Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Thousand Stitches, The Rhythm and The Dancing Bear

On Fridays, the hallway outside of my office turns into a mobile Art Gallery.

It used to be every day;  there would be a knock at the door and you'd look up from your charting to see someone pulling something handcrafted out of their pocket, hoping you would buy.  It got to be a bit much, between the interruptions of work, the badgering and haranguing that often took place,  and the constant knocking at your door in the evening.  Our NIC instituted a "only Friday afternoon" rule, which is slowly being enforced. I guess the word is out as well, because two weeks ago there was quite a procession.  I had to miss last Friday due to my sciatica issues, but this Friday brought out a few carvers, some knitters and a beader.

Small Dancing Bear
In my time here, I've seen carvings large and small, precariously balanced on the narrow ledge of the Dutch door of the front office.  There are common themes here and it is always cool to see so-and-so's interpretation of a specific topic.  Dancing animals are prevalent, those representations of the moment the shaman takes on the animal characteristics of the tuurngait spirit that he or she summons from drum dancing.  I've seen dancing bears of course, musk oxen and even a few birds and an owl.  There are also multiple carvings;  lacy representations of schools of fish, narwhal, seals or other sea creatures swirling in an endless spiral.  There are also the trans-formative pieces which really interest me.  You will often see the transformation or melding of the spirits with the shaman represented with at least one human face and many animal faces together.  There are also animals walking, standing and diving.  Each has their own significance and their level of difficulty.

We cannot forget the inuksuit (singular inuksuk or "inukshuk" in English), which seem to be the most popular carving (as everyone seems to make them).  I've also seen a few intriguing female carvings come through, but sadly did not have the money at just the right time.  Carvings are crafted of marble, soapstone (both light and dark) and serpentine.  I have also seen antler and walrus tusks used as well.

Not surprising, many of my patients are very creative.  At least one of them is a very well known carver.  He is probably the most stable person in town, but he always pops in to say hi and for a bit of a chat.  Yesterday he brought out a beautiful bear that he had carved.  I loved it (lets be honest, I love all his work), but sadly I only had $80 cash on me, and the asking price was $200.  One of my faster colleagues snatched it right up, but allowed me to snap a photo of it.  I really liked this bear... he looks humble.

I still love this bear.  Next time...

These will keep baby girl's hands warm (and have a
traditional A-shaped cord to ensure she doesn't lose them).
There are other things that come through as well.  There are "typical" Dorset knitted hats with designs or words woven into them.  There are handmade mitts, such as the ones I bought for my daughter.  These are suede with rabbit trim and lined with sheepskin, but I have seen them made out of leather or fur and are most often trimmed with fox.  Tiny crocheted decorations--usually miniature representations of hats and mitts or kamiks--are common too and can be used for zipper pulls or earrings.  I have seen a few dolls perched on that ledge, as well as wall hangings, barrettes, pins and cuff bracelets made of sealskin (fur) or beaded.  There are hand carved silver earrings as well, much like the pair of boots I received as a gift.  Again, I've missed out on a lot of good stuff in the beginning, but I still have my eye out for a few good things, including a floral barrette of sealskin and fox for my daughter's hair.  And maybe one for mine too.
Handmade silver earrings I received as a gift.  :-)

From the moment that I landed in Iqualuit, I have been completely fascinated with the amauti that the women wear.  As individual, intricate, detailed and meaningful as any custom made sari, the amauti is beautiful, functional and warm.  Every day I watch the parade past my office in the clinic and marvel at the different interpretations, fabrics, beads and of course, the fur trim.  Fur is a necessity here:  without the coyote fur on my hood, my face would have frozen in the -40 temps many times... and without me knowing it.  Unlike in the GTA (where I am from), where cold is bitterly cold due to the dampness, here it is not felt the same.  Minus -40C can actually feel like -10 or so at home and what seems like a quick dash across the street without gloves can mean frostbite very quickly. 
L.'s Dorset style sealskin kamiks. Gorgeous!
The fur on a parka or amauti runs down, from top to bottom, getting the most warm air barrier as possible.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a peek at the babies as they go by either, snug at their mother's back.  It is a fallacy that babies ride around in the hood;  instead they are placed at a pouch like area along the mother's back, where her body heat help keeps them both warm.  The hood of an amauti is massive and meant to cover both heads. 

On the way in at the airport in Iqualuit, I saw an amauti with the hood and inside lined with actual fur and marveled at it (and was disappointed that I did not see a similar one here).  Now that I am here in Cape Dorset, I realize that the wind and weather in Iqualuit is much harsher and that fur lining may suit them better.

Almost as intriguing are the kamiks.  I was admiring my friend's one day and she told me that they had belonged to her Grandmother.   I must have asked her a zillion questions about them and she patiently answered them all.  As I've been here I've seen quite a few, and I must admit, I prefer the traditional Dorset style that she has with the sealskin and triangle designs.  From the needlework on the stocking (liner) portion, to the reported (and renown) thousand stitches across the top of the foot (attaching it to the sole), each is a work of art.

The needlework on these is just to die for... 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of the other major art forms in town:  throat singing.  It is not singing as most people in the south would recognize and it is nothing like the Mongolian whistling style of throat singing.  Here, as I was discussing with a lady from the town the other day, the rhythm is not the background, the stage setter that it is in most Western (southern) musical styles.  Instead the focus is the rhythm, and everything else is simple accompaniment.  Inuktitut is like that too:  unlike English which is flowery and has many words in a sentence that add only flavour or window dressing, the native language here is straightforward and to the point.  It is function over form, yet at the same time, no less beautiful. She liked that.

Throat singing takes place completely in the throat and therefore it seems logical that the singers face each other.  What may not be apparent to the inexperienced eye is that this is a competition as well, as much as a face off as any epic guitar battle.  Our mental health program helps sponsor the local throat singing classes and I am lucky enough to have a friend and employee that has been throat singing since she was seven.  She has graciously allowed me to show her teachers performing, and then herself and her teacher.

These two amazing ladies were my throat singing instructors when I was 7... They are still able to instruct and teach up to today. Just phenomenal! #ThroatSinging
Posted by Louisa Parr Pootoogook on Tuesday, 24 February 2015

This lovely lady has been my throat singing teacher since I was 7. I am honoured I can still throat sing with her up to today and will always be thankful for her for having to take her time to teach me and others. I hope one day I will be as great as she is <3
Posted by Louisa Parr Pootoogook on Thursday, 5 March 2015

There is so much beauty and creativity around me, that I don't even know where to look sometimes.  I've finally put the money out for a new DSLR;  I cannot wait to capture more of the wonders that exist at this latitude.  Every morning I look out to the mountains and brilliant blue sky and think "look at that"--and marvel for a few moments before I get on with my day.  Even on those rare days when it is snowing and the Arctic wind snarls, I'm still in awe of the power, the ferocity of nature up here.  Jawaharlal Nehru once said that "the art of a people is a true mirror to their minds".  Since I am charged with the mental wellness of this community, it is only natural then that I explore the creativity that lives in this, the art capital of Nunavut.

Our environment shapes us, and we express this, and many other, shapings through art.  If I want to understand the expression of emotion, to hear and comfort the cries of the souls that live here, instead of consulting the DSM, or my code book, I'll have a little more luck with a thousand stitches, embracing the rhythm and the dancing bear.


  1. The videos are unavailable but I am impressed that you are able to connect the artwork with the artists emotional state. Artwork is so truly personal it cannot help but be a reflection of the creator. You are undertaking a remarkable journey, enjoy! The experience is sure to enrich not only the lives of those you help but yours as well!

  2. <3 I can't see the videos either but I love this and love you!