Seal­skin Sten­cils

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Su­san Gus­tavi­son

The ro­man­tic idea of the use of seal­skin sten­cils in Inuit print­mak­ing has long cap­ti­vated col­lec­tors and afi­ciona­dos— but did it re­ally work? In this edi­to­rial, a cu­ra­tor and au­thor looks at the ori­gins of this re­mark­able prac­tice, putting the ques­tion to rest once and for all.

The preva­lence and pop­u­lar­ity of Inuit prints re­mains, some 60 years on, a driv­ing force in the Inuit art world, gar­ner­ing con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion on both the pri­mary and sec­ondary mar­kets. How­ever, there are cer­tain prints, namely those out of the Kin­ngait and Ulukhak­tok stu­dios in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that con­tinue to cap­ti­vate the at­ten­tion of col­lec­tors, cu­ra­tors and schol­ars for their un­likely ori­gins. At is­sue are the whys and hows of these early works, made—or so the story goes—from the most ubiq­ui­tous of Inuit ma­te­ri­als: seal­skin.

Sten­cilling, used alone and in com­bi­na­tion with re­lief print­ing, has been a vi­tal el­e­ment of Inuit print­mak­ing for decades, in both Kin­ngait (Cape Dorset), NU, and Ulukhak­tok (Hol­man), Inu­vialuit Set­tle­ment Re­gion, NT. In this tech­nique, used for mil­len­nia, ink is ap­plied through a cutout onto a sec­ond un­der­ly­ing sur­face. Used to mark crates, it is a very sim­ple process. When used to ap­ply colour or shad­ing to a fine art print, how­ever, sten­cilling re­quires fi­nesse. The ink must be prop­erly ap­plied once, be­fore the process is re­peated, up to 50 times, for an edi­tion.

The story be­gins in Kin­ngait.¹ In 1958, the sec­ond year of ex­per­i­men­tal print­mak­ing, sten­cilling was adopted. The tech­nique is ideal for adding touches of colour and shad­ing to an im­age, pos­si­bly in­spired by Inuit women’s skill­ful use of skins to dec­o­rate cloth­ing, boots and bags, either by in­set into the main fab­ric—which most closely re­sem­bles sten­cilling—or by ap­pliqué.

Use of the tech­nique may also have come from James Hous­ton’s print­mak­ing train­ing in Ja­pan. The ear­li­est sten­cil ex­per­i­ments in­volved seal­skin, scraped clean—the fur care­fully re­moved—and tanned. An im­age was then trans­ferred to the skin and cut out, be­fore be­ing placed on the print pa­per.

Ink was spar­ingly ap­plied, first with shav­ing brushes, which proved too pli­able even af­ter

cut­ting the bris­tles shorter, and later with proper stip­pling brushes.

These early seal­skin sten­cils, mak­ing use of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, were ex­per­i­men­tal, but they never re­ally worked. The pelts were too stiff and tended to rip­ple— a dis­as­ter as ink would creep out­side the im­age’s con­tour. Fur­ther­more, the skins were a valu­able com­mod­ity that Inuit could put to im­por­tant, more prac­ti­cal, uses.

The print­mak­ers soon de­vised a method of heat­ing a cop­per sheet on a stove, melt­ing wax on the cop­per, and lay­ing a piece of draw­ing pa­per on top while the wax hard­ened. This stiff­ened the pa­per, mak­ing it per­fect for sten­cilling pur­poses. Each colour re­quired a dif­fer­ent sten­cil.

In the 1959 Cape Dorset An­nual Print Col­lec­tion, of 40 prints, 19 were in­scribed “stone­cut and seal­skin sten­cil” or “seal­skin sten­cil.” This iden­ti­fy­ing prac­tice con­tin­ued in each an­nual print col­lec­tion un­til 1962 when Terry Ryan, then Gen­eral Man­ager of the West Baf­fin Eskimo Co-op­er­a­tive, stopped it. In con­ver­sa­tion with me, many decades later, the now late Ryan con­firmed that no print us­ing seal­skin sten­cils was ever fully edi­tioned. Yet for the four years be­tween 1958 and 1961, there are 72 print edi­tions in­scribed “seal­skin sten­cil” and three with “stone­cut and seal­skin sten­cil.” Why is un­known. Per­haps there was a de­sire to cre­ate the aura of links from tra­di­tional art and craft to mod­ern print­mak­ing.

Iron­i­cally, it was the in­clu­sion of “seal­skin sten­cil” on a Cape Dorset print that caught the eye of Fa­ther Henri Tardy ² and the Hol­man Eskimo Co-op­er­a­tive.³ Seek­ing av­enues to re­lieve the dire eco­nomic con­di­tions of the com­mu­nity, when Fa­ther Tardy saw “seal­skin sten­cil” on a print, he im­me­di­ately thought the Inuit artists in Ulukhak­tok could do that too. Seal­skins were read­ily avail­able, and he knew of the draw­ings made by He­len Kal­vak, CM,

RCA (1901–1984). In a 1962 ex­per­i­men­ta­tion led by Fa­ther Tardy and Vic­tor Ekootak (1916—1965), one of the print­mak­ing pi­o­neers, be­gan. Fur was shaved off the skin us­ing Fa­ther Tardy’s only ra­zor and an im­age was cut out. Tooth­brushes dipped in ink were used to ap­ply colour. Five of these orig­i­nal seal­skin sten­cils are still held in the co-op’s ar­chives.

By the end of 1964 an ini­tial Hol­man col­lec­tion of 30 prints by 5 artists was ex­hib­ited in New Brunswick. A to­tal of 16 prints us­ing seal­skin sten­cils were edi­tioned from the early 1960s col­lec­tions. As in Kin­ngait, how­ever, seal­skin sten­cils were ul­ti­mately aban­doned in favour of wax­im­preg­nated pa­per sten­cils and more re­cently sten­cils cut from My­lar.

The short but re­mark­able his­tory of seal­skin sten­cils rep­re­sents an in­spired at­tempt by the artists and print­mak­ers, in both Kin­ngait and Ulukhak­tok, to adopt and adapt a lo­cal ma­te­rial to de­velop an art form that was new to them. At the same time, these in­dus­tri­ous cre­ators had the in­ge­nu­ity and ded­i­ca­tion to seek out more ef­fec­tive ma­te­ri­als to cre­ate to­day’s legacy of beau­ti­ful, fine art prints.


¹ I am in­debted to the fol­low­ing au­thors’ re­search on seal­skin sten­cils in Kin­ngait: Nor­man Vo­rano, Inuit Prints: Ja­panese In­spi­ra­tion: Early Print­mak­ing in the Cana­dian Arc­tic (Gatineau: Cana­dian Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion, 2011) and Chris­tine Lalonde and Les­lie Boyd, Uu­tu­rautiit: Cape Dorset Cel­e­brates 50 Years of Print­mak­ing (Ot­tawa: Na­tional Gallery of Canada, 2009).

² Fa­ther Henri Tardy ran the Ro­man Catholic mis­sion in Ulukhak­tok (then Hol­man) from 1949 to the early 1980s. He was one of nine found­ing mem­bers of the Hol­man Eskimo Co-op­er­a­tive in 1961.

³ The story of seal­skin sten­cil use in Ulukhak­tok has been com­piled from the fol­low­ing sources: Vi­sions of Rare Spir­its: 20 Years of Hol­man Prints (Ot­tawa: Cana­dian Arc­tic Pro­duc­ers and Port Col­borne Li­brary, 1984); Fa­ther Henri Tardy, “The Beginnings of the Hol­man Eskimo Co-op,” Inuk­ti­tut (Win­ter 1979), 68-75; Dar­lene Coward Wight, Hol­man:

For ty Years of Graphic Ar t (Win­nipeg: Win­nipeg Art Gallery, 2001); and Eve­lyn Black­e­man-Crof­ford, Hol­man 1990 An­nual Graph­ics Col­lec­tion (Hol­man: Hol­man Eskimo Co-op­er­a­tive, 1990).

These early seal­skin sten­cils were ex­per­i­men­tal but they never re­ally worked.


Harry Ego­tak (1925–2009 Ulukhak­tok) — Two Men Hunt­ing a Bear 1962 Seal­skin sten­cil 30 × 40 cm

Harry Ego­tak — Sten­cil for print Two Men Hunt­ing a Bear 1961 Seal­skin 27 × 41.5 cm

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