San Francisco

“Eskimo Prints”

Stanford Art Gallery

A new Eskimo art form was created when, in 1959, the Northern Affairs and National Resources Bureau of the Canadian Government established a craft center for printmaking at Cape Dorset, a small Arctic village on Baffin Island formerly known as Fox Peninsula.

Evidence of the universal appeal of the prints is revealed in attendance records at exhibitions of such collections as that of Lilly Weil Jaffe of San Francisco, now committed to a busy exhibition schedule including galleries and universities in San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento, Oakland, Stanford and Santa Fe. This sudden, maybe too sudden, acceptance could be their downfall, leading to exploitation of individual artists and printers, and lessening the value of the works by overexposure.

The artists are required to pay for their own materials, and papers and commercial paints are made available to them at The Craft Center. Instruction is offered at guidance level in order to preserve the honesty of the works. They need little assistance in the elements of design, since they seem to possess an unerring sense of proportion, spacing and basic form. These are necessary attributes in a land where quick identification of size, distance, shape and gesture is essential to long life. Isolation has taught them to wring every drop of entertainment out of a humorous situation—a quality not lost in their art, especially in depicting situations of sly triumph over the spirit people.

Not always concerned with the hunt, their work is often enlivened with genre compositions of a merry family life, including games with favorite spirits anthropomorphized to fit the holiday mood, or spiked with terror of the supernatural where women and children are frightened by demons and animals take on strange mythical characteristics. And, as with all peoples, they have their troubles with “the giant”—that problem bigger than himself which the hero must conquer.

It would indeed be strange if, after a few seasons of intensive printmaking, even when interspersed with “hunting as usual,” these artists did not begin to show changes in their work, although one can not expect the accelerated pace of more sophisticated art. The 1959 edition of prints showed very definite personal concepts of Arctic life, but variations in technique were mostly those of manual skill and sensitivity of touch. The 1960 edition has been widely exhibited and some of the prints are still showing with the Jaffe Collection. Individuals were in greater strength in this group, and those less tolerant of the printing processes were engaging others to print their designs.

In the 1961 edition, the one circulating now, even greater individual approaches are apparent, and few of the artists seem to be doing their own printing. This liaison between artist and craftsman is a debatable situation in art. Like the editor-author relationship, it is often a necessary one. At its best it can elevate the level of art with no great loss of individuality and at its worst it results in a castrated expression. Its value depends upon the individuals.

Two of the most interesting of the Eskimo printmakers are Parr and Mrs. Kenojuak. The flat linear quality of Parr’s work more closely resembles the scraffito of the West Coast Eskimo, and in some indefinable way is also reminiscent of Australian bark and rock paintings. He recently died, so his prints will disappear from the market when the current issue is sold. Parr clung staunchly to the tradition of the carver in cutting shapes off, for example, at the water line when they were supposed to be swimming. Some of the Eskimo are abandoning this tradition in their prints.

Mrs. Kenojuak is one of the few women artists at Cape Dorset. She has a decorative but imaginative style that would have thoroughly delighted Matisse, and is one of the few Eskimo printmakers who suggests the third dimension by overlapping pattern. (They generally use climbing perspective.) A prolific artist, she is the one least dependent upon mundane subject matter. Both her 1960 and 1961 series have mainly to do with fantasy, but fantasy arising from special living conditions which give them a certain credence. Her strange flights of fancy have inspired works which have earned $65,000 for her and The Craft Center, which shows what cooperative effort can do.

Elizabeth M. Polley