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Jamasie Pitseolak: Northern Soul

An Easy Rider–worthy serpentinite motorcycle that flaunts the head of an Inuit sea goddess. A stone-carved Fender guitar whose ivory inlays include an ice-floe evoking polar bear. A portrait of a Nunavut artist comprised of an inukshuk-decorated chair and a caribou-antler camera. These are some of the striking, unexpected sculptures spurring interest in the work of Jamasie Pitseolak, a Cape Dorset artist who, at 42, is opening his first solo exhibition at Marion Scott Gallery this week.

“When I started carving, I was doing traditional pieces,” says Pitseolak over the phone from his home in Cape Dorset. “I felt at that time I wasn’t really connecting with my inner soul, if you will. So I started doing electric guitars, and from there it kind of snowballed. I guess I wasn’t seeing myself excelling doing those traditional pieces because everyone is doing it, you know?”

That inner soul of Pitseolak’s certainly has a playful and lighthearted side. He revels in punning titles like My Second Grader, which is the second asphalt grader he’s ever carved. Similarly, Two Barrel Shotgun shows a gun propped up against—what else?—two large barrels. Past subjects also include a banana-seat bicycle, a toilet and a skateboard, and many of them (unlike a lot of hand-carved sculpture, Inuit or otherwise) sport articulated, moving parts.

Yet Pitseolak’s work can also be reflective. Peter Pitseolak’s Chair can be read as a kind of portrait of his grandfather, who was well known as a carver and photographer in the Dorset area. The materials (carved caribou antler and stone) evince the former practice while the subject matter (a Polaroid camera draped on a chair) speaks to the latter.

Pitseolak also has a couple of very dark and painful works that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition. Two prints, created as part of a residency at Montreal’s Studio PM last fall, depict abuse that Pitseolak experienced as a child. Though the horrific legacy of residential schooling in native communities is well known now by most Canadians, these raw images (which are based in the artist’s traumatic day-school experiences) retain the capacity to shock.

“That’s a dark side of my history,” says Pitseolak. “I was quite hesitant to do these because it’s really painful. It was a way of releasing that point of view. It was my reality, I guess.”

“Going into that residency I really didn’t really know what to expect—in the beginning I was just kind of improvising and I started doing memory stuff; I tried to draw everything that I remembered and I guess that led to that dark side. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Though those elements of the work are more than somber, Pitseolak says he has a lot to look forward to at the moment. He’s working on another sculpture of a motorcycle—his favourite subject—and is anticipating a visit to Vancouver for the closing of the exhibition in July.

“I’m anxious about the show,” he admits. “But I’m enjoying what I’m doing with the work. It’s fulfilling. So I’m just going to do what I know—that’s all I can do anyway.”

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