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Glowing heart

The North’s complex mixture of tradition and modernity, beauty and hardship

Until last month, my experience of Canada’s North was mediated through art. Almost everything I knew about life in the Arctic came through study of Inuit prints, drawings and carvings. I’m fortunate to work at TD, where there is one of the finest collections of Inuit art in the world (assembled to celebrate Canada’s Centennial in 1967) and I have been educating myself about its history, the artists and the stories inherent in their work.

Though I admire and appreciate this historical work, it’s the new generation of artists that I’m particularly excited about. While still employing the techniques and materials that we have come to know and love in Inuit art, these young artists capture their own reality, which is a complex mixture of tradition and modernity, beauty and hardship. For example, seal is still chopped and eaten on the floor, but reality television is likely playing in the background. Artists depict hybrid scenes like this. Carvers continue to work with stone and bone but the figure could be holding an iPod instead of a harpoon. These artists don’t shy away from tough subjects such as addiction, suicide, mental illness and domestic abuse. These are aspects of contemporary life and the human condition in the North and they are rendered bluntly and unapologetically.

Last week I journeyed to Cape Dorset, one of the long-standing hotbeds of creativity on Baffin Island in Nunavut. It was simultaneously strange and familiar; I knew the town’s new water truck from Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawing, and there it was! I found myself examining the frozen food section at the Co-Op grocery store made famous by Annie Pootoogook and her large drawing shown at The Power Plant in 2006. Recent exhibitions at Hart House, Art Toronto and Feheley Fine Arts just featured Ohotaq Mikkigak’s abstracted landscapes — he inventively captures the surprising colours and textures of his surroundings — and then I walked through it. My only disappointment was not seeing the town’s polar bears (depicted by many of the artists but none so beautifully as Tim Pitsiulak), but perhaps it was for the best.

I travelled north with Toronto-based artists Ed Pien and Johannes Zits but I left them there to complete Pien’s three-week artist residency in the Kinngait Studios. I eagerly await the work that he will create while working side-by-side with Ashoona, Jutai Toonoo, Pitsiulak, and Itee Pootoogook among others. Pien’s spider-webby line drawings and delicate cut paper works will surely morph into something interesting surrounded by that epic, icy landscape and immersed in a rich story-telling tradition. I am equally excited to see how his presence affects his studio-mates. They are still talking about Shary Boyle’s sojourn in the studio last year. The collaborative work that Boyle created with Ashoona was a highlight of her recent northern-themed exhibition at Jessica Bradley Gallery.

A week in the Far North affected me deeply. I was heartened to see and feel the warmth and support that artists receive in the studio and reassured to know that they are making a decent living as artists. I was amazed by the landscape, wildlife and quality of light. I was humbled by the generosity and kindness of the people I met. And I am heartbroken by the addiction and malaise that so many Inuit have assimilated.

But mostly I am inspired by the artwork that is being created there and that flows south to challenge our expectations and show us something new.

TD GALLRY OF INUIT ART Free. 8am-6pm. Mon-Fri. 10am-4pm. Sat & Sun. 79 Wellington St W. (416) 982-8473. tdcentre.com.

FEHELEY FINE ARTS 10am-5pm. Tue-Sat. 65 George St. (416) 323-1373. feheleyfinearts.com.

PAMELA MEREDITH Is TD Bank Group’s senior curator.