Nu­navut artist’s per­sonal jour­ney

Saila at WAG as Inuit Art Cen­tre set to open

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - ALAN SMALL alan.small@freep­ Twit­ter:@AlanDS­mall

A Per­sonal Jour­ney: Pi­taloosie Saila: Win­nipeg Art Gallery

To Nov. 19 HE small com­mu­nity of Cape Dorset, Nu­navut, will play a big role in the Win­nipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Cen­tre, soon to make its home just south of the Me­mo­rial Boule­vard land­mark.

The Inuit set­tle­ment of about 1,400 sits on a rocky is­land in the Hud­son Strait, just south of mas­sive Baf­fin Is­land. Cape Dorset isn’t just an im­por­tant cen­tre for Nu­navut art­work; it also has be­come one of Canada’s artis­tic hot­beds.

And one of the com­mu­nity’s artis­tic pioneers is 75-year-old Pi­taloosie Saila, whose ar­ray of draw­ings, prints and lith­o­graphs are on dis­play in a new ex­hi­bi­tion that has just opened at the WAG.

“Quite a few of the pieces are re­ally unique, I have to say,” said the gallery’s Inuit art cu­ra­tor Dar­lene Coward Wight, who along with Su­san Gus­tavi­son or­ga­nized the ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled A Per­sonal Jour­ney. “She’s put au­to­bi­og­ra­phy into a num­ber of works” — and that’s un­com­mon among Inuit artists.

Saila’s works are mostly por­traits, many of which are of her fam­ily mem­bers. Oth­ers are of an­i­mals that caught her eye. Land­scapes didn’t hold much in­ter­est for her; Saila was more in­ter­ested in peo­ple and their life jour­neys, she said in an in­ter­view with the Free Press at the ex­hi­bi­tion’s un­veil­ing.

“Some are made from re­mem­ber­ing, some are made from sto­ries I heard and some of them are just imag­i­na­tion,” Saila said. She spoke both in English and Inuk­ti­tut, with trans­la­tion from her son, David.

Jour­neys have been cen­tral to Saila’s life ex­pe­ri­ence. Dur­ing a child­hood ac­ci­dent years ago, she broke her back and was trans­ported to Mon­treal, and then Hal­i­fax and Hamil­ton for treat­ment. She re­mained away from Cape Dorset for seven years. While she had picked up bits of English and French in hos­pi­tals, she had no one to speak her na­tive Inuk­ti­tut to.

When she re­turned, she had to start learn­ing her na­tive lan­guage again, al­most from scratch.

One of the works from A Per­sonal Jour­ney, 2006’s Strange Ladies ,isa litho­graph from that child­hood jour­ney. It de­picts a trio of the south­ern­ers — a nun, a nurse and a rich woman she en­coun­tered as a child. She met white peo­ple when she vis­ited Cape Dorset’s

THud­son’s Bay store as a young­ster, but be­ing away from home among a so­ci­ety filled with un­fa­mil­iar peo­ple was a dif­fi­cult time for her, she said.

“It was bad for me,” Saila re­called. “I didn’t know any­thing about white peo­ple.” Saila be­gan draw­ing in 1958 on her re­turn to Cape Dorset, where an artists’ co-op was formed with the as­sis­tance of art ad­viser James Hous­ton, who en­cour­aged mem­bers of the com­mu­nity to sculpt, carve and draw so that their art could be sold to deal­ers in south­ern Canada and the United States. Dur­ing her ca­reer she drew more than 1,400 pieces and cre­ated 190 prints in the Nu­navut com­mu­nity.

“I was try­ing to do ev­ery­thing to make money,” she says.

The prints are cre­ated us­ing a stone­cut process de­rived from a Ja­panese tech­nique that Hous­ton in­tro­duced to Cape Dorset, Coward Wight said. The orig­i­nal draw­ing is traced onto a flat piece of stone and then the out­line is carved away. Ink is brushed onto the stone­cut and a piece of art pa­per is pressed onto the ink, cre­at­ing the im­age.

“Saila is one of the few graphic artists who are very happy and com­fort­able to be work­ing on litho­graphic stone and the plates,” Coward Wight said. “Many artists do the draw­ing and it’s up to the print­mak­ers” to cre­ate the litho­graph.

Cape Dorset is also known for its soap­stone scup­tors such as Saila’s hus­band, Pauta Saila, who died in 2009, but she found she was bet­ter at draw­ing than carv­ing and left the stone­cut­ting to oth­ers.

“I didn’t like soap­stone,” Saila said. “My hus­band was dusty most of the time (from carv­ing it).”

Many of the prints and lith­o­graphs in A Per­sonal Jour­ney are part of the WAG’s col­lec­tion of Inuit art — the world’s largest as­sem­blage — and from the Gov­ern­ment of Nu­navut’s col­lec­tion, which is also be­ing stored and re­searched at the gallery while the north­ern ter­ri­tory plans a gallery of its own to dis­play the works. Saila said she hadn’t seen some of them for many years, such as her 1980 work Arc­tic Madonna.

The Cape Dorset co-op con­tin­ues to this day and many at the set­tle­ment work on some form of art as a means to make a liv­ing while still re­sid­ing in the iso­lated com­mu­nity.

“Just watch­ing these guys work­ing is amaz­ing. They’re so skilled,” Coward Wight said.

Strange Ladies (above) and Arc­tic Madonna (right), both from Nu­navut artist Pi­taloosie Saila, shown below at work in her Cape Dorset stu­dio.


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