Have press, will travel

Montreal man tours Baffin to inspire Inuit in the printmaking art.


IQALUIT — Paul Machnik wants one simple thing from the Inuit artists with whom he works: “I want to hear from them what is the truth.”

In search of that truth, Machnik is on a mission.

He aims to bring the art of printmaking to places in Nunavut where it’s never been known. With his etching press in tow, the Montreal printmaker is in the midst of a six-month tour of the Baffin region, training Nunavummiut in the graphic arts.

A soft-spoken man who speaks passionately about the possibilities for Inuit prints, Machnik is well known to many Arctic artists.

For seven years he’s worked with the famous printmakers of Cape Dorset. Some of the pieces that have appeared in that community’s celebrated annual collections were even produced in Machnik’s Montreal printshop, Studio PM.

He’s also collaborated with artists in the equally prominent printmaking town of Pangnirtung. But while residents of those communities are renowned for their artwork — having gained fame and, in some cases, a small fortune from their prints — the art has not spread to many other corners of the North.

That’s why Machnik has spent the winter setting up his portable press in a succession of Nunavut communities, including Arctic Bay, Clyde River, Hall Beach, Igloolik, Kimmirut, Qikiqtarjuak and Pond Inlet.

In each town Machnik spends a few weeks, turning the visitor’s centre or community hall into a makeshift studio — and, he hopes, turning a few residents on to printmaking.

By speaking on the radio and going door-to-door with an interpreter, Machnik explains to townspeople what he’s attempting to do and invites them to come try their skills in the studio.

A lot of younger people turn out, he said. But his true joy comes from working with the elders. “I honestly feel touched by the elders’ hand,” Machnik said.

“You know how children draw without thinking? That happens here with the elders. You don’t see that down South.”

Printmaking is no simple process.

It begins with an artist drawing on a waxed surface overlying a copper plate. Acid is then applied to groove the copper where the wax has been worn away. In doing so, the artist’s sketch is etched into the metal.

Then the wax is removed and the plate is inked. When the ink on the surface of the plate is wiped away it remains in the etched grooves. The metal is then pressed on to ragstock — handmade cotton paper — and the ink is transferred to the print.

Given the equipment this involves, Machnik’s printmaking mission is costing him a pretty penny: something over $300,000. About a third of the money came from the federal government’s Millennium Partnership Fund, but the rest of it Machnik will raise himself.

The benefits of the project don’t disappear from a community when Machnik packs up his press and moves on. He’s leaving each hamlet with $1,500 to purchase printmaking supplies and equipment. Even better, after his tour is complete he plans to host one artist from each community for a month at his Montreal studio, where they can further their training and refine their skills.

Pride, not profit

Selling prints can be profitable for Inuit artists, but it should be approached as an art, not a commercial enterprise, Machnik said.

He’s dismayed by the color and flash that have worked their way into Inuit prints. They’re added in, he said, “for the white guy down South” — the tourists and art fanciers who buy up much of what Inuit produce.

In trying to appeal to Southerners, though, artists are sacrificing cultural integrity. “It needn’t be so fashionable,” Machnik said.

In the long run, he predicts that getting back to basics won’t just be good for Inuit culture. It will be good for business, insuring that Arctic prints are more than just a passing fad.

The fruits of Machnik’s mission will be on display at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit starting March 31.

The exhibit, entitled the Nunavut 2000 Print Collection, will feature six different prints made by residents from each of the communities Machnik visited.

The works will likely hang in the Iqaluit museum for about a month. Then, if Machnik can cobble together the money, the full collection will travel to each of the communities, which contributed to it.

Eventually, the pieces will be for sale.

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