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Features / October 27, 2014

On Bridging Canada’s North-South Art Divide

Some of Canada’s most exciting artists live in the Arctic, far from the centres closer to the 49th parallel where most of our citizens live, work and play—and where the bulk of Canadian curators, gallerists and artists reside. But some new initiatives are trying to bridge that gap. Among them is the TD North/South Exchange, a Canadian Art Foundation program which provides opportunities for northern artists to do residencies in the southern part of Canada, and vice-versa. Recently, Toronto artist Ed Pien, who participated in 2012, corresponded with Sackville artist Graeme Patterson, who went north last month, to discuss the rich creative environment of Cape Dorset’s famed Kinngait Studios, the unexpected discoveries made while teaching at local schools, and the opportunity to see our national art scene in a different kind of north light.

Ed Pien: What did you pack in your suitcase and bring to Cape Dorset—what personal items, food and art materials?

Graeme Patterson: For food, I packed coffee, creamed honey, hot sauce, ginger, chocolate and some dried cranberries. I brought fall clothing, which seemed to hold up to the weather quite well, although I also bought a pair of deerskin gloves and sealskin mittens.

I packed enough materials and tools to make a few stop-motion puppets and experiment with the puppet-making process. This included several armature kits, wire, feathers, upholstery foam, Sculpey, model paints, pantyhose and a variety of other odds and ends.

I brought most of my camera gear, including some lights, so I could produce stop-motion animation and host a couple of workshops. I also packed a little video projector, which I used to present some of my animations to the artists at the co-op. I even packed for my next install in Montreal in case my flight got delayed and I didn’t get a chance to repack at home.

I may have packed a few too many things, but there was plenty of time to use them. Some of the extra material was useful for my workshops with the students at the schools.

Ed Pien: Are there any items you wish you had had?

Graeme Patterson: There are a few spices I should have packed like cumin, which seems to be rare in Cape Dorset. If I was to make this trip again, I would consider bringing some meat and vegetables.

I forgot to bring a coffee press, but I devised a system with a funnel, a fondue-pot holder and some coffee filters that seemed to work well. As for the studio, I seemed to have everything I needed.

Ed Pien: What were your preconceptions (if any) compared to your actual experiences with the following: artists and printmakers, Kinngait Studios manager Bill Ritchie, the locals, the students, the high-school faculty, Cape Dorset itself and the landscape and climate?

Graeme Patterson: I came to the residency with a fairly open mind. Every artist and printmaker I met was extremely welcoming and generous with his or her time and thoughts. I didn’t expect to make as many great friends so soon. I tried to make it to every coffee break to discuss art, politics, pop culture, sports and the weather.

Tim Pitsiulak worked alongside me, trying to teach me Inuktitut phrases and words. He also shared many of his hunting stories with me through detailed descriptions and photos, as well as the odd piece of jerky. It was great to share so much time with him.

I was amazed by fluidity of creative energy among the group. Everybody seems to be extremely interested in each other’s work, including what I was able to produce. It is a great environment to work in and be influenced by.

Did you have a similar experience and exchange with the artists and printmakers?

Ed Pien: My interactions were somewhat different because I had already met many of the artists in Toronto when they attended their solo exhibitions at Feheley Fine Arts at one time or another. These artists included Shuvinai Ashoona, Tim Pitsiulak, Ohotaq Mikkigak, Jutai Toonoo, Itee Pootoogook and Kenojuak Ashevak.

I was thrilled to be working next to some of these artists in such an intimate and creative environment. As you mentioned, each artist was very interested in what the others were working on. We would make the rounds to see each other’s work in progress.

Jutai was the most outgoing and interactive of the group. Ohotaq would come by, observe and give his thumbs-up of approval. Jutai, Tim, Shuvinai and I even had a session where we drew one another drawing each other.

As for the printmakers: my partner, artist Johannes Zits, and I would quietly observe what Qavavau Manumie, his brother and others were experimenting on. We were especially amazed and impressed by how many variations of colour combinations were tried out before the final ones were picked to make an edition of print.

Bill showed a lot of photographs that he and Tim had taken during their various outings. Johannes and I are envious of the encounters they had with beautiful landscapes and wildlife. Jimmy Manning also shared hundreds of his amazing images taken from his countless hunting adventures. The photographs showed Jimmy’s deep knowledge and respect for the environment.

Graeme Patterson: Bill was the first person I met when I stepped off the plane in Cape Dorset. He gave me a great deal of useful information and advice, which I am very thankful for. He has been part of the community and the Kinngait Studios for a long time, and he is a great source of information about the community and its history.

Bill introduced me to a lot of the artists past and present here, and his social and technical presence seems to be integral to the effectiveness of the studios’ co-op. It was great spending time with Bill and finding out how much we share in common.

Most of my interactions with the locals were through the Kinngait Studios and the schools. Everybody I met was friendly and curious—the kids were not afraid to ask me what my name was and what I was doing there. I became familiar with a few locals that sold me some small carvings, and I got used to the knocking on my door.

I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to visiting the schools. I met most of the students at the elementary school and the grade 11 class at the high school. Many of these students were the same kids that approached me at the grocery store and around town.

It was a lot of fun meeting the faculty at both schools, and I was particularly surprised to find out how many teachers are from Atlantic Canada. There was a great deal of participation in the workshops, and at times the teachers seemed to enjoy it more than their students!

Both faculty and students seemed to be very responsive to my visits and my workshops, and their interest in what I had to offer surpassed my expectations. I enjoyed their enthusiastic energy and curiosity, and I can only hope that I left a positive influence in exchange.

Bill gave me a great tour of Cape Dorset on the first Sunday I was there, which included a trip to the top of a nearby mountain to the lake and water system, and to the shore, where I got up close to remnants of an iceberg.

It is strange and beautiful there—stranger than I could have imagined and more beautiful than I expected. The strangeness became familiar, though. I became comfortable wandering around among the stray dogs and the ravens. I wanted to walk around and take more photos, as there seemed to be limitless potential for that. Bill told me to keep my eyes open for polar bears, as they have been known to waltz into town.

As my flight in to Cape Dorset began its descent, I noticed several large icebergs close to shore. I thought this was normal, but Bill soon informed me otherwise.

I feel quite fortunate to have witnessed this event. It wasn’t too cold there, no more than expected, but the wind was fairly fierce at times, which I heard is a common occurrence. I would have liked to explore the environment a little more—however, the polar bear thing kept me from adventuring out too far. I did not expect this fear to weigh so heavily on my sense of exploration.

This correspondence has been edited and condensed.