Art for a community’s sake

At long last, Kimmirut gets a gallery to showcase local talent


KIMMIRUT — More than 40 years ago, carver Mark Pitseolak put his work on display in a gallery without walls. Instead of soapstone, he used snow. It had its advantages: the overhead cost was zero, and his materials came free.

But his makeshift shop was based in an outpost far from town, and the only customers for his snowy seal and bird facsimiles were family.

Now, his work has a more permanent form — and a permanent location.

This week, Pitseolak was one of many local artists who packed into a narrow hall lined with tall glass cases to celebrate the launch of the community’s first art gallery. Organizers, politicians, and government sponsors attending the Dec. 13 event hailed the gallery as an economic and cultural boon to Kimmirut, however overdue.

Pitseolak saw it as a source of pride.

“I never thought I’d see carvings on display like this,” Pitseolak said with a wide smile and shining eyes. “They look nicer [under the lights].”

Like many artists around him, Pitseolak expects the gallery to attract tourists, and bring a boost in sales for the community’s door-to-door carvers. Until now, artists had limited options, selling their work to the Co-op or Northern stores. Otherwise, they had to wait for the boom season of summer, when luxury cruise ships bring an influx of potential customers.

Kyra Fisher, who spearheaded the gallery project, considered the grand opening to be a watershed moment for the community. Besides the overflowing crowd that came for the opening, locals have also shown support in ways they didn’t before.

“Local people are starting to buy,” Fisher said as a gallery attendant wrapped carvings that had been sold. “And if local people are starting to buy, it means it’s important to them, that it has become a part of the community they can identify with and take part in.

“I think it’s extremely significant.”

The hamlet’s economic development department came up with about $110,000 in funding and a long list of support agencies from around the territory lent a hand to change Kimmirut’s wooden heritage building, Soper House, into a modern-day gallery. But the work doesn’t end here, Fisher said.

She wants government to show further support for the arts in Kimmirut by answering calls for a local jewelry studio. The community has an increasing number of artists making pendants, earrings and necklaces since Arctic College began offering courses to locals this year.

Jewelry maker Mary Akavak, who sold three items within the first hour of the gallery’s launch, said lack of infrastructure is holding artists back.

She said jewelry makers only have a temporary space through the college, and are forced to take turns with the available tools.

Despite the setbacks, Akavak was upbeat about the gallery opening.

“It made me produce things I thought I wouldn’t,” she said. “Ugly stones I had … turned beautiful.”

Politicians attending the opening told artists like Akavak that they should expect continued support from the territorial government.

Olayuk Akesuk, who plans to defend his position as MLA for South Baffin in the next election, said he would continue to push for funding for arts and culture programs in his riding.

“I think this will be an example of what can be done in the communities,” Akesuk said in an interview after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“This will show that the community can do something, if the government is beside them.”

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