Adventures in Art

A writer hunts for her inner artist in Inuvik, NWT

Preparing for Winter by Louie Nigiyok / Photo courtesy Northern Images

Editor’s note: Every July, the Great Northern Arts Festival descends on Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Executive director Marnie Helash tells us the festival (in its 26th year) is a celebration of artists from all three of Canada’s northern territories – Yukon, NWT and Nunavut. Featuring everything from stone carving to contemporary fibre arts to jewelery making, this culturally rich event also offers hands-on workshops to participants, which brings us to Helena Katz‘s post on one writer’s quest for creativity. Sign us up, is all we can say!


Louie Nigiyok is one optimistic guy. “We’re going to spend a few hours together and I’m going to teach you how to make beautiful art,” Nigiyok says at the start of his beginner’s printmaking workshop at Inuvik’s Great Northern Arts Festival.

Clearly he’s never met me. Judging by the kindergarten art projects that I continue to produce as an adult, the wellspring of artistic talent that runs through my family dried up before I could dip into it. Undeterred, I attend arts festivals that offer workshops where participants can roll up their sleeves and tap into their inner artists – taking moose-hide tanning and moose-hair tufting at the Open Sky Festival in Fort Simpson, and drum, basket and mosaic making through the Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre in Fort Smith.

For 10 days every July, traditional and contemporary artists from across the North converge on Inuvik to share their work. This summer, the event runs July 11 to 20. Festival-goers chat with visiting artists while watching them produce new works. A large gallery showcases and sells everything from sculptures and paintings to clothing made from qiviut (muskox wool). Wannabes like me join daily, artist-led workshops that range from beading to carving soapstone.

Nigiyok, our workshop leader, is from Ulukhaktok, a hamlet of about 425 people on Victoria Island in the High Arctic. The community’s printmaking history dates back to 1961, when Roman Catholic priest Father Henri Tardy helped local artists set up the Holman Eskimo Co-operative. The group soon became known for the Holman collection of prints.

The printmaking process involves using mylar stencils in layers, explains Nigiyok, a Inuvialuit artist who learned the skill from his mother and has been creating prints for 30 years. After handing out thick pieces of paper, he sifts through his stencils to pick out a different design for each participant. “I have easy ones, harder ones and really hard ones.” A fellow beside me, who has done printmaking before, asks for the hardest design.

I have no such illusions. “I’ll take an easy one, please,” I tell the diminutive, bespectacled artist whose voice is so soft that I strain to understand him.

Nigiyok silently hands me a blue stencil that has wavy slits. I have no idea what I’m doing, but surmise that it’s supposed to represent water. I place it on the bottom half of my paper and use masking tape to keep it from shifting while I work. I grab a brush and do my best to apply blue paint to the paper though the slits.

But the paint is so faint that it’s hard to tell when I’ve made the thin lines, and the stencil keeps slipping. Once I’m done colouring, Nigiyok removes the stencil and places a multi-layered stencil of a muskox on top.

Later, he swings by to see how my print is coming along. From beneath his baseball cap, he stares at it for what seems like an eternity. The printmaking process baffles me, and he’s puzzled by my results. Somehow, I’ve managed to put gold paint in a spot that should’ve been brown. My muskox now has what appears to be a mutant golden birthmark on its left flank.

Without saying a word, Nigiyok walks away to check in on another student’s progress. Maybe he’s realized that he won’t be the one to teach me how to make beautiful art.

I look around and see that other participants are creating wonderfully meticulous work. I’m about ready to pack it in when my seat mate, the one who’s taken printmaking before, sees my pained expression. He suggests that I flip over the paper and start again.

This time, I focus only on drawing the muskox. At least that way I’ll have something to show for my efforts. Thanks to his tutoring, the muskox is starting to look good. I even manage to paint nostrils. Then I add the wavy blue lines, the beast’s feet and his hooves.

Other participants are more successful than I. One person’s work depicts two yellow polar bears. Another student crafts a crane. Someone else creates a caribou. My print looks like a kiddie art project, but I’m okay with that.

Back home, I display my hard-won efforts: the muskox print occupies pride of place on the fridge, beside my grocery list; the mosaic hangs on the wall near our front door; the drum on a shelf in the den. Sadly, the moose-hair tufting never made it home.

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    • Helena Katz commented:

      I’ve attended this festival twice and it was definitely worth it. The second time, I learned how to make sealskin mitts. They’re toasty warm and hold together nicely.


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