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.
Inside a nondescript building, the art of Inuit print making was laid out before us. The age-old process, derived from Japanese techniques, 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.
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.
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.
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 you 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.
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 …
Photos in this post were taken with the Nikon D500 SLR camera; the video was shot with the Nikon 1 J5 mirrorless camera.