A stitch in time

The death this week of Baker Lake artist Marion Tuu’luq makes the opening of her first solo exhibition at the National Gallery this month all the more poignant



Well-known Baker Lake artist Marion Tuu’luq died this week in her community after a long illness. She was 92.

Famous for her wall hangings, Tuu’luq’s death came only weeks before her first solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Her use of embroidery, colour and appliqués in her wall hangings attracted the attention of a national audience.

Born in the Black River area west of Hudson Bay, Tuu’luq lived on the land, moving from family to family after her parents died. With no mother to teach her how to sew, Tuu’luq taught herself by studying the stitches and works of other women.

In the 1960s, her family was forced to move to the settlement of Baker Lake to avoid starvation.

In 1966-67, when the Baker Lake sewing project began, Tuu’luq started making and selling wall hangings, beaded collars and inner parkas. She stopped creating work in 1989 because of an allergy to wool.

Marie Routledge, the associate curator of Inuit art with the National Gallery of Canada, is co-curating the exhibition, which opens Oct. 12 and showcases 37 of Tuu’luq’s works on cloth.

Routledge first saw Tuu’luq’s work in the 1970s and marvelled at her ability to use every part of the work, the background, the felt, the stitchery to, what she calls, “paint with fabric.”

“Two of the works in the show are not wall hangings, they are actually beaded collars that she did as part of one of the various experimental craft projects that took place in communities across the North,” she says. The projects took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“These are done in beadwork and what you see are her ideas about pattern and colour and how she begins to work them out. From there she goes into the wall hangings.”

Lake Trout, completed in 1973, is one of the first wall hangings Routledge saw. It measures 1.5 metres by two metres.

“We actually have pictures in the catalogue taken by another artist, Jack Butler, who worked in Baker Lake for a while and he shows Tuu’luq working on this particular piece at her husband, Luke Anguhadluq’s fishing camp, which is quite amazing when you see it in the show and you realize this was largely made out at a spring fish camp,” she laughs. “It has a real history.”

Routledge visited Tuu’luq for the last time two years ago in Baker Lake.

“We went for a visit, talked a little bit about the exhibition and what was coming up and I think she was really looking forward to it,” she says. “It’s kind of sad that she came so close to seeing it. In the last few weeks we were discussing whether or not she would come to the opening.”

Because of her age, it was decided Tuu’luq would be represented by family members and the gallery would make her a video tape, so she would be able to see the opening.

“She was a very lively, strong person with a really quick sense of humour,” Routledge says. “She had said to Marie Bouchard in the course of the interviews [the catalogue essay on Tuu’luq is written by co-curator Marie Bouchard] that she had always found her role in life was to make people laugh and offer a little balance in tough times and she has a great sense of humour.”

The cover of the National Gallery’s Vernissage magazine shows a detail of one of Tuu’luq’s works, Laughing at Men with Big Noses.

“It’s not really talking about noses,” Routledge laughs, explaining that Tuu’luq and fellow Baker Lake cloth artist Jessie Oonark always used to joke about men and their frailties.

Tuu’luq had 26 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.

The exhibition of her work will be on display in Ottawa until Jan. 12, 2003, and the show will travel to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and to the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph.

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