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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

True North

 The death of Kenojuak Ashevak on January 8 recalled a time in the early 60's when southern Canadians were just becoming aware of Inuit drawing, carving and printmaking...something so 'foreign' to most of us steeped in the European art tradition not long since beaten back by our own Group of Seven.  James Houston created a graphic arts collective in Cape Dorset, which drew artists like Kenojuak. These images became household-familiar. Her enchanted owl stonecut of 1960 later became a stamp. I remember introducing my parents to Pitseolak's Cape Dorset prints on a calendar in the mid-60's. Even Ookpik, the little stuffed snowy owl became something we were proud to call 'ours' - we were Canadians with a true North.

Interestingly, The Cape Dorset workshop was begun in 1957, the year Al and Eurithe Purdy built their A-frame.

In 1965 Al received a Canada Council grant and travelled to Baffin Island on a writing journey. The result of this trip was the 1967 work North of Summer.

"Going thru cases and cases
of Eskimo sculpture
returned from Frobisher
because they said it wasn't
good enough for sale to
T.Eaton Co.Ltd.
Getting itchy excelsior packing
inside my shirt and searching
for one good carving
one piece that says "I AM"
to keep a southern promise.."

(excerpt from 'The Sculptors' in North of Summer, 1967)

At the A-frame are two small carvings that Al brought back with him on his big trip to the north in 1965. One is a ptarmigan, the other a mother and child, primitive style.

The North stays with people.
Al brought it back with him to the country south of Belleville.
I love the little poem with which he opens the book.

"On the country road these spring days
odd things happen
brown men in mukluks climb
                           the snake fences
with Norris Whitney's sheep
near Ameliasburg
and I'm afraid to mention it
at the village store"

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