28 September 2009

Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist

Some time back, I wrote a profile of experimental stage director Leonardo Shapiro and his theater troupe, The Shaliko Company, for TDR ("Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony," The Drama Review 37.4 [T140 - Winter 1993]: 65-100). I had spent months following Leo around, plowing through his files and records, interviewing him and his colleagues, and attending rehearsals and classes. I had first met Leo when I covered the Theatre of Nations in Baltimore in 1986 and saw his magnificent production of The Yellow House, a play about Vincent van Gogh he’d composed with his company, and I interviewed him as one of the participating artists. After that, I’d kept up on Shaliko’s work so I knew a little about Leo, most pointedly that he took his inspiration from the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski. Later, when I was preparing the TDR article, I asked Leo who his other influences were. At first, he said he didn’t know; he’d never thought about it. Then, a few days later, he handed me a list of names and works of art which he said were the influences or inspirations of his artistic and philosophical life. It was a varied and fascinating list, covering all the arts and some politics, and including some names and works that I found surprising in Leo’s case. I’d at least heard of most of the names on the list, but there were four or five that were unfamiliar to me, and one or two that I couldn’t find when I first looked them up. One of these was an Inuit artist, Pudlo Pudlat, whom Leo admired because of his “courage and openness.”

Some years later, because I found the subject of Leo and his theater work so interesting, and because I had so much unused material left over after the TDR profile, I decided to expand the essay into a book-length examination of Leo’s art. One of my first notions was to research the names and art works on Leo’s list and see what in them might have inspired Leo’s art and ideas and use that as a sort of reflection of Leo’s own work, a commentary, so to speak. When I came to Pudlo--Inuit commonly use only one name and the artist is internationally known this way--I found an engrossing and revealing subject in its own right. I fancy myself a devotee of art, especially modern art, so I pursued the story of Pudlo a little more extensively than other names on Leo’s list. The artist just interested me. Here’s some of what I learned.

First, a number of years after I did this research, I made a visit to Quebec, which is a center of Inuit art. The galleries all over the city show Inuit artists and there’s an Inuit art museum, the Galerie Art Inuit, a few doors up the street from our hotel. I learned some general facts about the whole niche that is Inuit art, which has an interesting, and I suspect unique, history. Since Pudlo’s part of this continuum, let me précis this chronicle before I go into his own story.

If you are my age or older, you are probably more used to speaking of Eskimos, but especially in Canada the more current, and preferred, expression is Inuit. (That’s the plural; the singular is Inuk, which means person). Eskimo, which is still used in Alaska, refers to several native peoples, including the Inuit. The term Eskimo is a foreign word applied to the Inuit and other peoples by outside tribes. Its most likely etymology is a Montagnais word meaning snowshoe-lacer. (The Montagnais are a group inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec and Labrador.) In Canada, however, the word is believed to be derived from an Algonquin word that means raw meat-eater, and although linguistically this is less likely, the belief is widely held in Canada and the word Eskimo is considered derogatory and racist. In any case, the Canadian government officially recognizes the people of the far north, including Nunavut, as Inuit; the name Eskimo is seldom heard in the country.

The Inuit were a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers well into the 20th century, following the fish and game of the far north as the ice receded, living in igloos (which means simply house and may be made of ice and snow, according to the image we have, but is also commonly built from stone, sod, mud, skins, or any other convenient material), and moving from spot to spot as the hunting, weather, or terrain necessitated. Traveling by dogsled across land and in umiaks or the smaller kayaks across water, an Inuit family or clan could not really afford to carry much with them that wasn’t of immediate practical value in their harsh life, so decoration was minimal, and artwork, even on practical items, was uncommon. What little there was was carved ivory or bone. A change occurred in about 1945, however, when the Canadian government encouraged Inuit and other native peoples to settle in towns and villages, learn cultivation and other domestic skills, and give up the nomadic way of life they had known for centuries. I won’t get into the socio-political implications of this change (except to suggest that it wasn’t entirely insensitive and cold-hearted as the world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable), but the sociological effect was profound.

The Canadian government saw that the move to permanent habitation in towns and villages left many Inuit without traditional livelihoods or even pastimes. This was mostly true of the men, as the women were able to transfer their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child-rearing from the nomadic existence to the permanent one with little significant change (except, of course, that they now got their material needs from stores instead of the wild). The men, on the other hand, were the ones who lost their customary occupations. Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for whatever the Inuit produced, even supplying them with the materials they needed. In what may be one of the rare examples among artificial cultural redirection, the plan succeeded wildly. I guess the Inuit had a hidden tribal talent for making terrific art, and they started a co-op to market and determine the prices of their work so that they wouldn’t be ripped off by gallery owners and dealers or, in turn, cheat the buying public. (That Inuit art museum in Quebec is run by the co-op, and all the galleries, from the high-end chi-chi ones to the shops in hotels to the tourist dives, all sold the Inuit art at the same range of prices.) Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south. Over time, some artists became recognized and art museums began organizing exhibitions of Inuit works. Collectors, first in Canada then in the United States, began to buy the art. Whole villages lived off the art turned out in their community studios, some making it, some marketing it, some managing the studios; printmaking became a profitable concern. Over 60 years now, Inuit art has become established and while it started as naïve work, it now has a sophistication and dynamic that compares easily with the works of American Indian artists in, say, the Taos art colony area. In both cases, too, the themes and subjects developed from strict focus on traditional culture to an embrace of the whole universe around them--in the case of the Inuit, the Canada of the Europeans and the technology of the middle- and late-20th-century world. Though many Inuit artists work in a naturalistic style, carving animals or scenes common to the Canadian north, many others work in symbolist and abstract styles that draw on indigenous images and refer to the style of Inuit art that developed in the post-WWII years (there not having been a true indigenous precursor). The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated soapstone sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists.

Pudlo was born on Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada (now part of Nunavut Province, the Inuit homeland), on 4 February 1916. He straddled the generation that lived an entirely nomadic life and that born in permanent abodes of towns and villages. In 1957, Pudlo suffered a hunting accident which he dismissed as minor until the injury required medical attention a month later and was flown south for treatment. A few days after he returned north to recuperate, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and went back south again to recover. The injury and the illness forced Pudlo and his wife, Innukjuakju, who had also been ill, to give up their nomadic life and they settled in the village of Kiaktuuq, Cape Dorset, in the spring of 1958 when Pudlo was 42. Cape Dorset was the epicenter of the emerging Inuit art community, established there only a few years earlier. Pudlo met James Archibald Houston, the Canadian southerner who was the prime force in developing Inuit art, and took up art himself. Though he made sculptures, he found carving difficult because of the hunting injury to his arm and by 1959 or ’60, his preferred media became watercolors, oils, and especially drawing and lithography. (Many of Pudlo’s works exist as both a drawing and a subsequent print.) Pudlo saw ten of his first drawings commercially printed in 1961 and he continued to make art for the last 33 years of his life and left an output of over 4,500 drawings and 190 prints in the end. His work is exhibited in galleries and museums around the continent and abroad, including MoMA, and his drawings and prints are still in demand. A few years after that trip to Quebec I was in Vancouver, on the opposite coast of the country, and I recognized several of his prints in the city’s art galleries. (One gallery owner was astonished that I not only knew Pudlo but that I spotted his work almost instantly. Shocked my mother, too! Thank you, Leo.) Pudlo has been the subject of many articles in art magazines and several books, which include reproductions of his drawings and prints. Among his other accomplishments as an artist, one of his drawings, Umingmuk (1970, the image of a huge, shaggy, but rather friendly-looking muskox), was reproduced as a 1972 UNICEF greeting card and in 1978, Aeroplane (1976) was chosen as the design for a Canadian postage stamp. Pudlo died in Cape Dorset on 28 December 1992 at 76.

The artist had a wonderful sense of humor which only expanded as his art became more elaborate, from the simple pencil drawings of his early work to his colorful later sketches drawn with felt-tipped pens of. Pudlo not only worked in many forms but he incorporated in his art images of both indigenous subjects such as caribou, fish, hunters, and dog sleds, and modern, technological ones such as helicopters, snowmobiles, power lines, and satellite dishes. He mixed in Christian iconography with Inuit shamanistic symbols. Pudlo also included imaginary images alongside the old and new reality, all to create a portrait of his times and the world he saw around him, metaphorically and actually. In a way, Pudlo the hunter transferred his sharp eye and analytical mind from finding game with gun and dogsled to depicting life with paper and ink. In a broad sense, he was a documentarist. “Artists draw what they think . . . ,” said Pudlo. “That’s how they are. They draw what they think--and what they have seen also. But sometimes they draw something from their imagination, something that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

Although other native artists had begun to incorporate the modern European world in their art, Pudlo was among the earliest who recognized that modern technology had long ago become part of human, even Native American, culture. He treated this encroachment on traditional life as integral to the world of his people, a permanent and everyday element rather than a temporary or unwelcome intrusion. (In contrast, American Indian artists often see Euro-American technology as a dangerous threat to be expunged.) Pudlo’s work is a visual evocation of the nexus between the traditional life of the Inuit and the modern world of Canada and the south. He saw, more clearly perhaps than other native artists, that there were now more snowmobiles than dog teams; more motor boats than umiaks; that Christianity was quickly displacing traditional shamanism; airplanes were commonplace; and telephones, television, and the Internet were bringing the south into the Inuit’s living rooms and keeping far-flung members of the tribe in regular contact with each other and the tribal center. No longer foreign or alien, the planes, helicopters, angels, and churches in Pudlo’s drawings had become part of northern life. It is this openness to the new experience, which he encountered repeatedly whenever he went south, that is fundamental to Pudlo’s art. Over his career, the artist demonstrated an endless inventiveness and versatility both in his techniques and his subjects. Pudlo not only saw that, along with the indigenous images, the formerly foreign objects had long ago become part of the native culture, he knew that by drawing these once-alien images, capturing them in various juxtapositions with traditional ones, such as a miniature airplane tethered to the horns of a gigantic muskox, he gained a measure of control over them. In Leo Shapiro’s words, Pudlo “adapts art to his incomprehensible life.”

That muskox image is in Pudlo’s Winds of Change (1983/1984 drawing; 1985 lithograph) which shows two Inuit and a dog (the indigenous form of transportation) bound together like mountain-climbers on the undulating, knobby back of a muskox, tied to one of the horns, and an airplane attached to the tips of the animal’s horns as if in a giant slingshot. Another plane is buzzing the ox--perhaps one that’s already been launched. It’s a wonderful example of Pudlo’s tendency of juxtaposing the familiar and the exotic--though what he found “familiar” and “exotic” were, of course, the reverse of what we southerners find so. (The juxtaposition still functions, however.)

Aeroplane, the drawing that was reproduced for the stamp, depicts a large, colorfully-decorated prop plane over an arctic mountainscape while seals lie on floes in the blue sea below. "This is like an iceberg or a big hill of snow,” the artist explained; “that is what I was thinking when I was drawing." Four anorak-clad Inuit stare up at the plane. Two huge icebergs rise up to the plane and two more figures stand on them as if to reach the plane. The airplane became a frequent symbol in Pudlo’s later work of the confluence of the old way of life and the new--but it was an object of interest, not of fear. Pudlo’s two worlds meet here, not in a clash of cultures but in an atmosphere of curiosity and wonder. "Whenever there is a plane,” Pudlo said, “we go up to the hills to get a better look at it." Not only did the artist depict modern technology alongside more traditional images in his art, he found it to be a beneficial addition to society. Having been saved from death or permanent handicap by being airlifted to the south for medical treatment on at least two occasions, he saw planes and helicopters as useful inventions. It is interesting to note that Pudlo explored the meaning of modern technology in other ways as well. In New Parts for an Inuk (1981), for instance, he drew an anthropomorphic figure with a light and antenna on its cap and a clock over its heart in a reflection of the artist’s own pacemaker, installed that same year. Some descriptions assert that the figure bears horns, antlers, and hooves (though what these are is more than open to interpretation, I’d say), all of which would be references to the game that Pudlo used to hunt in his nomadic days. While New Parts remains true to Pudlo’s documentary approach, that is, recording the world he saw around him, it is full of visual puns and fantasy, a self-portrait--the Inuk, or man, is Pudlo himself, of course--that shows himself in a highly symbolic and whimsical manner.

His investigation of the convergence of the European and native worlds in Canada is most vividly portrayed in North and South (1974) which shows the “white Arctic camp scene” of the Inuit north on the right and the “blue lakes and lush, green forests” of the European-dominated south on the left, each in a separate field surrounded by a border, but connected by a bridge-like arc. Pudlo asserted that the bridge demonstrates how cultures that were “split off” from one another “before telephones or radio” (i.e., technology), “even though we were part of one piece, Canada, . . . are touching each other--through CBC radio and telephones.” Having himself been saved from possible death from a hunting accident in 1957 by being airlifted to medical care in Western hospitals, Pudlo deemed the airplane and helicopter useful inventions for aiding stranded and isolated people.

One aspect of Pudlo’s art that is distinctive and makes him such a captivating artist (along with his whimsy), is the way one work carries over to the next. Within one drawing, one idea or image might be echoed in another, but each drawing can also be seen as a preparation for another one, with each succeeding work developing or continuing explorations the artist started earlier. He could take an image or idea, either Western or traditional, and experiment with it, looking for a way to depict it accurately. Images or ideas might be repeated differently or Pudlo might experiment with technique or approach, resulting in a series of drawings that explore and develop that new approach. Pudlo didn’t just document what he saw and experienced around him, he examined it, learned from it. He saw art as a kind of investigation, both for the artist and for the spectator: The muskox, for instance, a frequent image in Pudlo’s work (including Umingmuk, the print that UNICEF made into a greeting card in 1972), is not actually indigenous to his native territory in Nunavut: he first saw some being corralled in northern Quebec in 1957, and then he saw a herd from the air while on a flight from the south in 1969. He became fascinated with this strange, new beast. And like the snowmobile, the airplane, or the helicopter, this unfamiliar creature fascinated Pudlo and he attempted to understand it by drawing it. “If an artist draws a subject over and over again in different ways,” Pudlo said, “then he will learn something. The same with someone who looks at drawings--if that person keeps looking at many drawings, then he will learn something from them too.”

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