Printmaking is a collaborative process. Artist, printmaker and arts advisor work together to create, select and produce prints. At the Ulukhaktok Arts Centre, original drawings are purchased by the print shop through the year. Once a year, drawings are chosen to appear in the annual print collection. The original drawings often become valuable collector’s items.
Prints are created by hand, from preparing materials, to applying colour, to individually signing each print. On the signature line, the first name is the name of the artist, followed by the printmaker’s name. If — the artist and printmaker are the same person, only one name appears. Genuine Holman prints feature an ulu mark on the bottom corner, an idea picked up from Japanese artists’ chop marks. Prints made by artists outside the co-operative do not have the Holman ulu mark.
Finished prints are numbered to indicate the size of the edition, which is never more than 50. After the edition is “pulled” from the plate, stone or stencils, the printing surface is defaced to prevent more prints from being made, thus “limiting” the edition.
Smooth limestone, quarried near Minto Inlet, is used for stonecut prints. A reverse image of the selected drawing is traced onto the stone. All the stone surrounding the image is removed, leaving a series of raised areas, representing the image, on the face of the stone. These raised surfaces are inked and a thin sheet of paper placed over the inked surface. The paper is pressed gently and firmly against the stone by hand with a small padded disc. The paper is then “pulled” from the surface and hung to dry. For each new print, the surface of the stone is inked anew. For a woodcut, the process is the same as the stonecut, but the image is carved from a block of wood.
Lithographs are created using a flat plate, oil and water. The artist creates the image directly on a smooth limestone or zinc metal surface using an oil based crayon. A separate plate is created for each colour. A film of water is applied to the plate, and then a layer of greasy ink. The water is repelled by the crayon image, but the ink adheres to the oil-based crayon. Paper is laid on the stone or metal plate and a press transfers the colours to create the finished image. It is important that each plate match precisely with the previous one, to create the multi coloured image.
Prints from other areas
Printmaking is not a widely practiced artform elsewhere in the Northwest Territories. Dene artists create paintings, which are sometimes turned into limited edition lithographs. Some Métis artists in the Yellowknife area are creating original prints on card. Arctic Canada Trading Company sells aboriginal prints from across the Territory. These fine-art quality prints and cards are easy to transport and ideal for framing.
Using the quills of the porcupine, this intricate art is used to decorate hide, fabric, and birchbark. A technique practiced for centuries in many parts of North America, quillwork was the primary form of decoration by Dene women in regions where porcupines could be found. Around 1840, quillwork began to decline as glass beads became readily available to women in the Northwest Territories. Quillwork requires a high degree of patience, dexterity and attention to detail. Beads are much easier to use and do not need the difficult preparation that quills do. Today, women in Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence and Jean Marie River continue to create this intricate style of decoration on clothing and accessories.
A healthy adult porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills. The snow white quills of a young porcupine turn yellow as the animal ages. Quills can be easily removed from a dried porcupine skin as they are needed or they can be pulled from a live animal. Throwing a blanket over a porcupine causes it to curl up into a ball, allowing easy access to the quills. The quills are carefully removed with bare hands, gloves or pliers. The quills vary in length from ½ inch on the face to 4 inches on the back of the animal. Most of quills on the side and tail measure between 2 1/2 – 3 inches in length.
After the quills are pulled, they are washed in warm water and detergent. At least nine changes of water are needed to remove the natural grease. Proper cleaning and rinsing is necessary to prevent the quills from yellowing over time. The rinsed quills are spread out over towels or newspaper to dry before dyeing.
Quills are coloured using commercial dyes. The quills are soaked in the dye for about 30 minutes to allow them to pick up the vibrant colours. The dyed quills are rinsed with vinegar to help keep the colour from fading.
Before commercial dyes were available, berries, flowers, plants, and lichen were used to create dyes. Quills were boiled in the dye mixture for about 11/2 hours until they took on the desired colour. Dock root was used to produce brighter and stronger colours. Adding currants or gooseberries helped prevent the colours from fading.
Once the quills are dyed, they are allowed to dry for several days before the root end of the quill is carefully clipped to allow the air to escape. Quills are made pliable by placing them in a damp cloth, or in the mouth, and allowing the natural action of saliva to soften them. If required, the quill can be flattened by pinching it and forcing the air out.
Each quill must be softened again just before it is used. The quills dry and harden quickly so the quillworker must work fast.
Traditionally, quills were fastened with sinew. However, thread or dental floss are more commonly used today.
Quills can be woven into decorative bands using a bow loom strung with sinew or thread. Coloured quills and intervening threads are woven in by the quillworker to create a design. Zig-zag and diamond patterns are the most common. Bird, animal or floral designs are rare. New quills are added as colour changes are desired orthe length of the quill runs out. The quill band will lie flat if even tension has been maintained during weaving. This demonstrates the skill and experience of the weaver.
Embroidered quillwork is usually found on hide clothing or accessories. Designs are drawn directly onto the hide either by freehand or from a pattern.
There are several traditional techniques of quill embroidery and many variations. Basic quill workstitches include zig-zag (overhand), straight (band), line, checkerboard, rick-rack, sawtooth, diamond, triangle, and circle quilling.
The basic zig-zag technique involves folding flattened quills over two parallel lines of thread. A quill is inserted under the first stitch, and folded over and inward so the thread is hidden. This is repeated, back and forth, between the parallel thread stitches as the quilling pattern emerges. New quills are placed under the old allowing different colours of quills to be added into the design.
Quillwork on Birchbark
Birchbark baskets are commonly decorated with quills. After the design is drawn, small holes, for the quills to go into, are punched along the edges of the design with an awl. Coloured quills are flattened and inserted into the holes in a zig-zag pattern to create the design. On the underside, the quills are pushed down and the ends are hidden with an inner piece of bark.
Other types of Quillwork
Other types of quillwork are less common. These include tipi quilling, quill wrapping on rawhide and quill plaiting. Sometimes bird quills are used in edging decoration.
There are several things to note when looking at a piece of quillwork. The quills should be shiny, indicating they have not been damaged. Rows of quillwork should be even and black quill ends should not be visible unless they are part of the design. Finally, there should be no sharp edges.
Stone and bone carvings are the highly prized iconic art from Canada’s North.
Common themes and images link all Northern art. Although there are eight unique Aboriginal groups in the Northwest Territories, similar themes appear in art across these cultures. Wildlife is one common thread. Each culture has a respectful relationship with animals, which is often reflected in art majestic polar bears and sturdy muskox from the far North; migratory water birds, graceful eagles and birds of prey, and imposing grizzly bears in southern regions. Drum dancers, hunters, and women and children are themes that permeate the art of all Northern cultures.
Northern carvings are crafted from many different materials, often influenced by the region and the training the artist has received. Many carvers have received workshops, colleges and southern universities. Others have learned their craft in the traditional manner through hands on experience, observing family members and other artists. Carving materials come from the land – antler, bone, horn and several kinds of indigenous stone – reflecting a unique bond that Northern artists have with their environment.
Soapstone is also called steatite, which is a soft, easily carved talc stone. In the Northwest Territories, the preferred stone is actually serpentine, a harder and more brittle material than soapstone, and also a more challenging medium. Every piece of serpentine is unique, with colours ranging from white to grey, yellow to green, and brown to black, and the stone often appears mottled or veined. Polished serpentine takes a brilliant shine, and finished carvings have a smooth, glossy surface that is pleasing to look at and touch. Northwest Territories artists also use siltstone, argillite, dolomite, and quartz, as well as imported alabaster and marble. Carving stone often has natural fissures and blemishes that add to the unique character of the piece. If you have concerns about care of your purchase, the artist or gallery owner can usually answer any questions you may have.
The Dene and Métis have long relied on moose and caribou, which form a sacred part of their cultural heritage. Northern moose and caribou shed their antlers each autumn, providing carvers with a unique and renewable carving material. Unlike stone, which can take any shape the artist chooses, antler carvers must work with the shape of the existing material. Methods for creating images with caribou or moose antler include carving with a knife or grinding tool, and etching with a hot iron. The broad tips of moose antler can reveal intricate lace-like patterns in the hands of a master carver. The antler can have a highly polished finish or a soft matte finish, depending on the visual effect the artist desires.
Bone, like antler, determines what type of carving can be created. Caribou bone can be found in its natural habitat throughout the Northwest Territories and whalebone can be collected on Arctic beaches. To ensure you can take your purchase home, ask the gallery or a local wildlife officer for information about exporting whalebone carvings. In an attempt to protect whales, the United States and some other international destinations restrict the import of whalebone, including carvings from the Northwest Territories.
Along the Arctic coast, muskox horn is a renewable material available to carvers. The natural sinuous curve of the horn makes it a popular medium to create beautiful bird sculptures, such as geese with long graceful necks and black beaks. When finely polished, the horn’s black tip and soft yellow and cream hues have a warm translucent glow.
Birch bark baskets have been used for hundreds of years for a number of different applications. Traditionally they were used for carrying food, water and storage. Birch bark is a surprisingly durable material. Natural waxes in the tree make it water proof and when prepared properly even fire resistant.
Collecting the bark
The best time to harvest the birch bark is in the spring time or early summer when the sap if running. This will allow the bark to be removed easier and not damage the tree. Only the top layer of the bark is taken off of the tree. The brownish bark under layer is left so the tree can survive. A sharp knife is used to make a vertical cut down the birch tree. A good rule of thumb is to cut the same distance vertically as horizontally. This creates a nice square piece of building material.
Interesting fact: If you look closely at a birch tree you will notice it has black horizontal lines (called lenticels) in its bark. The shorter the lenticels the stronger the bark is and less prone to splitting. Every piece of birch bark is picked with care.
The bark is then carefully pried off of the tree with a knife making sure the tree doesn’t get damage.
Preparing the birch bark
Once the birch bark is collected it needs to be prepared. There is a brown/reddish residue on the backside of the bark that needs to be scrapped off. The bark is first scraped with a knife followed by sand paper. Next the bark is flattened by being pressed between two pieces of ply wood. Sometimes the bark needs to be dampened with a wet cloth so that it can be bent more easily. The sooner the basket is formed after taking the bark off the tree, the easier the bark will bend. The design is then traced onto the back of the birch bark using a pencil. Scissors or a sharp knife is used to cut the desired pattern. The basket is then bent into its desired shape using a metal ruler to create neat fold lines.
Fasten it together
Once the basket has taken its desired shape it needs to be fastened together. This can be tricky because the bark will want to curl. The basket is clamped into place so that it can hold its shape. Traditionally white spruce roots were used to hold the birch bark basket seems together. Today small strips of moose hide are usually used. Small holes are punched along the edge of the bark and moose hide is weaved to hold the basket edges together. At this point the basket is essentially complete.
After the basket is formed the maker works on creating a decorative design. The skilled crafts person carefully sketches an outline of their pattern onto the basket. Next, coloured porcupine quills are usually used for the design. The quills are dyed and then woven into a floral pattern on the side of the basket.
Interesting fact: Some traditional unique patterns were created by subarctic aboriginal people through bark-biting techniques. This involved people peeling ultra-thin pieces of bark, folding them, and then biting them in specific patterns to create their designs. Some of these designs date back centuries.
Once finished, the basket maker does one final inspection of the birch bark basket and places their creation for sale. These works of art have been made for centuries and are looked for by art collectors all over the world.