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The earliest known Inuit carvings were traditionally created for use in shamanic rituals or for the purpose of making amulets similar to the figure shown above. The Shaman or Angakok would often carry many of these carvings as part of their equipment.
Later from the 1770s through the 1940s Inuit carvings were made as a source of alternative income. The carvings were sold and traded to European and American whalers, traders, and missionaries who frequented the arctic. During this period Inuit carvings began to transform from the traditional small works suited for a nomadic lifestyle, to larger carvings, with more detail appealing to a tourist market.
In the late 1940s, the contemporary period of Inuit carvings began. It was during this time that young Canadian artist James Houston introduced this unique art form in Montreal at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. Due to their popularity, James Houston began traveling to the North to buy more Inuit carvings. He would then sell these pieces at markets in the Canadian South. It was at this point that the Canadian federal government began to view Inuit art as a way to drive economic development in Canada's rural Inuit communities. As a result, Inuit-owned co-ops began to appear during the 1950s and 1960s. This gradual rise in popularity soon attracted international interest, establishing Inuit art as a major Canadian art form.
Stone & Materials Used
Although these beautiful works feature soapstone in their name, many Inuit carvings are actually made using serpentine. Typically locally sourced from the area in which the artist lives, a majority of carving materials come from local quarries and/or mining sites. Occasionally, artists have access to stones from outside of their community - when they are shipped interesting materials to work with, or when artists travel and come across different types of stones.
Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut is the epicentre of Inuit Soapstone carvings in Canada. The majority of pieces from Cape Dorset are crafted using serpentine which comes in a wide range of colours and mineral compositions. From bright green, brown, to almost black, and everything in between – some with contrasting colour mineral inclusions and veins. Serpentine is a harder, more brittle stone, taking on polishing more easily than many other carving stones.
Famously used by Northwest Haida artists, argillite is another stone sometimes used by Inuit carvers. Argillite comes in shades of grey to almost jet black.
Not as common, but just as beautiful, artists create carvings using white marble which can also be sourced in Cape Dorset. However, artists occasionally import stone from other areas within Canada to meet the demands of the market.
Most rare of all is granite which is not often used by artists as it is a very hard stone and can be quite difficult to work with.
Types of Carvings
The earliest works were typically small carvings, lacking any great detail, often representing local animals and the Inuit themselves, going about day-to-day life. Walrus, seals, bears, birds, and other wildlife important to Inuit’s survival were often represented in these early works. Later, when Inuit art entered the European trading market, Inuit carvings began to change in size and detail, as the artists began to cater to a tourist centered market.
Today Inuit carvers live in communities across Northern Canada and the Arctic. Modern Inuit artists use forward-looking techniques, combined with traditional materials and figures to create art that is internationally recognized.
Caring for Your Carving
While stone may seem like a tough and resilient material, Inuit carvings can be particularly delicate and easily damaged if not properly handled and displayed. It is important to handle and move soapstone carvings as little as possible. When you have to move or clean your carving, it is recommended that you wear nitrile gloves or clean hands with soap and water when gloves are unavailable.
To clean your carving, use a soft cotton rag and soft brush to clean hard to reach areas. For stone carvings that have been waxed, a gentle buffing with a soft cotton cloth will help restore the pieces original sheen.
When displaying your carving it is important to ensure that the sculpture is precisely balanced. Often artists add creative flair to their work by balancing the carving on a single paw, flipper, or foot, causing them to be especially top heavy. It is important to keep this in mind when displaying your carving.
At Made In Canada Gifts, we are well versed in every aspect of Inuit Soapstone Carvings. We are pleased to answer any question that you may have and are happy to assist you in finding the perfect piece of Inuit art for you. Here is how to contact us!
Made In Canada Gifts
Bayshore Shopping Centre
Phone: 1 (613) 514 – 0196
100 Bayshore Drive
Phone: 1 (613) 729 - 6378
50 Rideau Street
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