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Among the dozen or so people who showed up for a locker auction in downtown Toronto in 1967 were William Eccles and George Swinton. Both avid Inuit art collectors for years, the two were drawn in by an advertisement in the Globe and Mail placed by Waddington’s Auction House. The locker was full of household goods like tables and chairs, and equipment seized from a British sportsman with a love of the Arctic. Fishing gear and Eskimo carvings, the ad read. Swinton wrote the formative guide to Inuit art and Eccles ran a carving gallery called Eskimo House in the Royal York Hotel. 

Most of the household goods sold quickly. And for $28, Eccles snapped up a greenish soapstone carving by an Inuk artist named Manno. The work was titled “Bear seeing his reflection in the ice” and it would be instrumental in propelling global interest in Inuit art. The stone carving travelled the world as part of the Sculpture of the Inuit: Masterworks of the Canadian Arctic exhibition in 1971 and its value soared.

Duncan McLean grew up listening to his father’s stories from this time. Ronald McLean, Waddington’s founder, liked to talk about the locker auction he hosted back in 1967, and how that modest event brought out two of the biggest names in Inuit art collecting. Duncan and his siblings eventually took over the business, as its Inuit art division grew through an odd and sometimes fortunate set of circumstances.

Eccles died in 1978 and didn’t leave a will. His family disputed ownership of his possessions and Waddington’s was tasked with itemizing and selling off what he left behind on the order of a public trustee. Duncan was just getting his feet wet in the auction business when he stepped into Eskimo House with an IBM electric typewriter to catalogue more than 2,500 carvings. Under the guidance of more experienced dealers, and with Swinton lending his credibility through a forward in the catalogue, the sale of Eccles estate opened. Manno’s bear graced the cover of the auction booklet—it was the highest seller at $7,600.

The auction house’s subsequent sales would be similarly serendipitous. A basement full of carvings owned by late Iqaluit businessman Fred Coman came into their care thanks to a call from his mother, then living in Mississauga, Ont. Coman was a patron of the arts during his time in the North, and a good friend of the late carver Henry Evaluardjuk.

Another major sale followed an unsolicited call from a bush pilot who had flown the extent of the North for years. One collector, McLean remembers, was an RCMP officer who rode around the Arctic on a dogsled. Along the way, the officer had gained an affinity for the local art and purchased as much as he could. Another collector, a nurse in Puvirnituq, Nunavik in the 1960s, ended up living in a shed belonging to Joe Talirunili—known for his Joe Boats series, which depicts a long and harrowing paddle he endured as a young child. The two became friends and, knowing she loved animals, Talirunili made her a version of his famous carving, only the boat was crewed by rabbits and a dog, with an owl as captain. In 2006, with a Canadian and an American bidder on the line, McLean sold the piece for $280,000.

“My clients were bush pilots, teachers, resource officers,” says McLean of his early years of art dealing. “By the time the ‘80s and ‘90s rolled around, they were getting old and ready to sell. There was a bit of a wave that I rode of all these wonderful collections coming online.” There was about a 20-year run, up to the early ‘90s, says McLean, when they’d receive crates of carvings wrapped in newspaper that dated back 15 years. There were “eureka moments,” he says, when they’d uncover carving after carving by Inuit artists now recognized as masters. As is said of artists in many media, they’re often only appreciated after they’re gone.

As Waddington’s and other dealers and galleries promoted Inuit art, the demand for carvings grew. With that grew the number of practitioners. Today, there are opportunities for part-time carvers to make money selling inuksuit, polar bears, and other stone sculptures to tourists with deep pockets, as cruiseship traffic continues to grow across the Arctic.

But carvings that bring in multiple thousands of dollars are unique to the master carvers, who make a living from their art. A $5,000, 50-pound marble sculpture is hardly an impulse purchase to bring back from a trip. It’s an investment in a piece of art and an artist.

There are early examples of Inuit handiwork—graphic designs etched into ivory and bone tools that suggest art was created by the earliest peoples of the Arctic. In the early 1900s, cribbage boards, crochet hooks and decorative pieces were crafted specifically to trade with the whalers and missionaries visiting the Arctic. “There certainly was art, but in a migratory hard-to-survive life, you’re not going to take a month of your life and make a masterpiece, nor would you use a large piece of raw material for art,” says Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts and a board member of the Inuit Art Foundation. The real start of modern stone carving, she says, came with the construction of the DEW Line in the mid-1950s and the beginnings of many new communities. By the 1960s, most people had settled in towns for work, access to healthcare and the other avails of community life. This would also mark the start of group quarrying, says Feheley, where larger materials became available to work with.

At the same time, the Canadian government was looking for a way to distinguish Canadian art from that of the rest of the world. Inuit soapstone carvings and graphic prints were gradually becoming more accessible outside of the North—James Houston’s efforts to set up an arts collective in the 1960s and bring Northern works south had a lot to do with this, as did the fact that more southerners were visiting the North for work and for pleasure.

Inuk Charlie, a well-known Taloyoak, Nunavut carver, made his first sale when he was five years old in the early 1960s. He wasn’t particularly enthused about selling the toy he’d carved for himself out of bone, though—a government worker in town took interest in the toy and Charlie’s father reminded him that $5 goes a long way toward a new pair of socks or some candies. During his younger years, Charlie carved for personal enjoyment rather than as a moneymaking venture. “I never sold them, as the time versus money just didn’t add up,” says Charlie. “So we always gave them away for presents and gifts.”

By the late 1960s, government support led to significant investment in Inuit artists and these artists began to enjoy greater access to materials and southern markets that continued for decades. At one time, Canadian ambassadors regularly gifted Inuit stone carvings to their foreign counterparts and Canadian embassies featured Inuit art. During the 1970s and ‘80s, significant market demand enabled more carvers to earn an income, but it muddied the waters as to what was really fine art. Suddenly, carving was a decent way to make a living—people who might not have otherwise tried carving picked up chisels. “People, say, travelling to Canada would not be able to tell between something they saw in a gift store and something they saw in a fine art gallery,” says Feheley. “The sculptors who were sculpting in the early ‘60s were doing it primarily because they felt like they really wanted to make art.”

The federal support that bolstered the carving sector faded under Stephen Harper’s government—the cultural attaché role at each embassy, tasked with promoting Canadian arts and culture, was no longer in place at international embassies. But the 2008 recession would deliver perhaps the hardest hit to Inuit carvers. “There was a time period, probably in the ‘90s, when 70 percent of what I’d sell I’d export overseas and to the States as well,” says Feheley. But after the recession, that number never really recovered in the United States.

During much of the 1990s, Feheley devoted her efforts to convincing buyers that sculptures and prints produced by Inuit artists should be considered contemporary art. Despite sales struggling through the economic slump, Feheley’s campaign has worked. For collectors of fine art, it’s the artist—their name and portfolio—that sells the piece. People don’t just want a carving; they want a George Arlook or a Toonoo Sharky. “For collectors who are looking for an investment,” Charlie says, “the market is still good, provided they’re well done.”

Growing up, Charlie was surrounded by artists. His father Charlie Ugyuk and uncle Judas Ullulaq were both carvers. He used to cut famed carver Karoo Ashevak’s hair. (“He’s my father’s nephew and had hair like a twig,” says Charlie.) At the end of each haircut he’d offer Charlie payment of $20 or one of his bone carvings. As a teenager, Charlie says he’d take $20 over a carving any day. But Ashevak’s pieces now fetch up to $40,000 and Charlie’s become a more conscientious businessman. And with his own work, he’s now seeing the scale of time versus money tip toward money.

Working mostly on commissioned pieces of marble, granite and on jewellery projects he became interested in after attending Nunavut Arctic College’s jewellery-making program, Charlie says a carving career is possible. “One needs to be totally committed to actually make a living off carving. It is viable but also a lot of work and commitment,” he says. “Planning is also a big part of it, doing shows, planning seasons ahead of time the type of work and transporting costs, all of these things become an obstacle.” Charlie has put his children through post-secondary, primarily through his carvings.

Carver Looty Pijamini says there is certainly an appetite for his work. He has a steady stream of orders coming in. When we spoke, he was working on a piece for the Government of Nunavut that’s representative of Iqaluit, “the place of many fish.” (That’s what he’s carving—many Arctic char.) Pijamini also teaches soapstone carving and says the younger generation is interested in learning the art.

“When I was growing up, the public conception of Inuit art was a lot more simple,” says Jesse Tungilik, new executive director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association. “When I was a kid, whenever people thought of Inuit art it was either stone carvings or wall hangings. These days it’s a lot more complex and there are many different sub-genres of Inuit art.” There are more artists experimenting with different styles and media, he says. (Tungilik is a jeweller himself, working mostly with silver, ivory and baleen.)

Yet carving remains an important moneymaker for artisans in Nunavut. It’s also been the most productive segment of the territory’s arts economy. A report on the economic impact of the arts in Nunavut released this year showed that more than one-quarter of the population over the age of 15 produces arts and crafts as a means of income. Carving remains the highest earning division, compared to sewing, jewellery-making, printmaking and “other.” Carving made up 75 percent of retail sales, followed by prints, at 14 percent.

One reason carving remains so prominent in Nunavut is the availability of materials and the little space required to do it. “I know a lot of people, they stick to stone carving because that’s an artform they can do outside without too much use of specialized tools or spaces,” says Tungilik. Some of the biggest names in Nunavut—world-renowned master carvers who sell works for thousands of dollars—can be found covered in dust, chiselling outside their homes.

As well as in personal collections, these modern works of art will wind up encased in glass in places like the TD Gallery of Inuit Art in Toronto’s Financial District. There are owls with widespread wings; hunters hoisting harpoons; a figure of a man listening to an iPod; a pool player; a musician strumming an electric guitar. In Feheley’s office, under a rare original print by Kenojuak Ashevak from 1961, is a carving by Jutai Toonoo. Etched into one side of the flattened creature is: “On the downside when the explorers and missionaries and kabloonak came they brought us their social problems and their social problems have stayed with us ever since.” On the other side of the piece, it reads: “On the upside, they brought us the toilet.”