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Tarralik Duffy opens up about home, and the art that follows

The accomplished Tarralik Duffy – she's an artist, designer, jeweller and writer of growing prominence – is also known by her design company, Ugly Fish Design.

photo courtesy Tenille Campbell/Sweetmoon Photography
"I found that working with my hands quieted my mind," says artist, designer, jeweller and writer Tarralik Duffy, who started Ugly Fish Design as a venue for her work.

"What I love about Ugly Fish is nothing was forced. Nothing was planned. Even finding the first beluga bones. They just washed up by my feet. Two perfectly washed-up little bones. I remember staring down at them … Like gifts from Nuliajuk," said Duffy from Saskatoon.

Where before she'd been pushing at life, here she felt invited.

Duffy divides her time between Saskatoon and her hometown of Coral Harbour. Recently, that shows up as a few weeks in Nunavut, a few in Saskatoon, a few weeks back in Nunavut.

"I'm just winging it. Whenever the opportunity arises, I take it. And there's always the guarantee – summertime, I'm going to be there," she said.

It will become more complicated as her young son enters school, as Duffy says Nunavut issues – cost of living, health, education – will figure in her decision-making.

"But then there's all the other pros for me. This rich culture, beautiful land."

In Saskatoon, she co-parents Bo with his dad, enjoys her network of friends, as well as some family.

"It's comfortable. It feels like home. But my heart and soul is in Nunavut. It's also here, but there's no place – " Duffy stops herself and starts laughing.

"It sounds so cheesy, so Wizard of Oz. So cliche, but so true."

So, for Duffy, there is no place like home.

"Everything about it. The land. The water. It's in my bones, you know? My aunties used to talk about it when I was growing up. How they couldn't properly relax until they were almost landing back home, because they also spent a lot of time travelling. And I'd be in Coral like, 'I want to get the (expletive) out of here. What are you talking about?' But now I totally understand."

She shares that love of the land and water with her son, who goes along bone-hunting. For the work she needs to do on her own, such as writing, Duffy relies on community, Bo's dad and family.


'The hours would pass'

About turning her creative attentions to jewelry, Duffy says it began as a way to deal with anxiety.

"To stay busy and put my hands to work. I found that working with my hands quieted my mind. The hours would pass and I wouldn't notice, and I had a sense of accomplishment when the piece of jewelry was done," she said.

"The surprising part of that was how it naturally grew. People became interested in the pieces. Ugly Fish just sort of happened out of me making stuff."

photo courtesy Tenille Campbell/Sweetmoon Photography
Dakota Hebert, with hair by Taryn Gilchrist of Revamp Hair Salon, models Tarralik Duffy's Ugly Fish designs: three-tier beluga bone earrings, beluga tooth and silver pendant and the iconic Klik onesie.

About operating the business end, she says she shifts her focus, though it's sometimes difficult.

"Classic artist versus business," Duffy said, adding that looking for bones on the beach is still the best part.

Recently, she's been devoting time to writing projects.

"I'm writing a piece for Canadian Art Magazine. I've recently written for Inuit Art Quarterly. A lot of reflective pieces," she said.

"I have my drawing that I like to do, too."

She calls being a person of many interests a blessing and a curse.

"I really envy people who have their one main interest and they're super-good at it," she notes.

But she's learned to identify what she is interested in when an idea comes up.

"I just follow the idea. If an idea presents itself and I can't sleep and I keep thinking of it and I get this sense of urgency … I always follow that. I spent a lot of time wasting ideas and not going for it, so I had to make a commitment to follow my instincts."

Her instincts led her to iconic designs – who can forget the Klik onesie from 2017, or more recently her Red Rose tea leggings? Her sense of play is never far behind, on her social media for Ugly Fish, she writes: "The steeper the tea, the deeper the roots."

Asked if her open-hearted expressiveness also comes naturally, Duffy says:

"For me, I think I've dealt with a tremendous amount of self-hate and self-loathing, as a lot of us do, and just confused by it. With everything that I've made, and my art, it's just sort of carving out your worth. Without really knowing what's driving you."

It comes back to the sense of urgency.

"Something presents itself, it's like a different frequency than the world that we're in that's just always demanding on us. I just follow that. I trust it. I just trust it," she said.

"With my writing, it starts off with a sentence or a title, an emotion or a memory. I just want to honour them. They're the most precious things and we shouldn't waste them. I'll write it down or draw it or go make the piece of jewelry.  Or go design the clothing."

Which brings peace, she says.

Duffy's work is featured on the cover of the latest Inuit Art Quarterly, while Uvanga/Self: Picturing Our Identity can be read in the fall issue.