Historic drawings abandoned, unseen

New home sought for thousands of Inuit sketches



Part of Nunavut’s history has no home to call its own.

Thousands of Inuit drawings, many sketched when Baffin communities were only a handful of houses and most families were still living on the land, have been abandoned by their long-time keepers, and now sit stuffed in boxes waiting to be evicted.

Four years after an illustrious gallery in the South decided to boot Inuit art out of its exhibits, one of Nunavut’s longest-standing art advocates still can’t find a new home for a collection he calls an irreplaceable “snapshot of the past.”

Terry Ryan, the award-winning champion of Inuit art, said the hundreds of thousands of drawings are safely stored at the McMichael gallery in Kleinberg, Ont., where they were once displayed. But the collection won’t see the light of day until it’s passed to a new gallery.

“It’s a collection that won’t ever come again,” Ryan said during a recent stopover in Cape Dorset. “You couldn’t duplicate it … even if you tried.”

Ryan, 69, points to 2,000 of the drawings he gathered while on a dog sled tour of Baffin Island in the mid-1960s. Most of the artists he found then were living out on the land.

“Back then, it was an outpouring of memory,” he said. “They [the artists] wanted to tell you about who they were and where they came from, before there were Qallunaat in Nunavut.”

After several years as the head of the co-op’s marketing arm, Ryan said he’s optimistic that he’ll find a large-scale gallery to take care of the generations of drawings either in Toronto or Winnipeg, but added that he understands their hesitation to adopt the entire collection.

Ryan said, after years of caring for the collection of Inuit drawings, the McMichael gallery broke its agreement to keep and care for them, in order to focus all its resources on work done by the Group of Seven.

The collection becomes even more priceless when looking at the relative decline in Inuit drawing.

Bill Ritchie, master printmaker in the lithography department of the Kinngait Arts Co-op, said more young artists are picking up carving tools instead of paper and pencils.

He said art dealers and collectors are pressing the young artists to stick with carving, because that’s where they’ll find the most money.

“When we try to introduce new [artists] in the South, they seem to be more successful as sculptors.”

With young men gravitating toward the more lucrative carving trade, Ritchie said he believes women artists will keep the drawing tradition alive.

Annie Pootoogook, a 34-year-old artist in Cape Dorset whose mother’s drawings are currently shelved with the collection at McMichael’s gallery, said she draws because “it’s fun to do,” and she doesn’t have the tools to carve.

Most of all, she said she draws to keep her late mother’s and grandmother’s spirit alive.

“I learned [to draw] from them,” she said during a break from her latest creation. “I keep it up, I don’t stop, to keep them alive.”

Pootoogook said the best place to store old drawings would be in Nunavut, but if space couldn’t be found here, then the co-op should display the collection of drawings wherever it could.

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