Collective Memories: Stonecuts from Cape Dorset

In the 1960s, graphic arts flourished in the newly formed Cape Dorset (Kinngait) arts co-operative (co-op) on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. Established in 1959 by James Houston, the co-op encouraged art and craft as an income source for local Inuit residents transitioning from semi nomadic camps to permanent settlements. At the co-op, the residents experimented with materials and techniques, inventing their adaptation of woodcut printmaking through direct stencil and relief carving on stone. The work created through this process became known as stonecut prints. A catalogue published annually brought the limited edition prints to the western art market. Revenue from the sales were returned to the artists and the co-op members.  

Collective Memories draws upon the collaborative nature, both in the technique and practice of the co-op. From artists drawing the images to printmakers pressing the ink to stone, the selected prints celebrate the voices of Inuit people, reflecting on their culture and lived experiences during a transitional period of the 1960s. As outside influences changed daily practices, the work made at the co-op provided a place for reflection. Turning inwards, artists imagined birds, mammals, and marine life pulled from the legends, shamanistic practices, and traditions of semi nomadic migratory life. 

Stonecut prints exemplify an art practice for us to consider systematic socio-cultural impacts. The art practice upheld and attributed to the expansion of western values, yet it also created a means to preserve and share traditional Inuit culture. As you unpack these implications, we invite you to embrace the artists’ and printmakers’ lived experiences and reflections, empowering their voices to coalesce as a guide through these collective memories.

–Britt Royer, Art Historian and Curator 

 

Gifted in memory of Barbara Allen Burns, the selected prints entered the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art in 2008. Collective Memories represents the museum’s first public reception of these prints. Featured artists include Pitseolak Ashoona, Lucy Qinnuayuak, Pauta Saila, Ningeeuga Oshuitoq, Agnes Nanogak Goose, Kenojuak Ashevak, Napachie Pootoogook, and Tumira Ashoona. The printmakers include Timothy Ottochie, Lukta Qiatsuk, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, and Iyola Kingwatsiak.  

Thank you to our campus collaborators at the Intercultural Center and the College Committee of Inclusive Excellence for their thoughtful consultation and support. 

 

Experimentation Begins

We first tried printmaking by using linoleum which was stuck to a piece of thin wood and when the glue was dry we would copy the design onto the linoleum with tools. When the design was finished it was inked and then paper was laid on top. This was rubbed well with a small spoon and when it was well impressed the paper was removed. If it was satisfactory we made twelve copies. At first we used just black ink but later we progressed to using different colors, using waxed paper. Whenever the prints were good we were happy and Saumik [Houston] would actually dance for joy, but at the time, we didn’t say anything about what we would use the increased money for. We also tried using small pieces of soapstone to see if it was better than linoleum, and so we made our first prints on stone. I now had two men to help me, Iyola [Kingwatsiak] and Lukta [Qiatsuq].    –Kananginak Pootoogook

In 1953, James and Alma Houston moved to a newly founded post, Cape Dorset in Nunavut, Canada. Under the advisory of the Canadian government’s Department of Northern Affairs, the couple founded a craft shop (​​later referred to as the co-op) that encouraged Inuit carving and crafting as means to revamp the local economy. In 1957, Printmaking experiments began. The following year, Houston spent four months in Japan studying printmaking under a Japanese master, Un’ichi Hiratsuka. Returning to Cape Dorset, Houston introduced the direct hand transfer process to the craft shop’s experimental printing. After stone replaced the linocut material, Lukta Qiatsuk, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, and Iyola Kingwatsiak collectively represented some of the first printmakers to carve from stone.

Deconstructing the Myth

Despite the methodically straightforward approaches to the experimentation process, the 1960’s Western art market portrayed a different story, crafting a myth that perpetuated the stereotype of the “Eskimo.” Propagated by the media, period writings and materials incorrectly referenced materials such as sealskin stencils, stencil brushes made of polar bear hair, and ink prepared from soot and seal fat.

More to Know

The curatorial approach to Collective Memories sought to give voice and agency to the artists and printmakers at Cape Dorset.  When the prints were gifted into the college’s collection in 2008, no printmakers were credited on the works or in the object files. Through researching and cross-referencing databases, the curator was able to identify these printmakers, enabling the museum to give proper credit to the collective at the co-op. The wall labels now reference the printmakers alongside the artists.  

 

Chops: A Stonecut Print’s Mark

What Are Chops?

A chop is a distinguishable mark placed on completed work to certify the authenticity of a print. Chops were adopted at Cape Dorset (Kinngnait) upon James Houston returning from studying traditional printmaking practices in Japan. Drawing from the practice, the co-op at Cape Dorset chose to sign completed works with symbols indicative of the artist’s and the printmaker’s individual marks. 

Chops may be composed of multiple symbols or signatures stacked upon one another. At Cape Dorset, the top chop indicates the signature of the artist who drew the original image. The chop below this one is the signature of the printmaker who chose the colors and printed each edition. The third chop, typically the bottom chop, is the symbol of the co-operative, indicating the community in which the print was crafted. In the 1960s and 70s, the co-op at Cape Dorset was known as the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. To distinguish their work from other printmaking communities, they chose to use a chop symbol of an igloo. This symbol often appears in red or black ink. Earlier works would include a visible fourth chop, signifying the approval of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CAEC). The CAEC chop would appear on all prints distributed and sold. By the mid-1960s, the CAEC switched to an invisible chop.

Finding the Collective Voice:

When the Cape Dorset prints entered the college collection in 2008,  the artists were the only names identified on the object’s labels and provenance records. The chop signatures provided the base for us to be able to research, identify, and then accredit recognition to the printmakers. As you walk through this exhibition, you will notice that all of the Cape Dorset stonecut prints now give full recognition to the printmakers as well as the artists. 

Look For: How many artists do you see represented? How many printmakers? The co-op at Cape Dorset was one of many printmaking communities in Nunavut, the North West Territory and the Arctic Quebec. Each of these communities had its own way of authenticating the work made. One of the prints on display is not from Cape Dorset. How can you distinguish this print from the others?

 

How are Stonecut Prints Crafted? 

  • Starting with an original drawing, the stonecut printmaker copies the image with India ink onto a smoothly flattened and prepared stone. 

  • Once the image is transferred, the stonecutter (also usually printmaker) chips away the negative space leaving a relief or raised area (similar to woodcut block printing). The raised area is the design that will appear in print. 

  • Using a special tool called a brayer, the printmaker rolls colored ink onto the raised portion of the stone.  

  • The printmaker lays a thin sheet of paper (usually fine, handmade Japanese paper) over the inked surface. The printmaker then places a protective sheet of tissue over the thin sheet.

  • The printmaker gently presses the paper against the stone using a small padded disc. 

  • As the paper is pulled away, the imprinted design appears in reverse from the drawing. The printmaker can pull only one print away from the stone at a time; therefore, each edition takes time, patience, and care. 

Look For: Each print shares its unique edition number. Typically 50 prints or editions are pressed and printed from one stone relief. After the last print or edition, the stone is destroyed to ensure authenticity and limited prints.

 

Decolonizing the Cape Dorset Prints:

In the 1960s, the Canadian Government used the term “Eskimo” in the founding of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC). The CEAC, in effect from 1961–1989, oversaw the selection, approval, and distribution of stonecut prints created at Cape Dorset and other surrounding co-ops. The CEAC's work brought Inuit art directly to the world stage and expanded the Inuit art market

From the onset, the CEAC's influence on the distribution of the prints was controversial. Many saw the council's oversight as "directing" artists and "corrupting'' traditional Inuit culture. The early council had no Inuit representation in its governing. Prints not approved were rejected outright. These rejected prints were restricted: not allowed to be marketed, circulated, or sold. 

The CEAC rejected prints based on the premise of "protecting the art market from over-saturation" to maintain high prices for quality works. With some artists and printmakers selected to tell their stories through art, and others rejected, the CEAC created censorship that contributed to an overall cultural loss of Inuit legends, stories, and reflections of lived experiences. 

In 1988, the Inuit Art Foundation (IAF) formed, contributing to the dismantling of the CEAC in 1989. By 1994, the majority of IAF representation consisted of Inuit artists. Today, the IAF continues to promote art making practices in the region, supporting Inuit artists, curators, and researchers. 

How can we appreciate the artists’ and printmakers' stories, while acknowledging the inequities embedded in the language, publication, and distribution of these prints?