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About John Houston







2000 Pangnirtung Community Print Collection

Introduction by John Houston, Arts Advisor




Pangnirtung is kajjarnaqtuq – a place one recalls with fond longing. Not nostalgia, but an emotion based on a cyclical concept of time. In the camps that traditionally ringed Cumberland Sound lived the Uqqurmiut – people of the lee side – following movements of animals, the spring fishing they missed also being the fish they yearned for, when that season would come around.

 Such a cycle began twenty-five years ago, in Halifax at Pangnirtung’s second print opening, where I met artists Lipa and Annie Pitsiulak. Struggling with my childhood Inuktitut, I showed them my prints, and they said I should come North as advisor to their co-op’s print program. “How nice that would be,” I replied, wondering at the odds of this happening.

 That October, shivering on the edge of the Pangnirtung airstrip, I wondered just how I would advise the masters of this frozen world. The setting was overpowering: a mountain-ringed hillside at the head of a long fiord, gateway to majestic Auyuittuq Park. A quite voice said “Tunngasugit.” This welcoming fellow about my age must have been standing there a while: Solomonie Karpik, or Illuarjuq (cousin) as we came to call each other, prolific stoneblock cutter who always found time to teach others, good friend who always made sure you were okay, in town or on the land.

 I came for four months, but such is the magic of Pangnirtung and its people that, by the time I looked up, four years had gone by. The techniques I brought in were soon absorbed, opening a heyday of experimentation. In spring, we would lock up the print shop and I’d learn survival on the land until fall, by which time everyone longed to make images again. With the help of patient elders, I regained my Inuktitut. So compared to the learning I eventually carried South, what I brought North with me from college was not very much.

Why did I ever leave Pangnirtung? There were things I wanted to do – open an art gallery, make films – but I was leaving a town where I knew everybody, where you can walk in any door, and if you’re hungry, they’ll share what they have, if you’re sleepy, well there’s the couch, and then tea when you wake. And I told myself, “You’ll never find another place like this” – where you can always feel at home, and friendships last a lifetime.

 But even a lifetime doesn’t feel long enough. Solomonie died of an aneurysm five years after we met, and this visit I realize I won’t be able to catch up with old Simon anymore. He would bring his drawings into the shop, his memories of Pangnirtung when it had a population of five. I believe Simon Shaimayuk used paper and pencils to draw all of you into his storytelling circle.

 Simon’s passing makes us remember all the departed elders who contributed to the print program. Their drawings have been lovingly interpreted by the next generation, favouring methods with analogies in Inuit tradition; softer images are stenciled on rag paper through spaces cut in [waxed] bristol board, evoking women’s cutouts for inlay of sealskin shapes; drawings with a particular quality of line may be acid-etched into copper plates, recalling scrimshawed walrus ivory; and bold graphics can be cut into the relief surface of a stone block, still called ukkusiksaq, “material for making a cooking pot.” Annual print collections bear witness to collaboration between young and hold that chronicled life on the lee side, recalled with fond longing.

 Today the print shop, along with the tapestry studio, is part of an Inuit artists’ association, appropriately named Uqqurmiut. Jacoposie Tiglik’s recent move to Iqaluit has caused the four remaining printmakers to take stock. When I arrived, the fellows were seeking two people with the aptitude and dedication to become printmakers. They hoped to resurrect stonecut printing, which stalled after the 1994 print shop fire. Arctic College had offered an introduction to printmaking that include a few adults, and Andrew, Josea, Jolly and Enookie asked them to bring in proofs. Perhaps it’s the millennium, or the smell of possibility in the Nunavut air, but the fellows are entering new territory with their selection of two elder women to apprentice as printmakers – especially as cutting and printing stoneblocks has always been considered a man’s job.

 Change has come to the print shop. Jolly Atagooyuk is emerging as a dedicated etcher – perfect technique to render the agitated sea in the original drawing of “Whalehunt in Kayak” – and the women’s energy is fuelling Pangnirtung’s return to the stonecut. Annie Kilabuk Jr.’s wrist won’t let here lift the big roller, so Geela Sowdluapik says supportively, “Don’t you worry about that! I’ll lift it when needed.”

 The squeak of ink on the ladies’ rolling-up slab raises a brassy counterpoint to the traditional drumming of stencil brushes. Twenty new images are finding their shape and colour, and my time here is nearly done.

 “Are you leaving today?” asks Thomasie Alikatuktuk, once the leading stencil printmaker, now deputy mayor, showing Inuit VIPs the arts centre. “If there’s anything going out,” I reply, using one of Inuktitut’s many shadings of uncertainty, always allowing room for the unknown.

 “Will you be back?” inquires one of the dignitaries. Oh, yes, I’ll be back – but first, let’s see if the plane gets out – you have to leave to enjoy the pleasure of returning.

John Houston

Spring 2000


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This page was last updated on Monday February 21, 2005