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There's more to art than money, says Bart Hanna

As debate rages over the role of artwork in enriching the lives of Inuit, spurred by a New York Times article, Iglulik carver Bart Hanna says creating art means more than a pay cheque.

“It's not only the money. I enjoy doing it,” said Hanna. “When I'm doing artwork... I forget everything and I feel much better.”

Iglulik's Bart Hanna poses with his Sedna carving that was commissioned by the federal government to be on display in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa in April.
Bernard Thibodeau/House of Commons Photo Services

He could have pursued work as a janitor but he preferred to chisel away at his carvings in his workshop and then be free to go hunting as he chose, he said.

Hanna's large limestone carving of Sedna, a legendary Inuit sea goddess, was commissioned by the House of Commons and it took him 12 months to complete. It was unveiled in Ottawa in April and will be viewed by hundreds of thousands of Canadian and international visitors to Parliament's Centre Block.

He acknowledged that being an artist isn't a lucrative living and there have been plenty of lean years. He said he's “blessed” that his spouse has a government job.

“If she didn't it would be very hard,” he admitted.

It would have been more profitable to eliminate the “middle man” – dealers, galleries and auction houses – and sell his art pieces directly to customers over the years, Hanna acknowledged. At age 71, he's said he's not about to explore marketing options through the internet, he laughed.

An article titled “Drawn from poverty: Art was supposed to save Canada's Inuit. It hasn't” by New York Times' Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter, published on Oct. 19, has tipped off a great deal of deliberation and discussion. Porter profiled Cape Dorset artist Ooloosie Saila's talents and achievements, describing her as a “rising star” in the Canadian art world. The journalist also painted a bleak picture of Saila's personal life and hometown, characterizing Cape Dorset as “plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse.”

Art, according to Porter, was supposed to help lift Inuit out of financial hardship. Yet “the vast majority eke out a living, often below the poverty line,” she wrote. She cited a government estimate that most Nunavut artists earn little more than $2,000 annually.

The newspaper article drew the ire of Inuit art dealer and acclaimed filmmaker John Houston, who spent part of his childhood growing up in Cape Dorset, where his parents marketed Inuit art. While Inuit only represent 0.1 per cent of Canada's population, they account for close to 10 per cent of Canadian art exported around the world, Houston noted. He argued that local artwork has helped boost the stature of Inuit, with carvings and prints being displayed internationally and “inspiring humanity.”

Houston condemned Porter for “perpetuating harmful and racist stereotypes about addiction and poverty.”

Inuit are still fighting to overcome generations of oppression and marginalization, he stated.

“The instances of dysfunction that Ms. Porter catalogues are there, but they are symptoms of something systemic, something pervasive – the multi-generational trauma of colonialism. Today, this is generally-accepted fact, and yet colonialism is not even mentioned in her piece,” Houston wrote in a social media post.

From pocket knives to modern tools

Hanna got involved in artwork in the 1960s after watching his father carving small qayaqs for workers on the DEW Line.

As a teenager, he also got to see people from other Northern communities make carvings and drawings in a Toronto hospital, where they were being treated for tuberculosis.

“We could make seals and walrus and hunting scenes. Some guy started to help sell soapstone... you could even carve with a pocket knife, it was so soft,” he recalled. “One guy was coming in and buying all the carvings.”

Hanna emphasized that funding programs available to contemporary artists through the Department of Economic Development are helpful to acquire carving tools, which he said have become powerful but also very expensive.

“They cut like butter,” he said of modern electric tools.

Hanna has an art show planned in British Columbia next year. He heads out to his carving workshop eagerly most days, but periodically it's a chore, he admitted.

“Sometimes it's kind of tiring but I think everything else is like that in the world,” he said.