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Influences and Interactions

The Unique Regional Styles of Inuit Sculpture

It is commonly agreed that art of any form is directly influenced by the environment in which the artist lives (such as geography, climate, economics) – and the individual creativity of the artist.

For example, the richly colourful art of the northwest coast people is a result of their enviable climate, lush surroundings and comparatively easy life style. In comparison, artists of the eastern arctic were nomadic, reducing the ease of transporting large pieces of art, endured an often meager existence – the threat of starvation never far away, and limited access to materials. Both art forms have distinctive looks that characterize them as northwest coast and eastern arctic, while within the styles; individual artists bring their own sensibility to their work.

Nature, Nurture and the Individual
Focusing on the style of eastern Arctic (Nunavut, Arctic Quebec and Labrador) sculpture, the art is strongly influenced by both nature and nurture (the environment in every aspect), but also marked by the individual artist’s sense of creativity and skill.

Materials are a key factor in determining a style. The type of stone found in the region clearly affects the sculpture created. The consistency, or hardness of stone determines the types of tools required, the approach to the carving process, the form the sculpture takes and the type of finishing it receives. The type of stone used in sculpture varies from community to community. Cape Dorset, for example, is known for its marbles and serpentines, Keewatin, its black and grey steatite and black and green argillite is found in Sanikiluaq.

Economic considerations also play a key role. The simple fact of the cost of available tools can influence a style, as artists sometimes make the choice not to use power tools due to cost and the added expensive of electric bills and power availability, even though this limits their capability to work on large pieces.

As the market for Inuit art evolves, popular demand sometimes influences subject matter, their finishes, the materials used and size. In some cases, artists are persuaded by galleries, agents and cooperatives to create art within their community’s particular style or a style that has been previously well-received.

For example, sculptor Judas Ullulaq (1937–1999) revealed that he stopped leaving markings on the surface of his sculptures once he was told that they would sell better without them. Charlie Inukpuk (b.1941) was told to limit his sculptures to a particular size for greater commercial appeal.

Transportation issues are another factor affecting style. The shipping costs associated with the weight of a sculpture and the threat of breakage while in transit need to be considered. Consequently some artists have been asked to increase the density of their sculptures. Josiah Nuilaalik (1928–2005) and Qauunaq Mikkigak (b.1932), for example, both changed the thickness of their artwork so it would better survive transportation to southern galleries.

The duration and type of exposure to ‘qallunaaq’ (white people, southerners, Europeans, essentially non-Inuit) also have had a marked influence on the subject matter and materials used in sculptures. Whalers, explorers, missionaries, tourists, and local white or southern residents, over time, have purchased or traded for certain types of sculpture over others. For example, whalers wanted sculptures that represented their trade in art while missionaries discouraged representations of the supernatural or non-christian spirituality. Additionally, the whalers influenced some Inuit artists by introducing them to scrimshaw and western imagery in the 1700’s. And much of Inuit art can be directly attributed to the efforts of ‘qallunaaq’ like Alma and James Houston who essentially uncovered the high degree of creativity and artistry of the Inuit people, Terry Ryan who helped nurture the early efforts into an healthy source of livelihood and early collectors like Bud Feheley, Jerry Twomey and Ian Lindsay who appreciated both the fine artistry and raw power of the work and introduced Inuit art to other mainstream art collectors.

Time periods and generations also have an effect on the sculpture that emerges from a region. For example, ‘realist expressionism’ started in Northern Quebec in the 1950s and 1960s; in Keewatin in the 1960s and 1970s, ‘minimalist, non-representational expressions’ emerged; and in Kitikmeot, ‘fantasy’ was prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. Inuit art authority Terry Ryan notes that first generation artists in Cape Dorset dealt with less pressure and limited distractions and thus had more time to concentrate on their art. This is reflected in the work of that early period which he views as being more introspective. Inuit art is also affected by and a mechanism to record history and Inuit stories, such as Joe Talirunili’s Migration sculptures.

And finally, Inuit artists themselves have influenced each other as artists move to new communities bringing their individual techniques and style.

Nunavut’s Three Regions


Nunavut means “Our Land” in Inuktitut and in respect to the Inuit people, the names used for the different regions and communities are those chosen by “the people” who occupy the territory. Several of these names may be unfamiliar to non-Inuit people. These may include the names of the three regions forming the new territory of Nunavut: Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin), Kivalliq (Keewatin), and Kitikmeot (Central Arctic).

Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin) Region

Kaka Ashoona  (1928-19960)

Kaka Ashoona

Qikiqtaaluk is the region of Nunavut previously referred to as Baffin. Artists from the southern part of the region, Cape Dorset through to Iqaluit, demonstrate a love for wildlife and the spirit world in a flamboyant and dramatic way. Their sculptures are generally highly polished and often strongly stylized or elegantly natural subjects.

Sculpture from the Baffin region is generally known for its visual appeal, playfulness and elegance. Artists from this region use a local, richly veined green stone that is easy to polish, and encourages surface detail and complexity. The stone comes in many shades of brown through green, including a lime to yellow-green serpentine known as precious serpentine because of its similarities to Chinese jade. The integrity of the stone and its strength allows the creation of negative spaces, thin details and extensions to the sculpture. A small amount of marble is also used in Cape Dorset.The marble ranges in color from white to green and to salmon pink, and is quarried at Andrew Gordon Bay, fifty kilometres east of Cape Dorset.

Osuitok Ipeelee (1923-2005)

Osuitok Ipeelee (1923-2005)



Kivalliq (formerly Keewatin) Region

Richard Harrington, Padlei Diary, 1950

Richard Harrington, Padlei Diary, 1950

Kivalliq consists of the portion of the mainland west of Hudson Bay, Southampton Island and Coats Island. Before 1999, Kivalliq Region existed under slightly different boundaries as Keewatin Region, Northwest Territories. Historically called ‘Caribou Inuit’, the Kivalliq are an inland people who hunted the animals for which they are named and fished freshwater lakes.

Comprised of seven communities, sculpture in Kivalliq’s key art communities, Arviat (Eskimo Point) and Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake) and Rankin Inlet began in the late 1950s. Production increased in the 1960s due to the support of the federal government as well as increased availability of sculpting stone and other materials.

Kivalliq sculptors are generally known for their sparse, minimal style in which form takes precedence over narrative content. This is largely due to the local stone – hard and difficult to carve – prohibiting detail in the sculptors’ work. Instead, the artists allow the hardness and mass to dictate the outcome of their sculpture. Rugged pieces which portray wildlife, human figures and family groupings or transformational images and mythology. Inuit art authority Ingo Hessel theorizes that the devastating starvation period of the 1940s, as vividly captured in photographer Richard Harrington book, “Padlei Diary, 1950”, is also a source of influence.

John Kavik (1897-1993)

John Kavik (1897-1993)

Kivalliq is also well known for its ceramics. Essentially created by the North Rankin Nickle Mines in the 1950s, Kivalliq faced unemployment when the mines closed in 1962. Anxious to encourage new opportunities, the government launched the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project. While the initiative did not fare well and the project was closed in 1977, a local ceramics studio and gallery (Matchbox Gallery) was opened in 1987, which has encouraged Kivalliq artists to revisit ceramics as a means of artistic expression and livelihood.


Kitikmeot (Central Arctic) Region

The Kitikmeot region is 457,209 square kilometres and includes the southern and eastern parts of Victoria Island, the adjacent part of the mainland as far as the Boothia Peninsula, King William Island and the southern portion of Prince of Wales Island. Approximately 4,800 people live in the region in seven communities: Kingoak (Bathurst Inlet), Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Gjoa Haven, Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay), Kugluktuk (Coppermine), Taloyoak (Spence Bay) and Omingmaktok (Bay Chimo).

The artistic style of the region was influenced by interaction with whalers, explorers and the church, giving the Inuit a sense of what the Europeans valued in terms of subject matter. For example, similarly to the influence applied in Repulse Bay, Inuit of Pelly Bay followed the direction of Roman Catholic missionaries to produce ivory miniatures in vast quantities.

Western Arctic Region

This region of the Arctic was exposed to multiple sources of outsiders, including trading posts, missionaries and explorers, specifically affecting Holman Island and Kugluktuk (Coppermine).

Nunavik (Arctic Quebec) Region

James Houston

James Houston

Nunavik is a sparsely populated region, covering more than 500,000 square kilometres with close to 10,000 people living in 14 communities. Lying north of the 55th parallel Nunavik’s villages are scattered along the coasts of Ungava Bay, Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. Nunavik is home to many different landscapes of tundra, mountains, boreal forest, lakes, rivers and the wide sea. Its inhabitants are the Inuit, the Naskapi and the Cree.

The story of contemporary Inuit art began in Nunavik. While visiting the region, James Houston collected carvings from camps surrounding Povungnituk and Inukjuak. (James Houston, author, designer, and filmmaker, was born in Toronto in 1921. He studied art at age 11 with Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer at what is now the Art Gallery of Ontario, and later at the Ontario College of Art. After the war, he studied life drawing in Paris at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and engraving at Atelier 17 with William Hayter. In 1958-59, he studied printmaking with Unichi Hiratsuka (1895-179) in Tokyo. Houston arrived in Inukjuak in 1948 and lived among the Inuit in the Arctic until 1962. Houston is credited as being a driving force in bringing Inuit art to the attention of the rest of the world.) These carvings were featured at the first sale of contemporary Inuit art, held in Montreal in November 1949. At that time, artists from the region already displayed an interest in the narrative. “What we show in our carvings is the life we have lived in the past right up to today. We show the truth.” (Paulosie Kasadluak, sculptor and graphic artist from Inukjuak).

Davidialuk Alasua Amittu (1910-1976) Katyutayuuq

Davidialuk Alasua Amittu (1910-1976) Katyutayuuq

Arctic Quebec art places importance on the reality of everyday Inuit life, the tradition of oral history and mythology as well as personal recollections. Sculpture from this area is carved from grey steatite or soapstone, which needs to be handled with care – being easy to carve – but also easy to scratch and break. A technique commonly employed by artists of this area is to incise the surface with lines to create detail and realism.

Inuit art scholar Ingo Hessel describes artists from Nunavik as having pride in following artistic traditions – as a result, the style of sculpture produced in the 1950s and 1960s is still prevalent today.

The Nunavik region has been producing sculpture for the market for the last 50 years – the two dominant styles from Inukjuak and Puvirnituq.

Labrador Region

Flag of Labrador

Flag of Labrador

The name “Labrador” is one of the oldest names of European origin in Canada, almost as old as the name “Newfoundland”. It is named in honour of Portuguese explorer João Fernandes Lavrador who, together with Pedro de Barcelos, first sighted Labrador in 1498. Together with Newfoundland, it forms Canada’s most easterly and newest province since joining Confederation in 1949. Labrador is the size of New Zealand with an area of 269,073.3 square kilometres.The population of Labrador (27,864 – 2001 census) includes some 30 percent aboriginal people, including Inuit, Innu, and Métis.


The aboriginal people of Labrador possess a cultural identity that has survived thousands of years. They were the first of the North American peoples to encounter European explorers – first the Norse, and later the Portuguese, Basques, French, Dutch and British – however, they remained much less known than other aboriginal people living further west. This is partly because they spent most of the year deep in the interior of Québec-Labrador, where until recently they lived as nomadic hunters, only visiting coastal trading posts for brief periods. They were also one of the last Canadian aboriginal groups to become settled into permanent villages, a process which took place in the 1960s.

The ‘Montagnais-Naskapi’ descended from Algonkian-speaking hunter-gatherers of Labrador and northern Québec. Named by Europeans arriving in Labrador in the 19th century, the Naskapi lived in the tundra region of northern Labrador and Québec. The Montagnais (‘mountain people’) who descended from the hills were named by the early missionaries of the French settlements on the St. Lawrence River. In the 20th century, anthropologists recognized that these two groups had, for the most part, a single common culture, and so coined the term ‘Montagnais-Naskapi’.

David Terriak

David Terriak

In the 1980s the Innu themselves made it known that they preferred to be called ‘Innu’, a word meaning ‘people’ in their own language. They also began to publicly use their own name, Ntisinan, for their traditional territory. Despite the apparent similarity between ‘Innu’ and ‘Inuit’, the two words are not related.

In the late 19th century the nomadic people of this area traveled hundreds of kilometres to trade with the European ships visiting the coast of Labrador. They traded small ivory carvings depicting their life and environment, reminiscent of the carvings made by their Thule and Dorset ancestors. In addition to trading, these European travellers also married and had children with the Inuit women, creating today’s Labrador Metis nation. (The 6,000 Labrador Métis are officially recognized by the 1982 Canadian Constitution as one of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.)

Gilbert Flowers

Gilbert Flowers

In a 1996 interview artist Mike Massie noted, “Labrador artists are just starting to come into the mainstream”. Today this area is learning to compete with more established Inuit art centres, the art reflects a culture that is both traditional and transitional and Labrador arts of all types are still struggling to get established.