It all started with a package of Players cigarettes. Coming home after fighting in World War II artist James Houston moved to the Canadian Arctic and lived and worked there for twelve years. In 1957 he was sharing a cigarette with an Inuit artist named Osuitok in Cape Dorset. The man who was carving a scene onto a walrus tusk looked at Houston’s pack of cigarettes and asked whether the artist in the south didn’t get very tired of painting the same picture of a sailor again and again on every package of cigarettes.
Houston wanted to explain how a print is made but there were no words in the Inuktitut language to do so. Instead, he took the walrus tusk Osuitok was carving, rubbed it with a mixture of oil lamp soot and spit and made a crude print on a piece of toilet paper. It was an “AHA” moment for Osuitok. “We could do that”, he said.
Thus began the tradition of Inuit printmaking.
The first attempts at printmaking by Houston and his Inuit colleagues were pretty basic but when the Hudsons Bay Company put them up for sale in their Winnipeg store they sold like hotcakes.
So James Houston decided in 1959 that he would travel to Japan and learn about printmaking from the masters there. He did and after he felt fairly competent as a printmaker returned to Cape Dorset with samples of Japanese printmakers’ work. Inspired by the Japanese techniques they had learned from Houston, the Inuit artists started producing unique work. They were using the Japanese methods but in a way that reflected life in Cape Dorset.
In Houston’s obituary in the New York Times, it says he was responsible for helping the Inuit develop a profitable crafts cooperative that brought their prints to the attention of collectors and museums worldwide.
When I am touring school groups through the art gallery I ask the children to look for the ‘chop’ on each print that signifies which artist made it. The Inuit artists noticed that the Japanese printmakers had personal stamps or seals on their work, so the Inuit artists designed their own chops too and used them to ‘brand’ their prints.
Long ago the Japanese learned printmaking from the Chinese. In the early 1960s, the Inuit learned printmaking from James Houston who learned it from the Japanese.
The Cape Dorset-Japan printmaking connection is a good example of the globalization of art and the way an artistic style can grow and change when it is transplanted into another culture.
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