LUNENBURG, Nova Scotia, Canada, December 28, 1983

At first blush, a visitor wonders how the Houston North Gallery, specializing in Inuit art, can claim membership in the world-class art scene. To locate thousands of miles from the artists it represents, far from Central Canada’s major art markets and in an area better known for gentle, old-world crafts than for an appreciation of primitive work, would seem to invite obscurity.

But Houston North’s proprietors do claim world-class status, with the assertion that a gracious old house on the shores of Lunenburg’s harbor is the perfect setting for arctic creatures brought to life in stone sculpture, for bold literal prints and for intricate tapestries depicting life in the far north.

Alma Houston and her son, John, share an intimate knowledge of northern art. Years of involvement in its production and marketing, and friendships with many of the artists who come to visit, work and show, make it possible for the mother-and-son team to work here. Their customers are willing to travel.

After only 2 1/2 years in business, they seem to have proven they don’t need to be in the mainstream to sell art. Their guest book contains signatures from across North America; they occasionally sell carvings sight unseen through the mail; and Haligonians regularly make the hour’s drive to Lunenburg for a Sunday browse. Lunenburg County residents have taken an active interest in northern art, buying carvings and the bulk of northern print issues.

In recent months, the gallery has featured drawings by Atungauja Eeseemailie of Pangnirtung, tapestries from the Pangnirtung Weave Shop, the Canadian Premiere of the 1983 Pangnirtung Graphic Collection, and the 1983 collection of original prints from Cape Dorset.

Sales of print issues have been as good as in other Canadian galleries, with people lining up to buy the Dorset prints. Last month six buyers stood outside the gallery all night to be first in the door for Saturday’s sale of prints.

Some prints, such as Jessie Conark’s Listening to the Birds from Baker Lake, are on display at all times, as are soapstone carvings from throughout the Northwest Territories.

The Houstons chose to set up in Nova Scotia, which is Mrs. Houston’s birthplace, because they felt people would be free of preconceptions about the art. “People here didn’t have an idea of what the Inuit art is about,” said Houston. “And the town has many old values of heritage, an appreciation of the value of beauty.” Southerners’ preconceptions about life in the north don’t sit well with the Houstons, who are intimately familiar with the Canadian arctic. John Houston, who holds a fine arts degree from Yale, grew up on Baffin Island, later working as consultant with the Pangnirtung Art Co-operative. His father, well-known artist and author James Houston, set up the Cape Dorset print shop and was one of the first white people to introduce Inuit art to southern Canada in the 1950s.

Mrs. Houston, who moved to Cape Dorset in 1951 via bush plane and dog sled shortly after marrying James Houston, helped found Canadian Arctic Producers, an art marketing co-op owned by Inuit aritsts and based in Ottawa. As CAP vice-president, she worked for 10 years introducing Inuit art to galleries around the world.

Although no longer living in the north, their interest in its people and art has never paled. Through their gallery, the Houstons try to pass on what they’ve learned. They’re careful, for example, to use the word Inuit (“The People” in Inuktituk) rather than the more common Eskimo (“raw meat eater”) to describe northern native people.

Also, Houston said southerners tend to hang on to a romantic view of the Inuit. “We want the Inuit to be romantic. They have lived, to a degree, in a way we consider to be romantic – a big life, a heroic life, a dangerous way of life. We tend to idealize that. “People are interested when they see Pudlo’s prints, with an airplane. But they contradict the romantic view,” he said. Through the gallery, he hopes to prove that current northern art is just as valid as the traditional work.

When Mrs. Houston announced she was moving to Nova Scotia from Ottawa, it was her son’s idea to set up a gallery. In June, 1981, she bought the house. “The location, the view, is perfect,” she said, “and when you step out the front door you’re in the heart of Lunenburg.” Mrs. Houston makes no apologies for presenting northern art in a southern setting. Spacious rooms with varnished wood floors overlook a harbor filled with fishing boats and, on the opposite shore, a field full of dairy cows. “The artists from the arctic enjoy it here. Knowing us, being treated in their own language, and with the sea nearby, there are some parallels to the north. The big cities are too large. Here, they’re comfortable staying, working and fishing.” Unlike many shops specializing in northern work, there are no “Eskimo” parkas, stuffed dolls and seals, woven table cloths and fur mittens for sale in the Houston’s two-story establishment. As a rule, an Inuit show and a show by a southern artist run concurrently. “We have only art in the gallery,” said Mrs. Houston, noting not all northern carvings can be called Art – although people tend to automatically label Inuit work “Eskimo Art.” “We tend to favor calling it Ethnic Art. It’s indicative of other attitudes that it’s displayed in the National Museum of Man, not in the National Gallery. It’s a colonial attitude, a feeling that people have to belong to the mainstream, go to the same schools. “So-called Primitive Art is a great influence on contemporary art – take Picasso’s work, for example. Maybe primitive art is too rich for our blood – we need interpretation from artists of our own culture. “Sometimes when I mention Inuit art, people say, ‘that junk in airports? I’d never buy that.’ ” Mrs. Houston is quick to add that most of the “Eskimo Art” pieces sold in airports are synthetic reproductions of stone carvings. “Anyone with half an eye can tell the difference between plastic and stone. Stone has a life, temperature of its own,” she said.

She agrees many Inuit carvings are churned out for quick sale, but deplores those who criticize all Inuit work because of that. “I don’t see it as wrong. We only worry about people doing things for money if they’re native. Lots of people make things for sale, all over Ontario. Most of them are hacks. Similarly, the Inuit draw and carve for the tourists. They grow up in an area with little to work at, and one thing they can do is carve. “But think of how much talent some of them do have. Go to any small city of 40,000 (about the population of the NWT) and try to find as many artists as there are in the north. How rare a true original is.” As for the criticism that Inuit art no longer reflects traditional Inuit culture, and is, therefore, losing its value, Mrs. Houston said “of course it’s changing. Since the advent of social security, of some kind of cushion, the artist isn’t man in nature, dependent on his resources anymore. When a man carves a seal now, it isn’t his food. He’s a changing man, and it’s a changing seal. “Maybe good art comes out of struggle. The northern culture is not under attack, in that no one is consciously trying to do anything to it. But major influences are acting. “If the art doesn’t reflect that, if you couldn’t see changes in carvings done between 1943 and 1983, I would be surprised. I would think each one was something dead that was being copied.”

Copyright Deborah Jones 1983

Originally published in The Globe and Mail December 28, 1983