A day in Cape Dorset, Paris of the North


A day in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. And for those who love Inuit art, this was the highlight of our Adventure Canada Arctic cruise. Because Cape Dorset (or Kinngait, in the native tongue) is the epicentre of the Northern art scene. In fact, it may be the most artistic community in Canada, with more than 20 percent of the labour force turning out art for the international market. You could call it the Paris of the North.

Of course, it doesn’t look much like Paris when you arrive, landing on the pebbly beach by Zodiac. A row of industrial-looking, prefab buildings line the shore, fronted by a few Arctic canoes and an old fishing boat rendered useless by vandalism a few years ago. (The name plate, translated from Inuktitut, reads “Souvenir”.) And walking the muddy streets, Cape Dorset looked much like any other Arctic community.

Fishing boat Cape Dorset

Cape Dorset scene

 But beneath the plain exterior of this sleepy town lies the beating heart of an art community known the world over. In 1957, James Houston, a noted artist, author and filmmaker, introduced the art of print making to the already accomplished local stone carvers. Together, they created a body of work that became sought after in art markets from Toronto to Tokyo. Simple and elemental, it’s also sophisticated, filled with mythical figures and age-old symbols.

Inside a nondescript building, the art of Inuit print making was laid out before us. The age-old process, derived from Japanese Cape Dorset printmakertechniques, starts with a slab of stone. Originally the local soapstone or serpentinite rock was used, but these days it’s more likely slate from an old pool table.

The design is etched on the stone, colours are applied, and a sheet of hand-made Japanese paper is carefully rolled on to produce a finished piece of art. Once a certain number have been produced, the stone is destroyed, never to be used again.
In a clean, airy studio, we watched as Qavavau Manumie, a master print maker, used a roller to apply the colour to a typical design, human faces emerging from figures of seals. Then, another roller to apply some shading. Within minutes, a final print appeared – but only for a few minutes. It was a proof, and without the artist’s signature, it was worthless. Soon, it would go the way of the stone plate.
There was much more art to be seen, but first, a little glimpse of the way of life that produced these unique and evocative images. In the Mallikjuaq Community Centre, we listened as one of the town elders told us a little about the history of Cape Dorset. Now an important place in the Canadian Arctic, it was once a town of only four families, and many of the traditional ways are still followed.
Wearing a richly decorated parka she had made herself, she demonstrated some of the tools of daily Inuit life, including her ulu, the half-moon-shaped knife Inuit women use for everything from scraping skins to preparing food. And pulling out an Inuit skin drum — this one made of bright blue material — she sang an old song about a common problem of Northern life. I recorded it with my handy Nikon 1 J5.

Next, a visit to an art gallery, which in Northern style, was located in someone’s home. And this was a house full of art. Dancing stone bears held a jamboree on the windowsills, and masterful stone carvings crowded what was once the dining room table. In the living room, larger carvings of birds and animals (like the owls in the photo at top) stared out the window with eyes made of bone or shell, onto a seascape lit by a rare flood of sunlight.

Dancing bears Cape Dorset

Looking around, I noticed a collection of pieces on the stair landing, including a long, white spear with a spiral whorl – the tusk of a narwhal, the strange Arctic whale that Europeans once believed was a unicorn.  An anniversary gift for her parents, said the daughter of the house, from one of the hunters in the family.

Outside, another strange sight confronted us: a huge pile of metal, collapsed into a twisted heap as if a giant had stepped on it. This was the local school, burned down in another act of vandalism a couple of years ago. There were plans to rebuild it, but with summer passing swiftly, it wasn’t going to happen this year.

burnt school Cape Dorset.

There were other galleries and workshops in town, and sooner or later, they got me. I rarely buy souvenirs on my travels any more, but in the Dorset Suites Hotel, my eye was caught by an artful carving of a walrus, with little bone or ivory tusks. And soon I was the proud owner of an original piece of Inuit art.

In fact, two pieces of Inuit art. As I ambled down the street back to the beach, an older Inuit man passed by with a sheaf of paper. “Do youJames Houston plaque crop want to buy a print?” he asked. “Twenty dollars.” He leafed through a series of well-executed animal designs, flapping in the afternoon breeze. I chose an intricate print, blue and brown fish swimming in a swirl of motion. I handed over the $20. The deal was done.

 On my way back to the Zodiac, I passed a plaque on a stone pillar. It was dedicated to James Houston, the man who started it all in Cape Dorset. “Saumik [his Inuit name]loved these people and this place,” it read. “He had the good fortune to know both well, and lived here 1951-1962.” And on the next corner, to make the story complete, I spied John Houston, his son and one of our resident experts on the Ocean Endeavour, talking to a group of locals who knew his father by friendship or reputation.

A day in Cape Dorset, the Paris of the North. And this time I left Paris with more than just memories. Looking over as I write this, I can see the walrus getting used to his new home on my coffee table. Don’t know how he feels about the heat …

Walrus Inuit carving

I was a guest of Nikon Canada and Adventure Canada on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.

Photos in this post were taken with the Nikon D500 SLR camera; the video was shot with the Nikon 1 J5 mirrorless camera.


About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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