by Joan Cohen
As an art movement, contemporary Inuit art has an exceptional history. Born in the communities of our North, just as that little world was shedding its historic, hunt-based living style, the movement found its market almost at the time of its birth. It quickly matured and became a presence on the international art scene, backed up by an already impressive body of research on its origins, meaning, creators and more. All this in the space of roughly half a century.
Winnipeggers, home-grown and adopted, have been there virtually from the beginning, to watch, promote and document the proceedings, and yes put together powerful collections of the sculptures and other works. Thanks to some magnificent gifts to the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the buying power of the gallery’s Women’s Committee – the volunteer group that served as its funding organization – some of these collections are today the property of WAG, making its holdings of contemporary Inuit art the largest in the world.
As we look back to the late forties and early fifties, when this art movement had its birth, we can see some of its most influential proponents and/or early collectors already active in urban centres of the south.
Among these is Ferdinand Eckhardt, of Vienna, who came to Winnipeg in 1953 to be WAG’s director. He was soon viewing Inuit sculptures at the Hudson’s Bay store nearby, seeing them as a “most exciting venture in Canadian art”. He committed the gallery to collection, research, exhibition and promotion of art by the Canadian Inuit.
George Swinton, also Viennese, came to the University of Manitoba’s art school to teach. He, too, immediately appreciated the artistic power of the Inuit sculptures, becoming a crusader and mentor on behalf of these remarkable stone renderings.
A crucial figure in discovering and prodding the development of the Inuit art phenomenon, was a young Toronto-born artist, James Houston. In 1948, Houston lucked into a week-long visit to an Inuit camp on the east coast of Hudson Bay, where he was enthralled by the small stone figures produced by local carvers. A year later and after financing Houston on a follow-up buying trip to Hudson Bay coastal communities, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild made history in Montreal with its first of many sales exhibitions of Inuit sculptures.
WAG’s impressive Inuit curator, Darlene Coward Wight, has noted that the lives of many Inuit were transformed as a result of that event.
It’s not that carving was new for the Inuit; for centuries they had made weapons needed in the hunt and they carved animal bones, horns and antlers and ivory tusks into assorted products for home use. Small carvings were turned out in earlier times as souvenirs for fur traders, whalers and other visitors to the North.
But at this halfway point in the century, the fur trade was in decline; the old way of life and the native economy was vanishing. Soon the government, with the little industry that was developing around this new art form (including, importantly, the Hudson Bay Company with its northern posts to buy and ship the new art works and its customers in the south) were seeing a new economic opportunity for the North in the artistic aptitude that they were discovering across the Inuit communities.
From the beginning, some individuals in the world outside were responding with a passion to the art the Inuit artists produced. Bit by bit quality collections – some of which are part of the WAG’s permanent collection – were assembled.
Sculptures are in the lead as the art form. There are also prints, wall hangings, tools and much more. The sculptures are taken from daily life, from mythology, legends, and the artists’ imagination and fantasies. Sometimes they reflect the special field of interest, or sensibilities, of the collection’s creator.
Here are some of the major contributors to the WAG holdings:
Ian Lindsay, “the passionate collector”, Lindsay, a Montreal graphic artist, famously spotted one of Houston’s first carved Inuit pieces as he walked from work past a Canadian Handicrafts Guild window, in 1949, and was struck by its quality. He was back for the famed opening exhibition a few months later and scooped up some 50 stone pieces. Over the next 40 years, he built “one of the finest Inuit art collections ever assembled”, as a WAG director would later pronounce, a collection “unsurpassed” for the works it contained from the early years. Lindsay donated half his collection to the WAG; the gallery’s Women’s Committee funded the purchase of the rest. WAG acquired that collection in 1985 and 1989.
Jerry Twomey, a world-renowned geneticist and founder of Winnipeg’s T&T Seeds, bought his first three Inuit carvings for $8 from the Hudson’s Bay in Winnipeg in 1951, former WAG director Pat Bovey tells us.
By 1971, when he was preparing to move to California, his much-sought-after collection consisted of 4,000 Inuit sculptures, offering in WAG director Pat Bovey’s words, “a definitive overview of Inuit carving activity across the Canadian Arctic” through the 1950s and 1960s.
WAG acquired the collection, partly as a gift and partly through financial assistance from Ottawa and the Manitoba government.
Winnipeg-born Dr. Harry Winrob, took up medical practice in Vancouver and in 1971, began collecting Inuit sculpture, mainly of bone, for a collection of masterful carvings deemed by curator Darlene Coward Wight to be “outstanding in its focus on imaginative and original works.” Dr. Winrob was determined the pieces be gifted to WAG, in his former home town, which selected 246 works from his 330-piece collection.
Faye Settler, owner of the popular, now-vanished Upstairs Gallery and Curiosity Shop, and husband Bert, typically as collectors brought to the gallery collection the benefits of a diversity of aesthetic interests and years of experience, when they donated much of their personal collection in 2001.
Faye, an art dealer for over 40 years, had bought her first Inuit carving in the fifties and was still adding works in various media to her home collection into the early eighties. Her affection for the artists of Baker Lake, and the quiet intensity of their art, is notable in her personal art choices.