Summer is now at its peak in the Western Canadian Arctic. Around Inuvik the greenery is lush and the ditches and open areas of the delta are painted with the brilliant fuchsia of Fireweed and the crimson of Paintbrush. Fluffy white blossoms of Arctic Cotton fill the low lying wet areas and little blue and pink blossoms cover the tundra as far as the eye can see. It would take a master painter to conjure a palette with such an endless variety of colour.
It is perhaps to mimic nature’s finery that artists gathered in Inuvik during these two weeks in July for the annual Great Northern Arts Festival. This festival, which was first established in 1989, provides artists from across the north an opportunity to come together to showcase their work in a variety of styles and media as well as to learn and teach through daily workshops.
Northern art is coveted around the world by discerning collectors and is distinguishable by its use of natural materials, simplicity of form, and the natural themes that are often highlighted. Artists make use of materials they find in their local areas which might include bone, antler and horn, leather, fur, stone, natural dyes and fibres and many others as the possibilities are limited only by an artist’s imagination.
The work is in such demand that one man recounted the story of a cruise ship full of tourists arriving in his community for the first time. He went down to greet the passengers dressed in his best mukluks, parka and fur mitts, all hand-made by his wife. When the visitors pulled ashore the first thing he was asked was how much money he wanted for his clothing.
“I wasn’t sure what to do,” he remarked. “At first, I thought my wife would be mad if I sold it, but then I realized she could sew many more parkas for the money that was being offered.” He ended his story by saying he walked home in his socks and T-shirt in the freezing weather and that his wife was very happy.
While some of the styles of indigenous art have been evolving in the culture for many generations, others are more recent and have been influenced by outsiders who have come to the communities. In Ulukhaktok (formally Holman), on Victoria Island, Rev. Henri Tardy, OMI, was looking for a project that would bring economic benefits to his Inuvialuit parishioners. He helped establish the Holman Eskimo Co-operative in 1961, and he encouraged prospective artists particularly in print-making. With the change of the community name the Holman Eskimo Co-operative was renamed the Ulukhaktok Arts Centre.
Of course, the arts scene in the north encompasses much more then painting and carving. Each night of the festival there were celebrations marked by performances by dancers and drummers sharing the rhythm of the native music which also reflects the organic strains of nature, perhaps best exemplified in the beating of the sealskin drum.
Here again traditional music has been influenced by the mixing of cultures and the fiddle, which was introduced by whalers and fur traders from Europe, has become a favourite instrument and square dancing a lively pastime at community functions.
Our Lady of Victory church, better known as the “Igloo Church,” has become known in the area as a good venue for live music performances due to our seating capacity and excellent acoustics, thanks to the domed ceiling. It has been our good fortune to host many music concerts highlighting the talents of both northern artists as well as traveling musicians from the south.
Currently one of our own parishioners, Abe Drennan, is recording an new music album using the church as a studio. Abe’s music is a modern blend of folk and rock with very positive themes about life and love so it is a perfect compliment to the church and its message of Good News. Abe is collaborating on the project with other northern musicians including Yellowknife’s Greyson Gritt who just won a Juno award for Indigenous Music album of the year.
The arts scene in the north truly is a multi-hued canvas influenced both by and in reaction to the extremes of nature found here. As we read in the canticle of Daniel,
Cold and chill, bless the Lord
Dew and rain, bless the Lord
Frost and chill, bless the Lord
Ice and Snow, bless the Lord
Light and darkness, bless the Lord
Through the creativity of our imaginations and the work of our hands we bless God through the beauty of our art.
Hansen is a Redemptorist priest and pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish, Inuvik. See his website: www.jonhansencssr.com