The native peoples of Canada’s far north have been making art objects for thousands of years yet it is generally recognized that Inuit art as fine art was not “discovered” until 1949 following a remarkable show of carvings and crafts at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal. The response by collectors and academics to this exhibition was so overwhelming that the next decade saw a concerted effort by both public and private interests to encourage and promote Inuit art as a commercial enterprise and as a means for Canada’s northern peoples to maintain and celebrate their unique culture.

In the 1950’s, as more and more Inuit began to abandon their nomadic ways to settle into communities, a system of Inuit owned co-operatives was established across the Arctic to develop and market this exciting and adventurous new art. One of the most successful Arctic co-ops still operating today is the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op in Cape Dorset, a hamlet of less than 1200 people nestled between rugged hills and a sheltered bay on the south west coast of Baffin Island. Cape Dorset is well known for its lyrical and naturalistic stone sculptures but it is perhaps best known for the consistent high quality of its limited edition prints. Since 1959, Kinngait Studios as it is now known has released an annual collection of between 30 and 50 prints every year as well as commissions and special releases. It is the longest running print studio in Canada.

Most of the credit for the development of the printmaking program belongs to James Houston, a young artist from Toronto with a penchant for tall tales and a taste for romantic adventure who left the cosmopolitan south with his wife Alma and their two young sons in 1952 and lived the better part of the next 10 years in Cape Dorset. James Houston was a heavy smoker and one day Oshweetok Ipeelie, a skilled hunter and carver of walrus tusks, picked up an empty cigarette package that Houston had tossed aside and remarked upon the supreme patience and skill of the person who drew with painstaking precision the identical image of a sailor on each and every pack. Houston tried to explain how multiple images are made and then began to demonstrate the fundamental principles of printmaking by rubbing soot over an incised walrus tusk. He then pressed a few sheets of toilet paper over the image and pulled a few simple prints whereupon Ipeelie, amazed and delighted exclaimed, “We can do that.” Thus began a quest to find a genuine, indigenous and appropriate means of printmaking.

Although several small editions of sealskin stencils were produced it was a cumbersome and limiting process and eventually it was discovered that the local carving stone used for sculpture was an ideal medium for relief printing. Houston then went to Japan to study the principals of woodblock printing and upon his return it was decided that Ukiyo-e, the traditional practice of translating an artist’s drawing into a print by a master printmaker would be the best way to proceed in Cape Dorset. This method required a good stock of drawings to choose from and the newly established West Baffin Eskimo Co-op distributed papers and pencils to anyone who was interested in trying their hand at it. The response was enthusiastic and instantaneous. The artists were paid for each drawing they brought into the Co-op which provided a steady income for many families in the region at a time when the caribou herds were diminishing and many of the traditional lifestyles were slowly eroding with the influx of modern, western influences. Pudlo Pudlat, the famous graphic artist once explained the transition from hunter to artist by exclaiming, “My pen is my harpoon.”

The success of the graphic arts program in Cape Dorset was so staggering that in 1992, with the drawers and shelves at the Co-op studios overflowing beyond capacity, 100,000 images by over 200 artists created over a span of 35 years were loaded onto a Hercules transport plane and shipped down to the McMichael Canadian Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario where they could be properly cared for and documented. Since then the drawing program has expanded into new media and larger format works and every few months a crate of new works is sent down to Dorset Fine Arts, the Toronto office of the Co-op where they are exhibited by select galleries and sold to avid collectors all over the world.

The preferred media for drawing was and remains today a combination of graphite pencils, drawing pens and colored pencils. They allow for immediate and spontaneous expression. They don’t freeze, there is no messy cleanup and they can be stored in a drawer or a cookie jar at home for easy access. Although artists are welcome to make use of the studio facilities most prefer to draw at home perhaps at their kitchen table between meals or maybe crouched over the coffee table while keeping an eye on rambunctious children playing in the living room. Drawing with a hard pointed object on a resistant surface also feels more natural to someone with an Inuit heritage. It is compatible with the traditional image making methods of incising ivory, appliquéing clothing and tattooing skin. There may indeed be an inherent kinetic preference for piercing, rubbing and scraping rather than brushing or layering.

Most of the artists or printmakers in Cape Dorset have had little or no formal training in art. The artists learn their craft at a young age by observing their parents or siblings as they carve or draw. It is a very casual apprenticeship which is why an Inuit artist’s biography usually makes no reference to a school or workshops but instead emphasizes the various family members who have influenced their development.

This lack of formal education though regrettable and limiting in some ways is part of the reason why contemporary Inuit art has remained an art form that is genuine, fresh and unsullied by artifice, formalism or didactics. Some of the most creative and original drawings have come from artists who began making art in the prime of their life or even in their twilight years often without any family art background or even references to what art is or should be. They simply picked up a pencil and began making lines on some paper, following their imaginations into new and unexpected forms.

Sheokju Etidloie was an artist who did not begin to draw until she was in her early sixties. She developed a visual language that was unique and charming in its simplicity. Some of her work had an almost naïve cubist approach that spoke of basic truths such as the things we take for granted in the canons of western art - foreshortening, perspective and three dimension modeling for instance, are all tricks and illusions. Etidloie, with a few quivering, sparse lines and an aquatint of vibrant electric blue was able to describe the essence of a caribou more effectively than some of the best naturalist renderings by classically trained artists. Etidloie’s imagery was particularly suited to the print medium and all of her prints sold out rapidly and have now appreciated three and four times in value.

One day Jimmy Manning, then studio manager of the Co-op and a very astute judge of talent, stopped by the nursing station to pick up a prescription and noticed a middle aged woman sitting in the corner of the waiting room doodling on a brochure to pass the time. Jimmy glanced at her little sketches and said, ‘Are you by chance related to Sheokju Etidloie? ‘Yes,’ replied, Meelia Kelly, “I am her younger sister.” Jimmy’s eyes lit up and he said, “These are quite good. When you are finished here, why don’t you drop by the Co-op and I will give you some better paper to draw on.” Kelly replied, “I will try,” and then humbly added, “If you don’t like them you can throw them away.” Thus began the short but very fruitful career of Meelia Kelly. For the next 6 years until her death in 2006 Kelly would create almost 400 original drawings and contribute 24 prints to the annual collection. Suffice to say, none of her prints were ever thrown away.

Kelly’s delightfully quirky drawings are filled with amorphous shapes and magical beasts that come straight from her imagination. Her compositions are populated by gigantic birds with pipe cleaner necks, beaks like pruning shears and teeth like hacksaws. Fantastic beasts with swirling rainbow limbs and strange insect/animal hybrids cavort against a twisting landscape where everything and everyone seems to be in motion. There are stories in these drawings but they are stories told by simultaneous voices bleating, clucking, warbling and singing. The real meaning of these drawings will never be known but what is unmistakable is the narrative of joy throughout Kelly’s work. There is the joy of togetherness, the joy of creation, the joy of life.

Most of the drawings by Meelia Kelly in this exhibition have never been seen by the public. For many years they occupied the insides of a dark grey archival box on the top shelf in a storage room at Dorset Fine Arts. What we discovered when we lifted the lid was a small treasure of joy.

John Westren
Dorset Fine Arts
November 2018