Canada’s first lady of Inuit art helped start co-op movement

Alma Houston, a pioneer in the world of art promotion, will be fondly remembered by her friends in the North.


Special to Nunatsiaq News

TORONTO – The Inuit of Cape Dorset called her Arnakotak, or “tall woman” and in the decades Alma Houston devoted to Canada’s northern artists, her stature always fit her reputation.

Though she made the acquaintance of prime ministers, diplomats and the world’s rich and famous over the years, Alma’s outspoken and down-to-earth character never changed.

Ever the Maritimer at heart, her death in Halifax on December 17 has left a great void in Canada’s artistic community and saddened countless friends.

“People said that they’d still be waiting for her to come home,” Joanasie Salamonie, president of the Cape Dorset cooperative, said during a moving tribute to Alma in Halifax just before Christmas.

“She has been with them for so many years. One never gets to hear, but they always love her. They too, they will join her in heaven.”

Alma Georgina Houston was headed for a teaching career in Venezuela in 1950 when she met her future husband, James, at an Inuit art exhibit in Montreal. Jim persuaded her that the Arctic would be a more appropriate destination for a young Canadian girl, and indeed, she soon fell in love with the North.

Travelled by dog team

Arriving at Frobisher Bay – now, Iqaluit – by airplane, Alma remarked on the beauty of the Sylvia Grinnell Mountains.

“You are appreciative of the beauty of the mountains and you are complaining bitterly about this primus stove,” Jim told her. “I’m willing to bet that in two weeks’ time, you are going to love this primus and hate the mountains'”

By dog team the couple travelled from Frobisher Bay to Lake Harbour and on to Cape Dorset. Coming down some steep inclines, the sleds had to be lowered by rope to avoid colliding with the dogs.

Alma and Jim learned Inuktitut through their day-to-day experiences, Alma learning quickly what helped her and what she understood.

But she recalled, one day, turning to Pootoogook, the great leader and artist, and sighing, “I speak like a dog.” To which Pootoogook replied, “No, you speak like a child.”

Founding the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Cape Dorset launched Alma’s career as a promoter of Inuit art and would endear her to her adopted community for the rest of her days. She was a firm believer in the cooperative ideal: that people could live decent, dignified lives helping each other.

From that hesitant beginning, the Cape Dorset cooperative diversified and grew into the major organization it is today.

Art featured in London

As a result of Jim and Alma’s work, Inuit art was featured at Charles Gimpel’s London Gallery during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

When Alma returned to Ottawa in 1963, she began marketing the now famous Cape Dorset prints out of an office at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

In 1965 she became director of fine arts with Canadian Arctic Producers, and, following the advice of such prominent gallery owners as Av Isaacs in Toronto and Charles Gimpel in England, boldly set out to market Inuit art to international collectors.

“I felt the art and artists of the Arctic should be treated like other art and artists such as Picasso,” she said once, “not as something different. We brought that to the marketing.”

It didn’t take long for Alma and Jim to succeed. Inuit art quickly caught the attention of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which bought the first set of Cape Dorset prints.

Beginning in 1966, with assistance from the federal government, Alma travelled regularly overseas as an unofficial ambassador for Inuit artists. In 1975 she was awarded the Order of Canada for her role developing and attracting international interest in modern Inuit art.

“Alma’s persistence and stubbornness bode well for, among others, the Inuit,” said Terry Ryan, a long-time Cape Dorset resident who is director of Dorset Fine Arts and a family friend.

“However feisty – at times, downright rude – she won both respect and admiration. It cost her on occasion but she accepted that reputation as the price of securing the recognition she was determined to win for her friends.”

Children raised in Cape Dorset

Though blessed with a wonderful sense of humor, Alma was very modest about her accomplishments and had to be persuaded to speak of her Arctic adventures.

“When we travelled by dog team,” she once recalled, “the Inuit did everything in their power to make it easier for me. When we went on boats up the west coast with Pootoogook, he would have me tied down on deck so I wouldn’t get washed overboard.”

Alma and both her sons, John and Sam, were adopted by the Pootoogook family during their upbringing in Cape Dorset.

In fact, Inuktitut was the first language that the Houston children learned to speak. John remains closely connected to the Arctic through his filmmaking.

In 1980, following her retirement and her divorce, Alma returned to live in her native Nova Scotia, where she started the Houston North Gallery in picturesque Lunenburg. The gallery continues to feature the finest examples of Inuit art and Maritime folk art.

Her last trip to Baffin Island was in 1994 to speak at the ninth Inuit Studies Conference.

The people of the Arctic always remained very dear to Alma, and she had hoped to return to the North this year. Her ashes will be spread over the hills above Cape Dorset.

Alma Houston is survived by her son, John of Halifax and granddaughter, Rebecca of Iqaluit; her son Samuel and grandsons Hart and Sam of Aspen, Colorado; and her mother, Euphemia Viola Bardon and her brothers and sister.

Jeanne L. Pattison, friend and colleague of Alma Houston, is an art consultant and writer who travelled and worked in the Arctic for more than 25 years.

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