he Inuit of Cape Dorset, in Canada’s Nunavut Territory, have traditionally carved stone animal forms that speak to the experience of a hunting society. But Jamasee Pitseolak, who hails from a family of carvers and was inspired to make art by his grandfather Peter Pitseolak, has taken the tradition into a radically different direction. Using the same materials as those of the Inuit carvings still made today, including ivory and serpentine, his small sculptures express themes that reflect a different reality from the one of the hunt.
Pitseolak was raised in a settlement far removed from the semi-nomadic lifestyle of his ancestors. In the early 1960s, in order to avoid starvation after a booming fur market eventually led to a scarcity of game, many Inuit moved to permanent settlements, including Pitseolak’s family. His carvings often have moveable parts and are additive sculptures assembled from separate, individually carved components rather than the typical Inuit figures carved from a single stone. But the subject matter, too, stands out: golf clubs, World War II helmets, a skateboard, a toilet bowl — all rendered from moss-colored marbled soapstone. His work reflects the changing nature of Inuit ways of life. The references included derive from the context of permanent housing and domestic settings. Cape Dorset today is a thriving community of artists known for prints, graphics, carvings, and other art forms.
Some, but not all, of Pitseolak’s carvings are made using the remnants of other carvings. “It just so happened that maybe I liked the color and the contrasts,” he said. “I used to do traditional pieces when I started out. I did animal forms: seals, walrus, whales. I did human figures, too. But as I went on, I wasn’t really satisfied with the work I was doing. I wanted to do modern objects. It was mostly miniature stuff and electric guitars. Why electric guitars? I don’t know. I guess because my dad played electric guitar and it’s something that I couldn’t play. Later on, I started giving them titles with plays on words, mostly.” His titles sometimes come to him before the piece is made. “Playing with words is inspiring to me. Whatever I’ve heard out there, I would think about it and see if maybe I could carve that word.”
SITE Santa Fe is showing Pitseolak’s Toe-Nailed, a carving of a big toe with a nail driven through it. The nail is carved from ivory. “Most of what I use is soapstone from up here, but I have used alabaster,” he said. “I will incorporate ivory from walrus tusks or antler if the piece dictates it.” His Musk Ox Pistol, rather than a weapon used for hunting musk ox, is a gun whose barrel is in the shape of the musk ox. Pitseolak brings humor to his works, but they can also be marvels of creative invention. Laden Sole has a stone chain, each link separately carved, secured to a stone boot and ball, like the device used to prevent a prisoner’s escape. His Domestic Sewing Machine has a handle that turns on its axis. It’s one of a number of utilitarian or domestic objects included in Casa tomada. In the past, Pitseolak has carved motorcycles and other vehicles that were all kinetic. “Motorcycle choppers are one of my favorite subjects,” he said. “The wheels turn and the handlebars turn. I even did a heavy equipment grader.”
Near his home, a mound left from drilling down into the water table served as a ramp to test out the grader, like a kid playing with his Hot Wheels. “I placed it on the highest point and gave it a little nudge, and it rolled down about eight feet,” he said with obvious pride. His work displays something not often visible in sculptural works: a sense of playfulness and whimsy that is nonetheless resourceful and imaginative. — Michael Abatemarco