Nunavut artist’s personal journey
Saila at WAG as Inuit Art Centre set to open
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.