Carvers at Fenbrook
Edited by Allan Briesmaster
72 pages, B&W Photographs
Arctic Transformations: Carvers at Fenbrook is the result of an art for charity initiative in which Inuit artists housed in a federal prison in Ontario donated art for auction to raise money for the Illitit Society of Nunavut. The book profiles nine artists whose work was auctioned in Toronto and Ottawa and includes bios and photos of the artists and their work, along with an essay on the future of Inuit art by Pat Feheley of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto.
Arctic Transformations was done in cooperation with the Correctional Service of Canada. The text is in English and Inuktitut.
Foreword in English
Perhaps all creative works are the result of a serendipitous array of factors. This one certainly was.
A year ago, the publisher of Seraphim Editions, Maureen Whyte, sat in my office promoting the launch of another book, My Spirit Wonders, an anthology of art, prose and poetry produced by people in prison. At that time, I was just in the beginning stages of developing an interesting art-for-charity initiative. The idea was to use art produced by Inuit Carvers housed in a federal prison in Ontario, and sell it by auction in Toronto to raise money for a charity in the carvers’ home territory of Nunavut. As I described this project to Maureen, she exclaimed, “that would make a wonderful book!”
Together we took the idea of the book to the Carvers group. They agreed to the idea and the rest is history … but not quite that easy a history. The charity art auction on which this book is based, and the collection of autobiographies and photographs for this book, required the hard work and persistence and creativity of many people.
Prison is not an easy place to be creative! The impact of an institution designed to restrict liberties can severely impair the ability to create and the desire to freely contribute back to the community. These nine artists must be commended for their willingness and ability to rise above the effects of being in prison in a strange land far away from home, to produce wonderful art that raised over $14,000 for the Illitiit Society in Nunavut.
The project’s success is also a result of the extra work, beyond the call of duty, by several staff at Fenbrook Institution, including Leetia Kowalchuk, the Inuit Liaison; Jim Spicer, Inuit programs coordinator; and especially Sylvia Purdon, Private Sector Liaison, who coordinated the project from the institution side. Sylvia even came into the institution on weekends and holidays so the carving shed could be open extra hours for the fellows working so hard to complete the items for auction. The support and involvement of many other staff at the institution, including the Warden, and several Assistant Wardens, was also vital for the success of the project.
Neither the auction nor the book would have been possible without one more significant component: volunteers in the Toronto arts community. Pat Feheley and Feheley Fine Arts Inuit Art Gallery, Duncan McLean and Waddington’s Appraisers and Auctioneers, and Kathryn Minard and Contemporary Fine Art Services Inc. provided wise counsel, address lists, venues and refreshments for events, advertising, and catalogue printing. Ontario College of Art and Design Community Arts Program student Janice Marin assisted with relationship-building with the artists, helped the men write their autobiographies, helped with the photography, made a video of the event, and contributed a painting of one of the carvers for auction.
I had the privilege of somehow coordinating all this disparate activity in my role as Community Outreach Coordinator with the Correctional Service Canada Central District (Ontario) Parole Office in Toronto. A very rewarding endeavour indeed!
The Fenbrook Inuit Arctic Carving Co-operative
Fenbrook Institution is designated by the Correctional Service of Canada to receive federal offenders from the new territory of Nunavut located in the Eastern Arctic.
As Warden, I have been pleased to observe the progress the Inuit offenders have made in their carving business, the Fenbrook Arctic Carving Co-operative.
The Inuit Carvers qualify for the job of Inuk Carver by following their Correctional Plan and maintaining good institutional behaviour. Most carvers are half-time carvers and participate half-day in either school or correctional programs. Out of a population of 25-35 Inuit there are usually 12-15 active carvers.
Through soapstone carving, Inuit express the deepest meanings in their culture. The caribou, the walrus, whales and seals, polar bears, family groups and the magic of the shaman frequently find expression in the art of the Inuit.
Research has shown that employment after release is essential to successful reintegration when offenders return to their home communities. With strong carving skills and good marketing knowledge, the Fenbrook Inuit Carvers have a better chance to earn a legitimate living for themselves and their families back home.
All of the Carvers in the Charity Art Auction donated the sculptures to the cause of the Illitiit Society of Nunavut, an organization that provides direct services to victims and the homeless in Iqaluit.
This was a great opportunity for us all to contribute directly to those in need in Nunavut, the home of the Inuit.
Mike Provan, Warden
Fenbrook Institution, Gravenhurst, Ontario
Introduction to the Carving Program
The Fenbrook Inuit Arctic Carving Cooperative was established at Fenbrook to provide the opportunity to the Inuit offenders to create soapstone sculptures for the wholesale art market. By carving to art market standards the Inuit improve their carving skills and become acutely aware of the demands of that market.
When released after sentence to his home community, the Inuit Carver’s potential economic contribution to his household income is improved because he has worked at developing his technical and marketing skills. The commissions earned through his carving proceeds are kept in a savings account for his future release.
When asked what they wanted to accomplish while at Fenbrook, the first group of Inuit offenders said that they wanted to carve, and they wanted to send money home to their families. A number of Inuit Carvers have received Warden approval to send money home from their savings earned from carving.
An Inuit can receive approval to replace or purchase new carving tools from his earnings. The Inuit Carving Group pays for all the costs of running the Carving Cooperative, including courier shipping costs, and replacement tools. The Carvers meet regularly to develop policy and procedures for the operations of their Carving enterprise.
Many long miles from home, the Inuit Carvers through their carving remain rooted in the Inuit tradition. The carvings reflect the home life of the hamlets, the magic Shaman transformation, the struggle on the land, the familiar animals of land and sea, the nesting birds, the lumbering walrus, the big-footed caribou.
Thus is established a grounding for the Inuit in his culture within the corrections setting. Observing this, the Fenbrook staff has gained an enriched understanding of this truly remarkable group of people, the Inuit.
Private Sector Liaison
Looking to the Future
Over the last fifty years, contemporary Canadian Inuit art has undergone a breathtaking evolution. Style, scale, subject matter and materials have changed significantly as the artists themselves have gone from a migratory hunting lifestyle to townspeople living in the modern, self-governing territory of Nunavut.
The creation of works of art in traditional culture was limited by the scarcity of available materials and the realities of a harsh lifestyle. Sculptures were tiny, primarily made of bone, ivory and antler. Graphic expression was limited to the decoration of tools and clothing. This changed greatly as the Inuit began to move into settlements after 1950. With this transition to permanent residence, sculptures of greater scale and complexity could be conceived for the first time. Larger pieces of stone became available with new quarrying methods, and artists who were no longer migratory were able to work in larger scale.
New means of artistic expression were introduced, including prints, textiles, ceramics and metalwork. These allowed artists to diversify their traditional graphic and sculptural artistic expression. New technologies, including power tools, allowed the artists to achieve greater complexity in their compositions. At the same time, as artists in the north were embracing these new possibilities for their art, a strong national and international market for Inuit art was developing in the south. The market developed and, for the first time, making art could be viewed as a means of providing for the family – so more time could be devoted to it.
Contemporary Inuit art continues to evolve and develop. Slowly, the twin barriers of distance and communication are being surmounted. Some artists have chosen to live in the south, either temporarily or permanently. The younger generations are primarily bilingual; easier travel to the south and increased telecommunications mean that the artist is more readily able to represent himself to his audience in the south.
Social changes in the north have certainly had an effect, and yet Inuit artists continue to portray the traditional culture through their work. Many in the south predicted, as early as the 1950’s, that Inuit carvings would lose their distinctive qualities and fall prey to commercialization. Instead, contemporary Inuit artists have melded tradition with innovation in their works of art which are among the most exciting and dynamic in Canada today.
The story of contemporary Inuit art is still unfolding. The developments of the last half-century have allowed truly talented artists the opportunity to be recognized and encouraged. The individual growth and formal concerns of these artists are the key to the ongoing successful evolution of Inuit art. No longer a reflection of a past life in the frozen north, it speaks of today’s reality, filtered through a still vibrant culture.
Feheley Fine Arts
Foreword in Inuktitut
The Fenbrook Inuit Arctic Carving Co-operative