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From A Different Mould

From A Different Mould

In the early sixties, the federal government brought ceramics to Rankin Inlet to build a traditional arts economy. They didn’t count on the artists actually getting creative.
By Samia Madwar
Oct 05
From the October 2015 Issue

You can see where the artist poked his fingers into the clay, pulled them out, and saw a pair of eyes. Another poke to create a mouth. The resulting face looks surprised, maybe spooked, its mouth frozen open in a dime-sized ‘O’. A bit more shaping here and smoothening there to add a pair of hands—they’re lifted to the cheeks for dramatic effect—and John Kavik has created what looks like a clay parody of The Scream.

This sculpture, now housed in Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre’s collection, was one of the first times Kavik ever worked with clay. He became a renowned carver, living well into his 90s. But for a few years in his mid-60s, after surviving near starvation a decade earlier and transitioning from nomadic to settled life in Rankin Inlet, in what is now Nunavut, he tried his hand at ceramics. It was a new-to-the-North art form, imported by the federal government to create a viable economy for the hamlet.

In 1962, Rankin Inlet’s nickel mine shut down, leaving a fairly new settlement without a central economy. Since Inuit art was taking off in Cape Dorset, Baker Lake, and other communities, arts and crafts seemed an easy financial alternative to fall back on. But Cape Dorset already had a claim to printmaking, and other communities were producing highly sought-after soapstone and serpentine carvings. Rankin Inlet would need its own niche. 

Pottery, the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources decided, would be just the thing. The representative they were sending up to head the program was a skilled ceramist. According to a 1997 master’s thesis on the subject, government officials were also convinced pottery was a lost craft in ancient Inuit culture, never mind that the only archeological evidence of it was found in the western Arctic and was likely due to First Nations influence. Besides, fuel would’ve been far too scarce to spend it on firing clay.

But Rankin Inlet had enough space for a studio and power to run a modern kiln, both thanks to the abandoned mine buildings. Plus, the people needed some way to earn money. And so began the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project. 

In 1963, the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources—specifically, its Industrial Division—sent Claude and Cecile Grenier to Rankin Inlet to head up the arts and crafts centre and launch the ceramics project. They were to stay a year; they ended up staying seven. 

Yvo Samgushak. Photo courtesy Matchbox Gallery

Both were francophones, and hardly any locals spoke French. But they managed to get by, with Cecile organizing a sewing group, and Claude passing on his ceramics expertise. He always insisted he was teaching the Inuit ceramics techniques through demonstrations, and he never tried to tell them what to make. Many of the Inuit participants were, like John Kavik, experienced carvers, but clay was entirely foreign to them. So they experimented, making fanciful figurines, letting their imaginations run wild. Their families and children would drop in throughout the day, making the crafts centre a social hub for the community. With the sewing groups nearby, it was full of life.

But that, Ottawa’s exasperated officials sighed, wasn’t the point. In early 1964 a radiogram from the federal department reminded Grenier that the “initial pottery project was for bowls with Eskimo motifs … please stop production of figurines in clay until further notice.” The first batches of ceramics resembled too closely the successful carvings being produced elsewhere in the Arctic. Redundancy, the officials worried, wouldn’t help sales.

 “Our figurative approach to ceramics is our own. You can’t work with Inuit and impose a style or approach. They’re very individualistic. That’s their strength, culturally.”

The following year, when it became clear Grenier just wanted to let the Inuit artists keep experimenting, department officials issued another directive: focus on flat forms, such as tiles. They’d be easier to fire, package, and transport. Back in Rankin, the artists blithely continued on with their decidedly three-dimensional sculptures and large vases, many of which featured protruding, almost grotesque faces. They rejected pottery wheels, preferring to mould things with their hands. They weren’t looking to make utilitarian pottery, and their artwork didn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of what southern galleries had established as being authentic Inuit art. But Grenier didn’t want to tell them what to make. He believed in letting the artists create for creativity’s sake.  

Their work also wasn’t going anywhere. The unreliability of the one available kiln—it needed maintenance, but there was nobody in town who knew enough to fix it— created a bottleneck as pieces piled up, waiting to be fired and glazed. Meanwhile, finished works stood on shelves gathering dust. But at the department’s insistence, Grenier was not to start trying to sell the work until members of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Committee, which consisted of gallery owners and southern arts experts, had a chance to review it for quality. 

When they finally did in December 1965, the committee deemed the work unsellable. The finishing was too amateur, they said, and the fact that the artists were using shoe polish to glaze their ceramics was unpardonable. The colour wasn’t arctic enough. Grenier argued the Inuit artists didn’t so much care about colour as they did form. The department responded by sending up two different experts on glazing. Both offered different advice. Grenier, fiercely protective of his artists, didn’t appear happy about either.

Two more years passed before a few pieces were selected for a debut exhibit at the Toronto Public Library as part of Canada’s centennial celebrations. The collection went on to tour several Canadian cities over the next two years, gaining critical acclaim and exposure for the Rankin Inlet ceramists, but not much money. The Canadian Eskimo Arts Committee, along with Canadian Art Producers, a wholesaler marketing Inuit art, ensured other pieces were delivered to galleries for sale, and set the price range as $75 to $250. But that proved too high. 

While the exhibit of 1967 was popular, it wasn’t a commercial success. Most buyers weren’t willing to pay for art that didn’t bear the stamp of Inuit authenticity. Fired, glazed clay didn’t call up images of the tundra, writes Stacey Neale in her Carleton University master’s thesis on the experiment—not like the cool stone of carvings.

The project went through three subsequent directors after Grenier retired in 1970. But funding ran low as jurisdiction over arts and crafts shifted from the federal government to the government of the Northwest Territories. Within five years, the project was shut down. 

It’s a good thing Claude Grenier let the artists develop their own style. That’s how Yvo Samgushak, one of the participants, created his faces with his characteristically enlargened ears, almost like wings—he was mute and deaf. It’s how Joseph Patterk illustrated folk talesas with the story of the people who rode on the back of a wild goose.

Today, a few dozen remains of the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project are scattered throughout museums and galleries across the country, including the Museum of Canadian History in Ottawa and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. Many remain unglazed, a raw manifestation of the artists’ first experience with clay. They look, in some ways, more authentic, more intimate, than the polished, shiny ceramics their successors are making today.

In the late ’80s, American artist Jim Shirley revived ceramics in Rankin Inlet—which is only now gaining the spirit of an arts community—and founded Matchbox Gallery, working with some of the same artists from the initial project. And although the gallery receives government funding, it doesn’t have to deal with micromanagement from southern bureaucrats. 

 “Our figurative approach to ceramics is our own,” says Shirley. “You can’t work with Inuit and impose a style or approach. They’re very individualistic. That’s their strength, culturally.”