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The Evolution of Contemporary Arctic Art Carvings

The Inuit first experienced contact with white explorers, missionaries and whalers in the 1500's. Their Arctic art carvings and tools were used for barter and trade in exchange for tea, alcohol and weapons. Small ivory carvings represented animals, hunting and camping scenes. Cribbage game boards and walrus tusks were often made for the visiting whalers. Sometimes Arctic art with Christian imagery were done upon encouragement from missionaries.

The Inuit began to use miniature ivory carvings to decorate the rifles they acquired from the white men as well as tools, boats and even musical instruments. This gave rise to scrimshaw which featured thin lines incised in ivory to depict complex scenes. They would fill out these lines with charcoal and later with India ink to bring out the detail of the Arctic art.

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As Europeans settled in the Arctic, new methods of creating artwork were introduced to the Inuit during the 1800's and 1900's. The Inuit began to experiment with ink and pastels. The carvings of Arctic art were still small in size due to the nomadic culture of the Inuit at that time. They had to be small enough to be worn or carried around from camp to camp.

During the late 1940s, James Houston, a young artist employed by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs, went up to the Arctic to draw and paint. He gave the local Inuit a few of his sketches. One day, one of his new Inuit friends ran up to him showing his fist. Houston thought that his friend was starting a fight but instead, his friend opened up his fist to reveal a gift in his hand. It was the first Arctic art carving Houston had ever seen. At first, he thought that the carving was an old artifact perhaps hundreds of years old.

Later he realized that his Inuit friend had just carved the piece for him. Amazed at the skill level involved in creating this carving, he asked for more of them and soon realized the potential of this form of art. He bought most of the carvings which gave his Inuit friends a much needed source of income. The carvings were brought back south and through the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal, the first ever Inuit Arctic art exhibition was held in 1949. The event was a huge success as all pieces were sold. (see James Houston profile)

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The Canadian government also realized that Arctic art had economic potential for the Inuit people so the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild established cooperatives while actively encouraging the Inuit to make more carvings. Houston actually help set up the first Arctic art producing cooperative called the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Cape Dorset in 1951. The cooperatives had a distribution system with agencies set up in some major Canadian cities to distribute and sell Arctic art carvings.

As more Inuit gave up the nomadic lifestyle and settled into permanent communities in the Arctic, they began to make larger carvings. This was also due to increasing market demand for bigger pieces. Arctic art pieces coming out of this time period were still primitive looking and unpolished. Over time, especially during the 1980's, carvings became more realistic looking and highly polished. Again, market influence was probably a huge factor for this shift in style.

Today, there are more than 30 art producing Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic, each with different styles of Arctic art. Canada has adopted the Inuit's Arctic Art, particularly the carvings, as part of the country's cultural identity. Internationally, Canada's Arctic art has evolved into an accepted form of contemporary fine art.

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