Sunday, 7 August 2011

Gracious Elder, Talented Carver

I'm back in Ottawa, but I still have a few stories to tell about my visit to the far North. This one is about Bernadette Saumik, a soapstone carver from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

I met Bernadette the first day of the Great Northern Arts Festival, or GNAF (that's "guh-NAFF" to those in the know).

Like the other dozen-or-so carvers at the festival, Bernadette set up her carving corner — or should I say carved out her carving corner (har har) — under the designated outdoor tent.

She chose her chunks of soapstone with care, then allowed the birds and animals living within the stone to reveal themselves to her.
Bernadette was one of just two women carvers at GNAF. (The other was Marion Taylor Pokiak, a young gal from Tuktoyaktuk.) At 72, Bernadette was a good 40 to 50 years older than most of her carving colleagues at the festival. She has been carving since age 11.

What made Bernadette so memorable was her carving style. As the other sculptors set to work with their power saws, Dremels and electric grinders, Bernadette sat on the floor in the corner with her handsaw, file, hammer and chisel, carving by hand.

The irony amused me — here was this tiny elder sawing away at her stone, while all the strapping young men blasted at the rock with their power tools. 

After that first meeting with Bernadette, I visited her daily, watching her work and following her progress.

Her English is limited, and my Inuktitut is nil, so we communicated using hand signals and mime. As her first sculpture emerged from the stone, she told me it was
"nanuq, nanuq, aiviq" — that's two polar bears and a walrus.

The next one was "ukpiquaq," which I thought meant ptarmigan, but now I think it must mean snowy owls (plural, versus ukpiq, singular), because the finished sculpture was a mama snowy owl and two young'uns.

Another day, Bernadette sang — and acted out — a song for me. I guessed it was about dreaming she'd turned into a bird that flew high into the sky. (She confirmed that storyline later through a translator.)

In the evenings, I searched the Internet for easy Inuktitut words to try out on her. I went in one day and said "ulaakut" (good morning); she corrected my pronunciation, so I said it again her way. She repeated it; I repeated it; she repeated it; I repeated it ... I thought she was correcting me each time but, when another Inuktitut-speaking carver started laughing at us, I realized we were just saying "good morning" ... "good
morning" ...  "good morning" ... "good morning" ... back and forth. We all had a good laugh. That didn't need a translator.

In the end, Bernadette carved six sculptures during the 10-day festival. And she won the Artists' Choice Award for Best Sculpting/Carving.

On the festival's closing day, I interviewed Bernadette (via a translator), just in case I can find a venue to publish a story about her. Then I practised another new word: "qujannamiik." Thank you.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Tufting & Felting

When I heard my moose hair tufting workshop at the Great Northern Arts Festival had been cancelled, I was heartbroken. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to during my summer in Inuvik. Within a few days, though, the workshop coordinator had tracked down a caribou hair tufter from Carmacks, YT, to take over the class.

Apparently moose hair is very wiry and difficult to work with, so the replacement teacher, Twyla Wheeler, prefers to use caribou. She also dyes the hair wild colours rather than working with the natural hair.

Tufting sounds simple enough — push a threaded needle up through the leather, then back down, to make a loop on the top-side of the leather ... stuff a half-inch bundle of hair through the loop ... then pull the thread tight and knot it to make the hairs stand on end. Then you trim the hair bundle into shape with tiny scissors. Et voilĂ , a tuft.

Here are the things that can go wrong: you don't pull the thread tight enough and the hair falls out; you don't make a proper knot and the hair falls out; you cut the tuft too short and the hair falls out ... OR you poke the needle through your finger; you get impatient and cut the tuft right off with the tiny scissors; you can't get the needle through the leather in the first place.

The first day, I made three tufts on my piece of leather — Twyla did the rest for me. So I went back the next day, got some one-on-one coaching and mastered the technique (sort of). Still, it took me two hours to make six tufts. If caribou is the easy version of this art form, I'm pretty sure I'm not ready for moose.
Alison and Ninja

Twyla was kind enough to send me home with a bag of multi-coloured caribou hair, which is still attached to the multi-coloured caribou hide. The cat attacked it.

A few days later at the arts festival, I took a class called "wet felting." The teacher, Alison McCreash of Yellowknife, NWT, assured me it was foolproof.

It was also really fun. And messy. And while the felting technique may be foolproof, the artistic ability of the felter is not.

So, for any of you who happen to see my lovely felt creation ... just so ya know ... it is the Northern Lights. Above mountains. With trees. Feel free to ooh & ahh appropriately.

A carver at work
Next time I come to GNAF (as it is known up here), I'm going to take a soapstone carving workshop. Rocks, hammers, chisels and power tools — what could possibly go wrong?