March 13, 2010

Arctic Dreams, Stitched

Some years ago I was invited by the Canadian government to travel to the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut. I was asked to assist the women in two textile projects, one in Rankin Inlet and the second, in Baker Lake. I ended up traveling to the north country on three different occasions. Visiting the hamlet of Baker Lake to work on a slipper project introduced me to the legendary late artist, Jessie Oonark.
Photos from a the wonderful book, Inuit Art, An Anthology: Wallhangings from Baker Lake by Sheila Butler
Jessie Oonark print
Baker Lake artists (Jessie Oonark second from right)

One of the joys of working in textile projects around the world is being able to see the incredible handwork and skills of women living in primitive conditions. Using limited textile supplies women (and sometimes, men) create art that engages, excites, and stimulates the viewer to learn more about the origins of the people and the work.

During one summer in Baker Lake, I hiked in a blistering chill wind along the hills sheltering the town. With each step, my boots squished into the tundra plant layer, in places still frozen. I walked on a carpet of pink, red, green, and yellow blooming Arctic vegetation. It was a circus of pattern and color! My destination was to reach the Baker Lake Cemetery where Jessie Oonark was buried. Arctic graves must be above ground because of the tundra vegetation layer which lives on water (ice). When I finally reached Oonark's grave to see huge rocks covering her whitened bones I was overcome with waves of emotion. Knowing Jessie Oonark's life story of living nomadically in the North Country until the 1950's when the Canadian government evacuated all nomadic people to the settlement of Baker Lake, I was overwhelmed with the sadness of starvation and hardship experienced by this woman and her people. One outcome of living in the Baker Lake settlement was the development and marketing of Inuit artistic creations. Jessie Oonark began drawing, then emboidering, and late in her life she became famous for her prints. 

While spending time in Baker Lake I was lucky to be introduced to Inuit tapestry makers. I brought home lovely pieces of textile art!
Left to right embroidered applique wool tapestries: Kukiiyaut; Iryi; and Avaalaqiaq
The fantasy images in these tapestries come from the artist's deep understanding of the harmony between human and animal existence. While at once whimsical a look into Inuit mythology finds the imagery connected to practices of healing, hunting, and living.
The Snowy Owl
Fantasy creatures arise from the imagination of Irene Avaalaqiaq
The ulu, a woman's scraping tool is a prominent image in many tapestries.

So, this post has been brought to you at the request of Margie O. over at:
She asked to see my Inuit tapestries!


  1. Oh my , thanks so so much for posting this today. They are absolutely fantastic. I wish I could see them up close. By the way if you ever get asked to go up north again please ask if you can bring along a friend:)

  2. How wonderful to see these images and read your post.
    Like Margie, I wish I could see them up close - and also handle them!