Carving Stones

What kind of stone is it?


What kind of stone do Inuit artists carve? This question about Inuit art and materials is actually the most popular one among people who visit an Inuit art gallery and see Inuit art. The type of stones used for carvings in the Arctic varies since each area and regions usually have different kind of stones.



Even if Inuit carvers do not use only stones as materials for sculptures (ivory, caribou antler, or bones may be also carved), the most common stone used by artists is serpentine. It is classified as a group of related minerals in the hydrous magnesium iron silicate family. Serpentine often incorporates inclusions, which give the stone its unique color variation, from black, brown or grey to olive green or yellow.

Serpentine usually comes from Nunavut territory, and especially from Kinngait (Cape Dorset in English) where most of the artists live and carve. This community located on Baffin Island is well known as the most famous Inuit art centre among circumpolar artistic scene and this area is abundant in serpentine. But you may found serpentine in many others areas in Nunavut.



Steatite is known with the popular term “soapstone” as this stone is pretty much softer than serpentine and easier to carve. Steatite’s color is grey, blue-gray, and white to almost silver.

Like Nunavik in Northern Quebec is rich in steatite, most of the artists carve from this material in this area although few of them use serpentine, marble, caribou antlers, ivory or bones for examples.

Steatite is sometimes imported from other countries such as Brazil, Italy and United States. In the 1950s, Canadian federal government sent steatite up North to Inuit who lived in Panniqtuuq without any explanation; people didn’t know what to do with this “too soft” stone and thus, they put it in the water with other imported “strange items” from the Qallunaat (non-Inuit world).



Argillite is a sedimentary rock formed predominantly from a mixture of clay and other minerals. Its extremely fine grain is known to take excellent detail in carving. The color of argillite is grey to black, but many other colors are known.


Other types of Arctic stone used by Inuit carvers include white or pink marble and quartz.


Polished stones

Inuit carvings look more polished and shiny to others, according to the stone, the pieces, and the artists’ practices. It is actually more difficult to get a polished and shiny piece with steatite compared to serpentine or argillite.

For the color look, Inuit carvers use coloured or clear shoe polish for the finishing touches whereas they used sea mammals’ oil in the past. Sometimes, beeswax is heated onto Inuit sculptures as an alternative finish.



Carving stone among Inuit communities*


[*To get more information about Inuit communities and their art, please, see “Inuit art communities” category]


Artists in Kinngait (Nunavut)

Qallunaat people generally use the English name “Cape Dorset” to talk about the community instead of its Inuit name: Kinngait which means in Inuktitut “mountains”.Kinngait Hamlet is well known on the international sphere as the most famous centre of artistic creation in the Canadian Arctic. Kinngait was the first Canadian Arctic community to produce drawings and prints; the graphic arts programme has been launched in 1956.

The Kinngait community is located on the south west coast of Baffin Island on the Foxe Peninsula of Baffin in Nunavut territory (Canadian Arctic). 1236 persons live there (Statistic Canada 2006) including about 95% of Inuit and 5% of Qallunaat (non-Inuit).

The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was founded in 1959 by Inuit own-selves to control the artworks distribution outside the Inuit territory and redistribute locally the profit of sales. Over the next five years, twenty co-ops were established across the Canadian Artic, ranging from Cape Dorset in the east to Holman Island in the west. Today, there are thirty-five which a small group leads even today artistic programs.

The artistic production - like drawing, print or carving - has been successfully developed in Kinngait, thanks to the Inuit artists’ will and enthusiasm as well as to James and Alma Houston's presence from 1951 to 1962 and Terry Ryan, first as an arts advisor in 1960 and then as manager of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative from 1962 – 2001. The Dorset Fine Arts was established in Toronto in 1978 as the sale marketing division of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative.

Over three generations of artists have produced sculpture, drawings and prints from Kinngait. As of 2005 over a dozen artists from Cape Dorset have been made members of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts: Abraham Etungat, Pitseolak Ashoona, Pauta Saila, Kenojuak Ashevak, Osuitok Ipeelee, Kananginak Pootoogook, Mayureak Ashoona, Kiawak Ashoona, Paulaussie Pootoogook, Toonoo Sharky, Pitaloosie Saila, Aqjangajuk Shaa and Oviloo Tunnillie.

Today, the artistic creation and the sale of the works represent for people who live in Kinngait a major source of incomes; but more still, artworks act as supports of the elders’ memory and narratives for the future generations.


Carving in Kangiqliniq (Nunavut)

Carvers such as George Arlook, John Tiktak, Hunter Toonoo, work with steatite and serpentine (hard grey stone and black stone) as well as ivory and in ceramics; they are widely admired for his sculptural representations of the human form and face and organic shapes. Their artistic creations illustrate traditional themes in innovative ways.


Carving in Kimmirut (Nunavut)

Local green soapstone and serpentine soapstone are often used by the Kimmirut artists; there is a soapstone quarry located near Kimmirut. Some sculptors work with ivory. They often produce scrimshaw etchings on the ivory. Some of them carve also caribou antlers.

Famous artists born in post camps near Kimmirut, such as Eliyah Michael, Iola Ikkidluak, Temela Aqpik, Shorty Killiktee, Davidee Ittulu or Anu Arlooktoo carve with stone, ivory and caribou antler, thus carving animal subjects (birds, bears, seals, whales), hunting scenes, drum dancers and traditional Inuit myths. Their naturalistic style earned a strong reputation on the international art market


Steatite carvings in Arviat (Nunavut)

Carving production began in the early 1960’s, and artists soon earned a reputation for their distinctive style as they use a rough, local stone called steatite (popularly known as soapstone).  Some artists who come from Arviat or who live there are well known on the international art market as their artworks are kept by famous museums in Canada like the Winnipeg art gallery, the Canadian Museum of Civilizations and the National gallery of Canada.

Arviat steatite carving deals almost exclusively with family and maternal theme like works made by John Attok (1906-1980), Andy Miki (1918-1983) and John Pangnark (1920-1980). Details of anatomy and clothing are usually stripped away so that some works seem to be almost abstract in form and could be described as “minimalist”. Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok (1934-) focuses on the larger themes of family and community in her carving works; she is now probably the most famous artist from Arviat.

Other artists, such as Daniel Alareak (1964-), carve from caribou antler thus, exploring variety of subjects, including shamanism and  hunting. More recently, Daniel Alareak has made jewellery since 1994, working with walrus tusk ivory, and is now incorporating metal into some of his jewellery pieces.


Carving in Iglulik (Nunavut)

Artists from Iglulik are famous for their carvings in stone, caribou antler and walrus or caribou bone. As the stone is favoured by carvers such as George Auksaq and Jame Ungalar, others like Lukie Airut, Jake Kadluk and Marius Kayoutak create sculpture in stone, caribou antler or walrus tusk. Yvonne Kayoutak carves from caribou antler and bone.

Favourite subjects represented by the artists from Igulik are Arctic animals such as musk oxen, polar bears and marine mammals (beluga, narwhal, and whale) as well as famous local myths.


Carving in Sanikiluaq (Nunavut)

“What we show in our carvings is the life we have lived in the past right up to today”, Sanikiluaq artists explain. As they favour a naturalistic style, animals and birds are carefully executed and polished, with realistic details incised into argillite stone found in the area – its extremely fine grain is known to take excellent detail in carving and its color can vary from grey to black. Argillite is used in most carvings made in Sanikkiluaq by carvers such as Paul Kavik, Isaac Sala, Josie Ohaytook, Noah Ohaituq, Jimmy Iqaluk, Simon Iqaluk, George Euikotailuk, Moses Amiaqoalik, or Joe Ekidlak.


Carving in Panniqtuuq (Nunavut)

Panniqtuuq is home to some of the most accomplished Inuit carvers in the Arctic. Some of the carvers specialize in serpentine or soapstone; other specializes in caribou antler and ivory.

Famous carvers such as Musisi Qijuarjuq (elder carver), Lipa Pisiulak, Jaco Ishulutaq, Manasie Maniapik (master carvers), Alan Alikatuktuk, Leopa Akpalialuk, Pilipusi Nakashuk (mid-career carvers), Jimmy Kilabuk, Danny Itooangat, Peona Qijuarjuq, Johnnylii Akpalialuk and Mosa Arnaqaq (young and emerging artists) exhibit their artworks in museums and art galleries in the south.


Carving in Puvirnituq (Nunavik)

Towards the middle of the XXth century, carving expanded quickly in the Canadian Arctic while the artworks got larger stature, created from soapstone and serpentine, the raw material used for the qulliq -the traditional seal oil lamp.

Today, carvers as Davidialuk Alasua Amittu, Isah Papilakuk, Moses Aupaluktuk and Thomasie Sivuarapik for example are well-known on the international art market and their artworks are exhibited in the biggest museums.

The arctic animals like seals, polar bears, caribous, as well as shamanism, daily life, environment and hunting scenes are still today the very widespread subject linked to the individual and collective experiences.


Carving in Kuujjuaq (Nunavik)

The Kuujjuaq Co-operative was established in 1961 and began their membership with the federation of Co-operatives of Northern Quebec (FCNQ) thus, opening a general retail store. In Kuujjuaq, carvers commonly work with steatite (or soap stone), caribou antler and ivory; their dominant iconographic subjects are of Arctic fauna, daily life and traditional myths.


Carving in Kuujjuaraapik (Nunavik)

The art making such as carving and sewing started to expand when the Hudson's Bay Company opened a trading post called Great Whale River in 1820 on the site of today's Kuujjuaraapik. The main activities at the post were processing whale products of the commercial whale hunt and trading furs, but carvings were often exchanged for tools.

By the late 1960s, carving making grew up and more and more carving were sold down South through the Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau Québec (established in 1967 to provide the growing co-operative movement with more effective powers and services to help attain their vision: atautsikut/together - working to develop as a people, leaving none behind).

Certain artists became very famous on the international art scene thanks their carvings, printmaking and drawings depicting more often animals and myths into a strong style: not much detailed composition but simple lines with the main characteristics of their topics.

Josie Napartuk (1901-1980) and his son Henry Ainalik Napartuk (1932-1985), as well as Lucy Meeko (1929-2004) were renowned for their carvings and print makings. Today, there is just a few number of artists in the community such as Alec Lawson Tuckatuck (1976-) who carves from soapstone, caribou antler, muskox horn, walrus tusks (he has his own website: Lizzie Amiaku Papialuk (1941-) and Emily Novalinga (1954-) make coiled grass baskets.


Carving in Inujjuaq (Nunavik)

Famous carvers such as Juani Akuliak (1951-), Elisapi Inukpuk (1938-), Charlie Inukpuk (1941-), Noah Arpatuq Echalook (1946-), Lucassie Qumaaluk Echalook (1942-) work in Inujjuaq. Isa Paddy Aqiattusuk (1898-1954), Jimmy Inurali Arnamissak (1946-2003), Johny Manumi Inukpuk (1911-2007), Paulusie Kasudluak (1928-2000) were those who first  started carving in the community thus, giving to its art making a certain fame.



Dancing bear carvings


Have you ever seen a dancing bear represented into carving, print or drawing by an Inuit artist? Of course you did and it is not surprising because in Inuit art, dancing bear is the most popular iconographic subject. We can see so many artworks illustrating dancing bears on the international art market! But what does it mean?


Dancing bear’s meaning

There is not only one explanation about the dancing bear through Inuit art and culture. Actually, the most popular signification of this topic is linked to shamanism and spirits world. According to the Inuit thought, the universe is inhabited by human beings (humans, animals, vegetables), deceased’s and spirits (tuurnngait) each who live in different but inter-penetrating worlds. Every human being is provided with an anirniq “breathing, breath of life” which, when the subject dies integrates a new animal or human body. The conception of the Inuit world represents a continuum, where every element is a part of a whole.

The shaman serves as intermediary between these various worlds and maintains the balance. She/he can travel from a world to the other one, flying through the air or water,  thus entering communication with the deceased’s or spirits’ world as she/he can change its appearance and be human and animal at the same time… This is what we called the shaman’s transformation.

The shaman can be helped by protector auxiliary spirits - tuurnngait - to realize this task; they get to the shaman strength and power. The polar bear could be one of thesetuurnngait and while the shaman is calling him, she/he is playing drums and dancing. Most of the times, when Inuit artists represent a dancing bear; this is precisely the moment when the shaman and the bear are getting connected thus, their spirit and their body merging together.


Its origin within contemporary art

In historical perspective, the first dancing bear was carved by Pauta Saila, a talented artist who lived and worked in Kinngait (Cape Dorset) in Nunavut. Born in December 1917 and recently passed away (June 2009), he lived with his second wife Pitaloosie Saila, a well-known graphic artist.

Pauta Saila produced a wonderful variety of subjects into carving, drawing and print. He realized his first dancing bear carving in the middle of the 1950s. Quickly, art collectors were captivated by this kind of topic and the demand on the international art market grew up. Today, so many artists from every Inuit communities carve or draw dancing bears as well as dancing caribous or belugas such as Moe Pootoogook, Michael Samayuallie, Padlaya Qiatsuk, Johnny Papigatok, Mattiusie Tunillie, Ottokie Ashoona, Kananginak Putuguq, etc.





Leo Angotingoar’s Carvings


About the artist

Leo Angotingar lives in Naujaat (Repulse Bay in English), in the Kivalliq area in Nunavut, an Inuit community of 548 inhabitants (2006 census, Statistic Canada). Leo's parents, Lionel and Olalie Olartituk Angotingoar, and his sister, Elizabeth Uluta Angotingoar, are all artists in the community, where he was born during the spring 1953.

In 1989, an international touring exhibition presented by the Amway Corporation at the United Nations General Assembly, Masters of the Arctic: An Exhibition of Contemporary Inuit Masterworks, included artworks made by Leo Angotinuar and other well-known Inuit artists.

When Leo is not carving, he likes going out of the settlement, for walrus, seals or caribous hunting with some friends. He also enjoys music such as guitar played by Jimmy Hendrix and songs by Bob Marley and Leonard Cohen. On his Bebo profile, he says that his happiest time is “when I keep myself busy, and driving my machine on my trap line. Enjoying the great white trundra and what is out there.” And he adds: “The only thing I like doing right now is to have fun and enjoy whatever life have to give me.”


Leo’s answers as for the questions:


- When did you start carving and how did you learn?

Leo: I don't know. We had a dog team at the time and I was given the work to make sure all the dog harnesses, had their ivory or angler loop holes and snaps were in shape at all times, and Mom made sure what ever handles for the working tools to be in shape. Most of all to have some toys made for my kid bros and sis.


- Do you remember the first carving you made? What kind of topic did you depict?

Leo: To trade? A small Nanook and made 25 cents. As for topic did I depict? Just only ten years ago pick the drum dancer. Why? Drum beat was loud, over the years had slowly drifted as all the Inuit stuff, but if you listen hard enough and look to the past you will still hear the BEAT. The stories and beliefs are still there but not as load. Sorry to say


His artistic style

Leo explains that his sources of inspiration are mainly related to the old stories he heard from the past and had experienced himself. His favourite topic consists in depicting human figures linked to Inuit myths and cosmology but also to the daily life from the past. In this perspective, he loves carving women carrying their baby in theiramauti’s hood with tenderness and emotion.

Another current topic within Leo’s artistic production is Sedna as she is called by Qallunaat (non-Inuit people), even if her real name could be, depending the Arctic area:Uinigumasuittuq “the one who did not want to get married”; Takannaaluk “the Big there below”; or Tallilayuk. Anyway, she is considered as the Sea Godness among Inuit societies. Following the Inuit cosmology, she is at the origin of the living beings thus, being the most popular figure related to Inuit culture (see: Laugrand, F. and Oosten, J. 2009, The Sea Women: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic, Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press).

Most of his carvings are made out of stone and whale bones; sometimes both materials are used thus, playing with their colours. At first, the silhouette of human figures could seem to be massive (maybe because of the general form and the texture of the material) but looking at them closer, you would identify many details from furs, clothes and hairs, as well as discreet smiles on faces. Through his carvings, Leo depicts human figures on movement - moving actually means to be alive. These figures often look up the sky, as if they want to keep connection with their ancestors and spirits.



Mother and child within Inuit carvings


The representation of a mother and her child in sculpture is not a frequent subject in the Inuit art contrary to the qallunaat art (not Inuit) where this topic appears in the religious as profane representations. This theme remains relatively recent in the history of Inuit art although it is more present in contemporary graphics art than in sculpture.

Formerly, the miniature representation of human characters (inunnguaq it Inuktitut) only consisted of the making of shaman amulets and toys for the children, in the form of small ivory or bone carvings and skins dolls. It is only from 1950s with the launch of the artistic programs in the Arctic that raises the stone sculpture of humans.

Carved characters in stone are mostly hunter with or without game in small size. This topic is particularly spread, especially since the artists are above all hunters, formerly as today; their artistic creations are drawn from their own experiences.

Inuit women also involve in the artistic production: if formerly they dedicated themselves more in drawing, in tapestry or in the clothing making, women of the Arctic communities want to diversify their activities while increasing their incomes and some of them started carving…. Thus, new iconographic topics appear with more feminine subjects such as the maternity and the mother to the child or feminine activities in camps.

Sat or up, the mother is represented almost always with her child in the hood of her amauti (feminine jacket): only the head of the baby is then visible. It is about an identical very strong symbol because the amauti remains the feminine traditional garment par excellence, in a society where the maternity is very valued. This mode of representation is the most the common, even if sometimes, the mother carries her child in the arms or holds him/her the hand if this one is bigger.

The mother and child topic is one of Mary Usutsiaq’s favourite subjects, from Kinngait. Nevertheless, the artists who sculpture the theme of the maternity are not exclusively women: Booby Aupaluqtuq, a young sculptor from Inujjuaq, represents this theme among the others. 



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