Spirit Wrestler Gallery (Vancouver, Canada)
Keewatin Women In Stone

Keewatin Women In Stone

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetuk

March 14 - April 4, 2015

“We are people of the rock—we are born unto it and will return to it.” (attributed to Lucy Tasseor)

In 1980, I was working with a contemporary gallery in Calgary when my partner and I decided to host our first exhibition of Inuit art. The sculptures in that first show were mostly in green serpentine, although I found myself drawn to the black and powerful works from Baker Lake. At that time, we saw work from Baffin Island and Baker Lake—we simply didn’t see works from the other communities of the tundra.

By 1984, I was now in Vancouver working with another gallery that specialized in Inuit art. There was a much wider diversity of styles and artists than I had encountered before—with lots of Baker Lake work, which I loved. But there were also a few of these quite curious but fabulous pieces from other communities of the Keewatin - Rankin Inlet, Whale Cove, and Arviat—I was fascinated and began to research them.

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In my research, I came to know a man who was our contact in Arviat - Nick Lebessis. It was the start of a great friendship which I shall always treasure. He was the one who introduced me to the likes of John Pangnark, Andrew Miki and Lucy Tasseor. I remember him bringing in all these beautiful pieces one day. We spent hours talking about them as we both knew that they were as important to the hand as they were to the eye (I couldn’t put them down!).

He told me of the difficulties that he was having marketing these—of going to galleries back east with boxes of Pangnarks… and few of the galleries would even look at them. No problem, I thought… all the more for us to play with. But by 1984-85, Pangnark, Miki, Tiktak and a number of others had already passed away… and things were getting scarcer. Many of those remaining were fairly senior—and there didn’t seem to be a new generation to replace them. Elizabeth Aulatjut, and of course, Lucy, were two of the most acknowledged that kept the Arviat lamp burning.

The art of the Keewatin (the tundra) differed fundamentally from the art of other regions of the Arctic. There could have been a couple of reasons for this: the late acculturation of the tundra nomads and the relative lateness of starting the carving programs there (the Keewatin artists started carving in the early 1960s, whereas the communities on Baffin Island and Arctic Quebec were carving at least a decade earlier); the hardness of the stone, which made detailing difficult; both may explain the austere, monumental presence of Keewatin work. Either way, something undeniably extraordinary happened in the work of the artists of the tundra. When we consider how contrary the works of Lucy Tasseor, Andy Miki, John Pangnark, John Kavik, John Tiktak, were to what the market was by then defining as “Inuit Art”, we can only thank the support of early collectors and critics for their belief. The work of these artists was decidedly not pictorial-narrative, rather, they stand as the visual symbols of a culture. They could have been produced at any time over the last hundreds of years… but they were being produced today—and were just as relevant.

Lucy Tasseor was a member of the Ihalmiut, a sub-group of the Caribou Inuit, who occupied the land around Ennandai Lake. Born in Nunalla in northern Manitoba, she was raised by her grandparents after her parents had passed away. She credits her grandfather as being the most important influence in her life and with how her carving style developed later. Drawing in the sand, he would tell her stories and stress the importance of the unity of the group. Given the change in traditional migration routes of the caribou in the Keewatin in the late 1950s, the resulting famine saw many Inuit moving off the land into the small villages in the area. Lucy moved to Rankin Inlet, which was then the site of the first mineral mine in the area and relatively prosperous (the nickle mine operated from 1955-1962 before being abandoned). There she met and married Richard Tutsweetuk in 1960. Shortly afterwards the couple moved to Arviat to join other displaced members of the Ihalmiut that had been evacuated to there because of the starvation.

There was less opportunity for employment in Arviat at that time than there had been in Rankin, so Lucy began carving as a means to an income. Things were very tough financially— and everyone had to do something—which, in part, could explain why there so many great women carvers in the Keewatin. Initially Lucy was having difficulty in bringing together a style that was recognizable and one she felt comfortable with. Remembering the talks with her grandfather, she began to focus on the group—typically mothers with children or the extended-family or tribal group. Presenting the group as a singular mass (in the stone), she would then define particular members as the faces emerging from the mass. While some might disagree, the term “abstract” really does not apply to her work, as for Lucy, each of the faces represented specific people—with each work being a part of a story known to her. The overall shape of the stone would suggest the theme that she would work toward and while there have been some reports that she would often leave areas of the stone untouched—to my observation, most surfaces of the rock are worked (follow the file marks!).

I have had the pleasure of working with the art of Lucy Tasseor since the mid 1980s. Her work has remained as true and salient during all of the following years as it has with the earliest examples that I have seen and handled. Here at the gallery we have all shared great enthusiasm for this region— and for this artist in particular. I believe that this exhibition is a delight—and on behalf of the gallery, invite you to come in and enjoy Lucy’s work with us.

—Derek Norton

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