The Living Stone

Stone sculptures and implements produced by the Inuit of the eastern Arctic in the early 1950s.

Photos by Paul Chipman

Posted April 18, 2017

The pages of the Spring 1956 issue of The Beaver magazine were decorated with fanciful images from walrus tusk engravings, along with stone sculptures and implements produced by the Inuit of the eastern Arctic in the early 1950s, which became part of the Hudson's Bay Company's collection. The acquisition of the artwork was due largely to the work of James A. Houston and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (as it was called at the time).

Houston was himself an artist who went north in search of “unspoiled landscapes” to paint. He chanced upon a ride on a Canadian Forces plane going to the station at Port Harrison (Inukjuak) in 1949, where he became aware of a large number of small ivory and stone sculptures. Considering them fresh and uncommercialized, he approached the Handicrafts Guild to help promote them. From 1950 to 1952 Houston served as an unofficial crafts officer for the association. Houston traveled through the central and eastern Arctic by airplane, dogsled, and aboard the eastern Arctic patrol vessel, the C.D. Howe, adding a much-desired romanticism to the artwork.

In 1950, Houston approached the Hudson's Bay Company. At first the company bought the handicrafts and provided credit to the Inuit artists, which they could trade for necessities at the northern stores.

The company was to become a major retailer of Inuit arts and crafts. The sales provided revenue for the organizations involved, plus a much-needed income for the Inuit, many who were near starvation due to poor fox fur and sealskin prices, as well as declining caribou herds.

By the time these images were taken by Winnipeg-based commercial photographer Paul Chipman, Houston had enlisted the cooperation of the federal government and became an employee with the Department of Northern Affairs. James Houston wrote numerous articles for The Beaver and many other magazines in an on-going effort to endorse the creative works of the Inuit.

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 1956 issue of The Beaver.

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