher which was useful in breaking up and pulverizing the different kinds of stones that we collected from the tundra and added to the clay to bind it and give texture. When baked in the kiln, these mixtures gave our clays and glazes a special ‘northern quality’ reminiscent of the coloured lichens of the Arctic landscape, and marked our pottery with a distinctive and primitive style all its own” 5
- Robert Billyard describes the clay used during his stay. Note the mention of stoneware:
“Some earthenware but mostly cone 10 stoneware; some clay local but usually mixed in with imported, prepared clay from the south, Plainsman Clay in the 1970s.” 15
- The Pottery Supply House was the source for Billyard’s glazes.15 But glazing was not a favoured process:
“The potential for a unique ceramic product at Rankin is so great that it cannot and must not be destroyed by the use of commercial glazes.” 24
- Handbuilding, coil and slab, were the preferred methods most of the time. Later in the period wheel throwing was sometimes used.2
- Relief elements were sculpted and added to the form, especially where shamanistic or mythological meanings were depicted. Frequently in naturalistic or “portrait head” subjects the details were incised or impressed.
- Shoe polish was an early experiment to simulate glazing. It was met with horror by the southern committees. Examples have made it into the markets. Neale comments though:
“it was used briefly and was discontinued before the work reached the market. The artists used a reddish-brown shoe polish that was rubbed into the surface and highly polished.”2
Commercial glazes had a limited success. Neale describes:
“… glaze was used with limited success. Colours ranged fiom garish oranges and greens to calmer blues and browns. Often this did not suit the work and was in conflict with the naturalistic qualities of the images. Some examples show that it was applied like paint to “colour in” an object instead of highlighting its features.”2
- Salt glazing was a a favourite of Charlie Scott and Bob Billyard, and a salt kiln was built. The process comes with some potentially deadly consequence and was not used much in the Project. Neale does mention such an example of Tatty’s, “Bird With Outstretched Wings”, supposedly in the Canadian Museum of History, but I cannot locate it. If others know. please let me know.
- Grenier described the forming techniques during his period:
“It did not take long for them to adapt their skills to clay modelling, using either the slab or coil method. The technique was simple; first the rough form was made with coils rolled on a plaster slab to keep the clay at a working consistency; then came the final moulding, with clay paste being added to the outside surface until the desired shape was achieved.” 5
- Although the artists’ names known are almost exclusively men there were women involved in the Project. Some women proved themselves most adept at throwing on the wheel making pots and mugs, as recommended by the Eskimo Art Council and others advsors. During Billyard’s stay the women would throw forms to be later used by the male artists.15 This would include, but not limited to not only vases, but also wheel-thrown lips and bases for coil-built vases. In effect, this would mean some, perhaps many, of the works below are more the result of a community approach that underlies Inuit culture. Also, the women seemed to have worked especially on functional ware, much desired by the southern committees.
- Grenier mentions Betty Kamingmak and Bernadette Kuki Innuksuk.5 Billyard photographed Annie Inuyak (Okaleak).15
- Virginia Watt. also, commented on the technical skills of Annie Inuyak and a woman named Rollande, providing her expert, pottery technical approval and a touch of the humanity in the Project’s participants:
“Annie is a young woman who has been throwing approximately one year. Her technique and sensitivity to form is equivalent to a southern ceramist who has been studying for three to four years. I observed that no disturbance in the shop interfered with her ability to concentrate. When I watched her work, there was no self conscious hesitation in her approach to her work. She smiled at me and continued to to’l her pot — ignoring my presence. Excellent!” 24
“Rollande, another young woman who has been working on the wheel. She is not working at the moment, having recently had a baby. Bob Billyard is sure that she will be coming back to work. I wish that I had seen this woman at work. Her pots range from good to unbelievably excellent! She too, has been throwing for approximately one year. She relates clay to form with a sensitivity that many professional ceramists never achieve, no matter how many years they work.” 24
- This gender aspect of the Project history is much less documented and deserves further research, not only for the artists’ documentation but also to locate and identify examples of the functional ware they produced.
- As mentioned above there was a quirky, fully automated oil fired kiln during Grenier’s time. This was mostly on downtime; so much so that smaller kilns were used. Virginia Watt was brought up to do and analysis of the kiln problems. During Billyard’s time Luke Lindoe rebuilt an oil fired downdraft kiln in 1970. This whole process stalled firing activity for a year at the beginning of Billyard’s early tenure.
- Although there was production/creation “guidance” from Southern consultants and markets there were also magazines and other materials available for artistic inspiration.
A Selection of Artists and their Work
- NB: There are varying amounts of biographical information on Inuit ceramic artists. As this changes in future years these biographies here will be updated.
John Kavik (1897-1993)
Alternative Names: Kavik Kavik, John Kavik, Qavik Kavik
Syllabic Name: ᔭᓐ ᑲᕕ
Disc No.: E2-290
John Kavik, one of the best known artists of the community, was a respected hunter during his early years,12d and came toRankin Inlet in 1959.12a He was in his sixties at the time and so did not work in the mine.
Also, a respected elder, he started his art career working in stone. By 1960 he was working in graphite and pencil crayon. A few years later he was in the ceramics program that had started in 1964, creating figurative works, especially around themes of mother and child, and hunting culture 12a
His style has been described as
“distinct … and direct [a] sensitive use of line, … minimal in nature … infused with an emotional intensity at the same time.12a
Widely collected, by 1965 he was participating in group exhibitions (including the 1967 Toronto show, Keewatin Eskimo Ceramics at the The Toronto Public Library), eventually participating in over fifty exhibitions in Canada and overseas. His first solo show was in 1986, Sculpture by John Kavik at Craft Ontario (formerly The Guild Shop) in Toronto. 12a
Kavik’s ceramic work is “heavy”, solid. His individual figures are robust with minimal detail, resembling the simplicity of his carved stone works in both surface and detail. Later in the 1970s his his forms started becoming more raw, less refined.12d One could use the term “expressionistic” in their intensity. His figures are often in standing, sitting or bending poses and not engaged in some specific Inuit activity or ritual.
Recommendations from Southern consultants suggested the Project’s artists produce more functional works. Kavik, along with his fellow artists would turn the basic vase form into a matrix for figurative works that seem to be emerging from the clay body itself. The People With Animals jar has a glaze, a feature again recommended by southern consultants. I find the glazed vases less satisfactory with the glaze infilling many of the forms. His unglazed vase with figures (above right) more honestly deals with the surface, colours and textures of the fired clay. The initial vase form becomes a mere surface for a broader sculpture in the round.
His coiled vases with overlays of figures and sometimes animals have a tension, raising the question are they merely overlaying the vase shape, or are they emerging from its very matrix. His figures and vases are solid, massive often masking the fact that the underling form such as his Igloo (above right) is in its shape simply a modified, inverted beaker.
His work is housed in major collections including the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, ON, the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Winnipeg, MB. 12d
Pie Kukshout (1911-1980)
Alternative Names: Kukshout Kukshout, Pie Kukshout, Kooshoo Kukshout. 12e
Disc Number: E2-302
The establishment of the mine in Rankin Inlet was not the only reason Inuit families moved there. Born in Hanningajuq (Garry Lake), Pie Kukshout moved from Tikirarjuaq (Whale Cove), to escape inland starvation.2 By the time the Project started he was already well into his ‘50s. He started out in stone carving but moved into ceramics in his ‘70s.
Kukshout’s style was a marked contrast to Kavik, with a particular, but not exclusive, focus on the head. The basic structure of the heads is an inverted vase or jar form, particularly noticeable in the neck of the head equivalent to the neck of a vase. His Bearded Head With Snow Goggles with its several days beard growth and tousled hair is a straightforward depiction of one aspect of Inuit life, living and hunting in a snow environment. There is a basic interest in the contours of the face. Some elements such as the snow goggles, nose and ears are additive, simple in form; others, beard and eyebrows are picked and scoured, subtractive.
Many Faces With Three Seals is a dramatic change in complexity, not only of form but also of subject. Interestingly, although the faces are crowded together beneath shared hairlines in a repetitive, manner, the three seals sit on top, more carefully and exactly formed. The faces, although similar are not duplicates. The features and details vary, as do the expressions. These catch the eye, inviting more exploration of similarities and differences.
The Inuit Art Foundation gives an insightful description of Two Faced Head with Climbing Figure and Bird and its context”
“Two Faced Head with Climbing Figure and Bird (c. 1970) is an excellent example of the
sculptural approach to clay for which the Kangiqliniq [Rankin Inlet] ceramicists became known. Although bureaucrats in Ottawa wanted the artists to produce vessels, fearing that ceramic sculptures could have an adverse effect on the stone carving market, Kukshout, alongside his collaborators, continued to produce sculptural work. Here, the face of an elderly man bursts out of the forehead of the younger man, showing the evolution of time on the human body, perhaps in a portrait of the artist’s own changing face. The surface on the back of the two front-facing heads could have been simply a textural representation of hair, but Kukshout has used this real estate to depict a figure climbing to a flying bird, possibly symbolically representing his own struggles to capture his subject matter during his artistic journey.” 12e
Two Owls show a conjoined pair defiantly staring at the viewer. The pair are not twins. The scoring on their wings differs; and the hind bird has a subtle shift in the head that gives it a less quizzical look. What captures the eye, however, are the ruffled “feathers” that cover the head nape, back and rump. While the breasts are smooth the backs are defined by small, flattened globes of clay, each picked out with multiple holes. The eyes are simply carved out circles that enhance their glare.
The Ceramic Pot shows the effect of coil building. The intent here it seems is not a pure, functional vessel form but a shape-base and surface to add a landscape for animal forms. The base of the pot swells up to form a ground line upon which – and from which – appliqué musk ox and caribou move and emerge. The surfaces are somewhat smoothed but not to a polish. Elements of a green glaze can be seen, a recommendation again from southern consultants. The effects were usually not successful, often masking more than enhancing surface features.
Kukshout’s works appear in the public collections of the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Manitoba, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, among others. 12e
Robert Tatty (1927- 2009)
Alternative Names: Tatty Tatty, Robert Tatty, Tatti Tatty 12f
Dates: 1927-2009 12f
Disc Number: E3-404
Robert Tatty typifies the personal and artistic problems facing Inuit artists working in the Project, particularly the on-again-off-again lifestyle changes. Originally from Ukkusiksalik he initially came to work in the nickel mines in Rankin Inlet before joining the Project. With the closing of the Project he moved back to his homeland for two years, working as a hunting guide. However, ill health and his childrens’ education needs took him and his family back to Rankin Inlet.13a Such movement is indicative of the survival need for the artists and their families that lay as an undercurrent to their development . Michael Kusugak, the third Project coordinator, remembers the end-project effect with Tatty working on a garbage collection crew. 2
Owl Holding a Small Aimal in its Talon. The subject matter is typical of much Inuit sculpture, the natural world, their environment, unadorned, life in the raw. Here power and death are portrayed in the powerful but simple monumentality of the owl. Owl and mouse are on a simple base, a decidedly sculptural motif that binds the two together in one form. The owl surface is defined by impressed and carved feathers, and with two large eyes that fix on the small, almost featureless form of its prey.
Three Faces With Animal Noses. Tatty would excel in his depictions of the face. His evolution is interesting. The effect is one of multiple expressions and personalities using applied, carved, incised and contoured techniques. Here the three faces are individual: in their applied slab of hair, in their deeply cut eyes and mouths. The mouths are lipless but one can see rows of teeth, suggesting speech. Each of their large noses are different, formed from suspended seals, an interesting adaptation of an animal form to a human facial element.
Tatty’s heads are a subject that make him stand out. Although he is not unique in this subject he does achieve accomplished results. This interest in heads might,however, have compromised his sales in the south, a market that was accustomed to more “traditional” subjects in more familiar soapstone carvings and graphic works.
Hunter’s Thoughts is fully frontal. The facial features are smooth. Hair and eyebrows are scored and picked. The polar bear on the crown arises from the hunter’s thoughts in a most physical manner. Interestingly it faces to the rear of the head. But perhaps most obviously is the drooping left eye. Too pronounced to be a mistake,it could be a portrait feature; nonetheless, it enhances a distant, almost meditative look.
Head With Flying Dogs has a more portrait like quality in the shapes of the nose and cheekbones. I have not yet been able to find a meaning to the winged dogs but their placement as ears and “skull-thought” hint at a visionary or shamanistic meaning.
Head, decorated with winged wolves. This head is similar in concept and composition to the one on the above right, yet there is such a difference in effect. The details a more fine, the facial features and contours more natural: the hair is carved with shallow rippling marks; there are frown lines on the forehead and nose; the winged animals (are they dogs or wolves?) are more delicately carved in their fur, heads, wings and eyes. This less an artistic experiment, rather a work of art for sale. Whether this is an Inuit’s dream or a shaman’s vision I cannot say. Inuit traditions regarding dogs and wolves are different from those of seals, walrus, polar bears or caribou. Perhaps a reader can add some enlightenment here. But I include the work here because of its riveting nature.
The Head, above right, displays more comfort with the details of the contours and musculature of the face, and a more fully integrated application of added details. The facial creatures are emerging from the mouth and resting like living tatoos upon the skin of the head. A shamanistic transformation in progress? Interestingly, here he has not used the usual red-firing clay.
Robert Tatty is perhaps emblematic of the program and its results. He was peaking artistically but not in sales. He then left the program. Artist to hunting guide to garbage collector. Art succumbed to survival.
Eli Tikeayak 1933-1996
Alternative Names: Tikeayak Tikeayak, Eli Tikeayak, Meekingwaknak Tikeayak, Mangelik Tikeayak, Tikeoyak 12g
Disc Number: — E2-166
The Bust, above left, is a symmetrical, closed form, not full figure, nor just a head. Covered in a transparent glaze with overtones of green and yellow the hooded figure looks out slightly to its left, its arms swung tightly in front of the body, its fists almost clenched. There is a threatening, almost ominous power emanating from this compact demi-figure.
Two Bird/Shamans, above right, display a similar surface treatment to shaman-owls in Kukshout’s work above, though human faces peer from the hoods. The left figure is posed upright, the right lies on its back, wings flapping. The surfaces, the varied poses, the wings give an energy to the figures. They exist as individual figures, not as a sculptural unit, yet there is an underlying unity in their relationship.
The Tikeayak Vase, above left, is a simple, coil-made form covered with figures and, uncharacteristically – for the project – for the dual and dense, yellow and green glaze. The foremost figure is a woman spread out across the surface, facing outwards, while side figures, more sculptural in the heads, face inward seemingly trying to climb into, or at least hang onto, the outside. A matte, green glaze covers the exterior; the vase interior, by contrast is a vivid yellow. The glaze is thickly and loosely applied, especially the yellow, as though it is more an exploration or experiment rather than a subtle surface enhancement. The whole is a response to the constant Southern pressure to produce functional ware and to apply glazes.
The unglazed Head, above right, reflects a sparseness, a simplicity, of form and details. The syllabic signature sits like a tattoo on the lower left of the neck. The facial features are minimal: The ears are not portrayed, covered by the hair, a mere cap; only the nostrils and mouth are cut open. The eyes are sightless engravings. The work has an unfinished quality, yet is signed in syllabics.
Laurent Aksadjuak (1935-2002)
Alternative Names: Aksadjuak Aksadjuak, Laurent Aksadjuak, Aksakyuak Aksadjuak, Aksakjuak Aksadjuak, Atchuk Aksadjuak
Disc Number: E1-17
Laurent Aksadjuak was a link between the original project and the Matchbox Gallery: His son, Roger Aksadjuak, has continued in ceramics in the Matchbox Gallery.
The Seated Hunter, above left and the Inuk With Fish, are very much in the tradition of more familiar Inuit soapstone carvings, both in subject and treatment of form: traditional activities, in either a solid mass, or open form. But the contrast in effect is dramatic. The left has a power in its stable mass, in its carved details, and speckled clay; the right in the dynamic leaning pose of the hunter and elegant curve of the fish. Detail here is minimal. Both works sit on ellipsoid bases, reflective of some European influence.
Vase Decorated With Four Figures uses shoe polish to give a faux glaze look. The vase is a simple coil-built form building up to a simple collared opening. What catches the eye, however, is the figure that is the running, that seeks to escape the matrix of the clay. Little border details of clothing enhance the movement. But what caught my interest was the face in three-quarter view, not full face or profile, competently done. Flanking figures on the left and right (or are they one figure?), in contrast, seem to be submerging into the clay body. An interesting contrast and duality of meaning and effect.
The Pot with Four Faces, above right, is a dramatic shift from his earlier work in terms of its finish. Works such as this, by artists such as Laurent are a bridge to the later years and the output coming from the Matchbox Gallery. Laurent was one artist who continued creating at the end of the project, and was followed by his son Roger Aksadjuak. One needs to tread carefully around attribution and dating in such instances.
Yvo Samgushak (1942 -2004)
Alternative Names: Mangelik Mangelik, Evoo Samgusak Mangelik, Samgusak Mangelik, Yvon Mangelik, Eve Mangelik, Meekingwaknak Mangelik, Samgushak Mangelik. 12i
Disc Number: E2-169
Yvo Samgushak originally came to work in the mine. He had carved in stone and ivory. Much commented on and respected as an artist and community leader, his career demonstrates that much of the activity in the Project was not just community-based but also family-based. Samgushak was the brother of Eli Tikeayak, above. His reputation in the community and as an artist was also commented upon by the second Project coordinator Robert Billyard.15 Yvo worked in the project up to its 1977 closure. Jim Shirley was later to use his talents and importance to teach and inspire the new generation of Matchbox Gallery artists. Samgushak was to continue working until his death in 2004.
Virginia Watt comments:
“His control of clay is a unique talent. This young man knows instinctively when he must let his clay rest and when his clay is ready to be worked. This feel” cannot be taught. Hand building requires not only an instinctive feel for clay, it requires the ability to project design. This ability, Samgusak has in abundance.” 24
NB: There is a youtube video from the Matchbox Gallery era on Samgushak. I only mention it here to hint at the links between the Project and Matchbox eras. https://vimeo.com/72554868 (Vimeo video on Yvo Samgushak showing the influence of culture on their work; and the effect of dreams. Yvo, a respected hunter and artist, communicated in Inuit sign language.)
Yvo Samgushak began working with clay when he was nineteen years old.1 An early member of the original Project, in later life he was also an active teacher despite hearing and speech impairments.2
The Walker catalogue of May 16, 2018, describes Samgushak’s Dog-Woman, above left:
” Samgushak’s imagery has always been spiritual and shamanistic in nature. Dog-Woman probably represents an early episode in the life of the Inuit sea goddess, in which she marries a dog and gives birth to a litter of human and dog children who eventually populate other parts of the world.” 17
In this strikingly simple composition by Samgushak we see radiating hair, and a thin wash of glaze on a compact closed form. The main complexity of detail is in the head and face; whereas there is simplicity in the seated dog body
Samgushak’s Owl, on the right above is unglazed. Though recognisable as an owl the heavily impressed body emanates to a presence, a power, that goes beyond mere “realistic” representation. There is no action, no hunting of prey, just “presence”, a commanding one at that! Birds would become one of his favoured motifs. The bird. like the dog, sits fully frontal. The feathers are rythmically impressed crescents similar to Tatty but quite distinct from Kukshout’s and Tikeayak’s treatments.
Probably an earlier work, Samgushak’s Jar, above left, brings out features we have seen in other Rankin Inlet vases: coil built, unglazed and with the four-face emergent surface. The clay here is heavily grogged.
The Fanciful Birds Ceramic Vase from about 1973, above right, was created in the last year of the Rankin Inlet Project. The vase and its decoration prefigure a favoured Samgushak form and motif. We shall see more of this style and form in the coming second Rankin Inlet page on the Matchbox Gallery. The vase looks like a flattened thrown form, creating a diamond silhouette and a curved surface on which he has engraved hypnotic eyes. The bulk of the head is of symmetrically placed and engraved feathers. The carving is precise and rhythmical, the glaze accomplished. This is not just a design on a vase; the design is the vase
There will be more about Yvo Samgushak in the next article on Inuit ceramics, The Matchbox Gallery.
Donat Anaruak (Anawak) 1920- 1990.
Alternative Names: Anawak Anawak, Donat, Anaruk Anawak, Anaroar Anawak, Anaruak Anawak
Disc Number: E3-469
Grenier describes Anawak:
“[A]s an excellent potter, with great imagination,”2
Socially active Anawak served on the Settlement Council of Rankin Inlet. After the mine closed he joined the Arts and Crafts Program, eventually becoming a Shop Supervisor. 2
He would also become more involved with the technical processes of ceramics, and a spokesperson urging continued support for the program:
“If the Government is not sure about whether it wants to keep going on with the … ceramics, and if they are thinking of stopping it, then they had better have something which we are all sure would be good for us to do before they stop it. Or do they want us first to risk losing work so that we have to have relief? It would not save the government money by stopping the … work, because then a lot more money would have to be spent on relief. We would rather earn money, even if it is less money, but earn by ourselves rather that have to wait for handouts.” 2
Anawak was not only a clay artist in the workshop, he also introduced Michael Kusugak to the workshop in the early 1970s. Kusugak, who would later work as manager talks about Anawak in a video that brings out the personality of an artist that only direct personal interaction can.
NB: Enjoy the video produced at the amazing new Inuit Gallery and Centre, Qaumajuq, recently opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery: https://vault.wag.ca/artwork/decorated-pot/
Neale describes the effect of Anawak’s Woman with Lice on her Face (above left) on Southern tastes:
“Unfortunately, the evaluators, and by extension southern buyers, who were searching for romanticised images of traditional Inuit life, found the depiction of the horrors of having lice to be a bit too real for their liking. Ironically, in telling his little things, Anawak succeeded in creating an authentic image culled from his experiences.” 2
As an artist, Anawak himself stated:
“When you have an idea as to what you’re going to be making, …you have to
know what already happened in order to put it on a thing that everyone can
see. It’s more like telling a story event without saying. And lots of times in
some of ceramics that I did there, some of them, you can see in the books or
magazines, you might see that one of the faces may have lice on him and
that’s because long ago the Inuit did have lices (sic) on them and stuff like
that. You would have to be able to tell a IittIe thing on the work itself” 2
Anawak’s Decorated Pot, left above, reflects the technique and subject matter of the early period, the 1960s. The basic form of the pot shows its handbuilt nature in it basic assymetry and the roughness of the lip. The pot itself is quite spare in its decoration, with large blank areas of plain pot surface; also, there is a hesitancy in the placing and spacing of the applied figures, basically symmetrically applied, with an emphasis on blank pot surface between. The pot rests on a flat base with no foot, further emphasizing its coiled technique roots.
The Polar Bear and Hunter vase dated from a few years later displays and advance in techniques and design. The subject is simple, central, subtle in its layout, and does not interfere with the basic vase form. The symmetry, of the vase body and the fineness of the foot, neck and lip make it look almost wheel thrown, although the proposed early date would work against this. I would suggest that the dating is too early and the work is from the later 1970s.
The Rankin Inlet ceramic project is still a lesser known aspect of Inuit art and culture. Is it because pottery was considered only a “craft”? Is it because it is not as flashy, colourful, familiar, or “authentic” as other more successful Inuit art forms, especially prints and sculpture? And Inuit art has been successful, not only for the artists but also for Canada on an international scale!
The tension between artistic expression/production and market success was a constant drag on the success of the Project. Yet the very existence of the Project, the artists and their works, is a testament to the innovation, creativity and tenacity of the community and a few advisors. Seeds were planted. The field lay fallow for several years, until new growth took root with the Matchbox Gallery.
- Qaumajuq, The Winnipeg Art Gallery: the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world.
- The Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau
- The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknnife, NWT
- Musée Amérindien Et Inuit De Godbout, Godbout QC: Claude Grenier’s museum established after his Rankin Inlet Years
End notes and Bibliography
1. Driscoll, Bernadette, et al. Rankin Inlet/Kangirlliniq. Exhibition Catalogue, Feb 28-Apr 12 1981. Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1980.
2. Neale, Stacey. The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project : a study in development and influence. Masters thesis, Concordia University. 1997. xviii, 205 leaves : ill. A major study of the first phase of the project. Long but well worth the read. Largely historical but with insightful sections on ceramic history, processes and techniques.
3. Neale, Stacey. Rankin Inlet Ceramics Part One: A Study in Development and Influence. Inuit Art Quarterly. Vol. 14 No. 1, Spring 1999. pp.4-17. A shorter version of Neale’s thesis covering the early years of the project.
4. Neale, Stacey. The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project Part Two: The Quest for Authenticity and Market Share.Inuit Art Quarterly. Volume 14 number 2, Summer 1999. pp. 6-17. A continuation of the project up until its final closing.
5. Grenier, Claude. Some Wonderful Creative Years in Rankin Inlet. About Arts and Crafts. News For Inuit Artists. Vol. V, No. 1, 1982. pp. 28-34.
6. Longchamps, Denis et al. Ceramics From Rankin Inlet. Exhibition Catalogue. Sept. 23 – Nov. 16, 2016. Art Gallery of Burlington.
7. McKenzie, Heidi. Ceramics From Rankin Inlet. Ceramics Monthly. December 3, 2018.
8. Williamson, Robert G, Doctor . Creativity in Kangirlliniq, in Rankin Inlet/Kangirlliniq. Winnipeg Art Gallery. 1980. pp. 11-23.
9. Driscoll, Bernadette. The Winnipeg art Gallery Collection, in Rankin Inlet/Kangirlliniq. Winnipeg Art Gallery. 1980. pp. 31-43.
10. Wight, Darlene Coward. “Ceramics in Rankin Inlet: A Continuing Tradition” in Rankin Inlet Ceramics. Winnipeg Art Gallery 2003. pp.7- 14.
11. von Finckenstein, Maria. Almost 50 Years of Inuit Art Exhibitions. Inuit Art Quarterly. Vol. 12. No. 4 Winter 1997. pp. 3-9.
12a. Kavik, John: The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art. The Canadian Art Database ;
12b. Kavik, John. KATILVIK – Artist: John Kavik
12c. Kavik, John. Inuit.net-aboriginal galleries ; This biography page has much detail on Kavik but unfortunately frequently loads as a black page with blue text
12d. Kavik, John. Marion Scott Gallery John Kavik:
12e. Kukshout, Pie: https://www.inuitartfoundation.org/profiles/artist/Pie-Kukshout/bio-citations
12f Robert Tatty https://www.katilvik.com/browse/artists/3195-robert-tatty/
12g. Eli Tikeayak: https://www.katilvik.com/browse/artists/3196-eli-tikeayak/
12h. Laurent Aksadjuak: https://www.katilvik.com/browse/artists/3093-laurent-aksadjuak/;
12i. Yvo Samgushak: https://www.katilvik.com/browse/artists/3159-evoo-samgusak-mangelik/
12j. Phillip Hakuluk Settlement: https://www.katilvik.com/browse/artists/3114-phillip-hakuluk/
14. Pie Kukshout. https://www.inuitartfoundation.org/iad/artist/Pie-Kukshout
15. Robert Bilyard. Telephone interview, March 25, 2021
16. Loo, Tina. Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and Making a Good Life in Postwar Canada – UBC Press (Nov. 1 2019)
17. Walker’s Auctions Inuit and First Nations Art Auction Catalogue, May 16, 2018 : http://www.walkersauctions.com/images/Walker’s%20Inuit%20Catalogue%20May%202018-COMPLETE%20(1).pdf
18. MADWAR, SAMIA. From A Different Mould. Up Here. October 5. 2015 Up Here Publishing. https://www.uphere.ca/articles/different-mould
19. Ditmer, Joanne. Ancient people, new craft, Denver Post Staff Writer. DenverPost.com – Entertainment/The Scene. http://extras.denverpost.com/scene/art0324.htm 11/3/2018
20.Inuit Art Zone. https://www.inuitartzone.com/pages/artistic-topics
21. Bergman, Brian. Profile of Michael Kusugak. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Oct.11, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/michael-kusugak-profile
22. Dave Sutherland. The Sad Tale of the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Experiment – 1963-1975. Inuit Art Quarterly. Vol 9, No 2, Summer 1994, pp. 52-55.
23. Verge, Pat. “Pottery Shop in Rankin Inlet May Close.” Northern News Report, 23 June: 12-14. 1977
24. Watt, Virginia. Report on the Ceramic Project at Rankin Inlet. October l8th-22nd 1971
25. Donat Anawak. The Inuit Art Documentation and Film Research Project: Interview Transcripts; Donat Anawak interviewed by Michael Mitchell, March 1985.
26 Crawford, Gail. Studio Ceramics in Canada. 2005. Goose Lane Editions. ISBN-10 : 0864924283; ISBN-13 : 978-0864924285
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