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.


Sleepwalker said...

If the pictures you posted are any indication of her talent, I would have bought the lot. What talent! Qujannamiik for sharing.

DD said...

I would have loved to purchase one of Bernadette's carvings, especially the "nanuq, nanuq, aivik," since I watched her create it from the raw chunk of stone to the polished work of art. Mais ... trop chère pour moi!