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Painting in the North: An Artist’s Journey

In 2005 I went to paint in the Canadian Arctic. It was a trip I had been planning with friends in an artist collective called Drawnonward. We hopped aboard a ship chartered by Adventure Canada and joined their “Heart of the Arctic” tour. Little did I know that over a decade later I would be calling Nunavut my second home and that I would be mentoring Inuit youth in an art program that I helped to develop. But that’s the North for you, it draws you in and you get “Arctic Fever” as Farley Mowat called it.

Nunavut is a magical place and for a painter who is always searching for the effects of light, nothing beats it. As incredible as the landscape is, it’s the people of the north that really keep you there. The Inuit are proud, strong and hilarious. I admire their ability to navigate the challenges of our modern world. It’s those challenges that brought me to Rankin Inlet, the home of Miqqusaaq Bernadette Dean. I first met Bernie as an Inuit cultural interpreter on board the tour ship. We were all deeply affected by the suicide of a young Inuk woman we had met on our travels. Bernadette helped us understand the difficulties the Inuit face everyday. “Somebody’s Daughter” was a program Bernie had established to reintroduce Inuit women back into their culture through traditional ways. Living on the land, cooking, sewing and singing the songs and telling the stories of their ancestors.

Together we began the idea of an “art camp” for Inuit youth. Some classroom theory, some outdoor work. The first camp was held in 2006 with the whole collective returning to help out and teach. It was a lot of work and ton of fun. The students showed genuine interest and produced some great art. Friendships began. In 2007 for economics, we paired it down to just 3 art teachers: myself, Rob Saley and David Marshak. It was another great art camp and we began to refine the program and it’s curriculum.

From 2008-2013 due to budgetary restrictions no camps were held but I stayed in touch with Bernadette and went up once during that time to help with curating an arts festival. I also became a dad as did most of my artist buddies. In 2014 the Kivalliq Inuit Art Camp began again in earnest and for the first time in winter. Rob Saley and I were teaching and we quickly learned what it was like to travel in the Nunavut winter. We lost a couple of days due to weather with an unexpected sleep over in Churchill. The program again went very well and Rob and I were energized by the students enthusiasm. We were also joined in teaching by Ippiksault Friesen a talented artist and a student of ours from the early art camps. Ippiksault had just completed Emily Carr and was home mentoring other young artists.

In 2015 Inuit artist Andrew Qappik joined Rob and I for the summer camp in Rankin Inlet. Andrew is from Pangnirtung and designed the Nunavut flag, it’s coat of arms and recently a coin for the Canadian Mint. Andrew brought a fresh perspective to the art program with his traditional style and world of experience. We now had an art program that offered different disciplines and helped the students through the Kivalliq Inuit Association apply for art supplies, business grants and further their education into post secondary. We were seeing real results.

The next year for the first time the camp left Rankin Inlet and was located in Whale Cove, population 430. This was a test program to take the Art Camp into smaller under-served communities. Once again myself, Rob and Andrew taught. We were billeted in homes in the hamlet and for two weeks we became part of the tight-knit community. The people of Whale Cove were incredibly supportive and we had some of the best and most productive students. At the end of the program we invited the hamlet to our exhibition of students work. Everyone came out to see the show and the Mayor spoke to the positive effects of the art camp. We also wished one of the students Elaine the best of luck as she went off to study fine art at Algonquin College in Ottawa.

And that brings me here to today with the exhibition/fundraiser: Tittiraujarvik “A Drawing Place”
This exhibition was conceived by Rob and I on the way home from Whale Cove. Nunavut is vast and most things can be prohibitively expensive. Plane trips, food costs all come at a premium and so does organizing twenty plus students to participate in an art program in a remote community. We have always operated on a shoestring budget but the needs of the program are growing. More art supplies, outdoor painting trips and nutritional food for snacks are needed.

Rob and I approached Paul and Charlene Wildridge with the exhibition/fundraiser concept. They did not hesitate to graciously volunteer their gallery and staff for the event. My hope and the hope of all the people who work so hard to make the Kivalliq Inuit Art Camp a reality is that the exhibition Tittiraujarvik shines a small light on the good that is happening in the North and the incredible resilience of the Inuit.

Paul Mantrop

Photo credit: Rob Saley