In March 2017, I was invited by the Feheley Fine Arts Gallery in Toronto to attend Art on Paper. This art fair, held in New York City, is designed to highlight works on paper. I spent a great deal of time with Pat Feheley, owner of the gallery, looking over Inuit prints and drawings that were featured in her booth. When she came to the work of Pitaloosie Saila, Ms. Feheley extolled the virtues of this artist’s work but added that it was a “hard sell” with collectors. I was stunned. I have five prints by the artist in my collection, which I think are brilliant, and couldn’t conceive of why other collectors would find Pitaloosie Saila’s work problematic. Ms. Feheley explained that they saw her work as “dark.” This, too, I did not understand. True, some of the artist’s work such as Strange Ladies and Twilight Raven might be considered to have an ominous quality but it is certainly not the case with prints such as Smoke Rings and Epic Whale Hunt. In fact, a print such as Four Generations can be said to be downright charming.
Four Generations is one of Pitaloosie Saila’s most appealing prints. It depicts three Inuit women. The figure on the left is wearing traditional clothing. The middle person’s garments are somewhat less so and the woman on the right is wearing a Western-style hat. Adding to the charm of the print is the fact that, although the title indicates four generations, most people find only three. Pitaloosie has slyly hidden the fourth generation in plain sight – a child peeking out from the amautik (parka) of the woman on the right. It is the usual way Inuit mothers carry small children.
Striking a much more somber note, Strange Ladies reveals an aspect of Inuit life that became quite common in the middle of the 20th century. Inuit people were sent south to large Canadian cities to be treated for tuberculosis, a disease feared then as much as AIDS was in the 1980s and 90s. The reference is subtle because it is by implication, recording what to a northern visitor to southern Canada would seem most odd – the clothing of the people. Pitaloosie shows three women that would have been encountered – a women wearing a stylish hat, a nun, and a nurse. The artist reinforces the allusion to sickness by placing the three women against a sallow background.
Although some might see Smoke Rings as a somber, brooding work, I find it to be more meditative. The figure in the print is highly detailed and the work is a masterpiece of collaboration between the artist and the printer. The shaded, lined face, the individual strands of hair, and the creases in the parka have all been expertly delineated. The figure’s eyes have a faraway look and the viewer is left to contemplate the image of an Inuit person taking a moment to himself to quietly enjoy his pipe. The artist has chosen colors that are restful to the eye – black and tan for the figure and brown and turquoise for the background.
Although she does so in understated ways, Pitaloosie Saila reveals her penchant for being an artistic revolutionary in Twilight Raven. For the most part, collectors of Cape Dorset prints have tended to prefer colorful and charming images of Arctic wildlife, but the artist subverts this tried and true formula of filling the page with a vibrant, iconic image of an animal. Her raven, black against a cream page, is somewhat abstracted, with claw-like appendages at the ends of it’s wings. It is certainly not a slavish representation of a bird. The print is visually interesting, darkly humorous, and undermines expectations.
In Epic Whale Hunt, Pitaloosie Saila not only references some of the earliest Inuit prints, but she is also being decidedly modernist. The scene is classic, but she employs the use of positive and negative space in ways that are very contemporary. The fact that most of the whale is below water is suggested in the way the artist has drawn the image. Pitaloosie’s use of line to create the idea of ocean in the mind of the viewer is brilliant and she captures the viewer’s attention using only two colors – black on an off-white background.
Although Lost is now among the holdings of the Brooklyn Museum, I have always been drawn to the work’s haunting quality. Pitaloosie Saila is known for her highly detailed prints, usually of strong woman or Arctic birds. She is not noted for depictions of other types of Arctic wildlife, making Lost unique. Although the piece is representational, there is clearly something more going on. The image takes on an almost surreal quality since the artist chooses to employ only three colors – grey, white and blue – and the animal, the ubiquitous Arctic fox, seems frail, almost dazed. The expression on the creature’s face epitomizes pathos. The viewer is drawn in and wonders what exactly is going on. How can an animal be lost? If it is, what brought it to this state? This is not the usual benign image of Arctic wildlife. Lost functions on a much deeper level than merely recording Nature and it is left up to us to ponder its meaning. It is understandable that some collectors, used to more typical representations of Arctic animals, might shy away from a work such as Lost since it is psychologically disturbing.
One never knows what will appeal to a collector. It is a challenge faced by gallerists on a daily basis. Not only do gallerists sell art, they must educate the public, in particular, collectors about artists and their work. Without the assistance and guidance of gallerists, collectors would often overlook the work of important artists. To a degree, this has been the case with Pitaloosie Saila. Collectors need to re-evaluate their response to her work. Many collectors of Inuit works on paper are only interested in charming images of Arctic wildlife or depictions of life as it was once lived on the land. Thanks to gallerists such as Pat Fehelely, owner of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto, and Robert Kardosh, director of the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver, such views are changing.