When artists draw pay cheques

“We didn’t just teach art processes, we taught capitalism”


An ambitious art project aims to preserve memories of how art – and the wealth it generates – changed lives in Baker Lake.

Thanks to a $176,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Art and Cold Cash project will be able to spend the next three years exploring the relationship of art to money and social values in the North and the South.

The project involves three University of Western Ontario visual artists, Sheila and Jack Butler, who co-founded Baker Lake’s printmaking cooperative in the 1970s, and Patrick Mahon, a former teacher in Chesterfield Inlet, as well as two Baker Lake residents, coordinator Ruby Arngna’naaq and artist William Noah.

Noah, 61, who is well-known as a printmaker, is also a former MLA in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly, a past mayor of Baker Lake, and the son of the community’s legendary artist, the late Jessie Oonark.

During an interview from Baker Lake, Noah recalled how rich he felt during the 1970s, when he first started earning a weekly salary, commissions and bonuses for his drawings and prints.

But this wasn’t Noah’s first contact with the market economy. He learned about money during a visit to a DEW line site when he was about six and fetched water for the workers there.

“As an Inuk, getting water with a bucket was just what Inuit people did all the time without payment. Since we didn’t understand English, and they didn’t understand Inuktitut, I took a bucket and I went down to the river or lake and I got water for them,” Noah recalls. “When I got back, one of the guys gave me four quarters. I saved that money for more than three years, and when we moved to Baker, I finally had a chance to spend that. I thought it was a lot of money. I bought pop and mostly chocolates.”

These are the sorts of memories Sheila Butler hopes others will also share and set down on paper while she, and her colleagues, are in Baker Lake this month. The idea, explains Butler, is to explore the impact of the art economy on the people of Baker Lake since the years she spent in the community.

In 1969, when the Butlers arrived as crafts officers in Baker Lake, bartering was still a more common method of exchange than money.

“We didn’t just teach art processes, we taught capitalism,” Butler says now of her work with artists in Baker Lake. “It wasn’t just about how to produce a beautiful piece of art.”

The project has reserved a small room in the Jessie Oonark Centre, where artists can come in to talk about the past.

“Do you remember your first experience with money?” is the jumping-off point for eliciting memories that the project wants to capture in taped interviews and through drawings.

Butler, her husband and Mahon will also produce art that talks about their artistic and life experiences in the South.

The results of the Art and Cold Cash project will be distilled into multi-media displays of what Inuit and Qallunaat hold as valuable.

These displays will eventually be set up in airports in the North and South because Butler says those are the “points of connection” between the two regions.

Last week, an elder Luke Arngna’naaq dropped by the centre where he looked at the Butler’s collection of black and white photos taken in the 1970s. Seeing his uncle, George Tattannirq, in a photo, Arngna’naaq was moved to sing a song that Noah filmed on video.

“It was touching him,” Noah says. “There are a lot of memories. There are memories and a lot to learn again.”

Noah hopes, by forging this new connection to the past and to the South, the project will encourage Baker Lake artists to produce more drawings and prints.

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