A History of Printmaking in Cape Dorset (Part 1)

Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery
Jun 5, 2018 7:40PM

The mid-20th century saw significant interest in Inuit printmaking. Collectors in southern Canada were already familiar with stone carvings created by Inuit artists so when prints began coming from Cape Dorset (Kinngait, Nunavut) they were received with excitement and enthusiasm.

Inuit artists had been creating graphic art for centuries - carving into ivory, stone, and antler; decorating tools and amulets; and employing appliqué designs on textiles. When Toronto artist James Houston (1921-2005) began working with artists in Cape Dorset in the 1950s, he encouraged the artists to apply their skills to the art of printmaking on paper.

Houston was hired by the Canadian government to act as Area Administrator in Cape Dorset. He was charged with encouraging the production of arts and  crafts in the region and promoting them in the South. A newly established crafts shop in Cape Dorset sold fine sculpture from area artists, carved from the local green serpentine stone. Some women artists created handicraft items for sale. Houston recounts that the printmaking idea emerged from a conversation he had  with one of the artists - Osuitok Ipeelee (1922–2005) - about how an image could be reproduced on cigarette packages.  Houston demonstrated that an incised line on a walrus tusk could be inked and reproduced several times on a piece of paper. Osuitok, excited by the idea, began experimenting with the technique along with a small group of like-minded artists including Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010), Iyola Kingwatsiak (1933-2000), Lukta Qiatsuk (1928-2004), Eegyvudluk Pootoogook (1931-2000), and Joanassie Salomonie (1938-1998). They used materials that were readily available to them, including linoleum tiles, stone  blocks, and sealskin.  

The Cape Dorset group produced a collection of about twenty prints that  were sent to Winnipeg in 1958 and displayed at Hudson’s Bay department  store. The reception was very positive and the group set out to produce more prints.

Mera Cape, Izu by Hiratsuka Un'ichi, 1929 http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/hiratsuka-unichi-1895-1997/mera-izu-peninsula

To hone his own skills, Houston travelled to Japan in 1958 and studied with master woodcut printmaker Un’ichi Hiratsuka (1895-1997). He returned to Cape Dorset in 1959 to share what he learned. The print workshop was set up similar to the Japanese style with printmaker artists creating cuts and stencils after the drawings of other artists. A hint at Japanese influence can be seen in stamped signature blocks identifying artists and print shops on many of the early Cape Dorset prints.

Detail of the signature on a print by Ulayu Pingwartok. See the full image here: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/ulayu-pingwartok-winter-scene

The artists continued to hone their techniques. They tried using scraped  sealskin but found it hard to work with and this was eventually replaced with stencil paper. Cape Dorset became particularly well known for its stonecut prints. Artists cut away all surfaces of a block of stone and then carefully applied several coats of ink so they could pull multiple prints from the same block. The designs were expertly translated into stone from original drawings. Part of the printmaker’s skill is interpreting the subtle markings and fine detail of the original drawing and capturing them in the stone block. The artists drew scenes of camp life, animals, dreams, and memories of the past.  

The group created 41 prints for their first catalogue in 1959 and exhibited the collection at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts the following year. Prints were then distributed to art dealers to be sold to the public. The artists incorporated the print workshop as a co-operative association and called themselves the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative.  

Having set up a promising enterprise for Cape Dorset, which inspired many  other northern communities to set up their own print workshops, James Houston left the area, making way for Terrence Ryan to become the next  advisor. We will continue with Ryan’s contributions next time...

Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery