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Artic Artist Direct carving out northern niche

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YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories - Through the haze of a fine dust that permeated the communal studio, a carver is hunched over his table aided in his trade by a dim 100-watt light bulb while stimulated by a thermos of coffee and a pack of cigarettes.

Covered in a white chalk that starts to measure a quarter-inch, Ron Felix can't help but wear this residue on his bare hands and jumpsuit. The powder is a by-product of the stones from which he and his fellow artists have chiseled and cut and grinded over several months since the opening of the Quonset.

This smoky plume isn't glamorous and can even be hazardous without the use of a protective mask that filters these particles from the nose and lungs. Yet, it's the mystique of the working environment that is part of the charm of Arctic Artist Direct (AAD); a newly created co-operative between several Inuit carvers.

"This can introduce people to see what we work with and they appreciate the carving more once they see the artist," said Felix, himself with an international reputation for his stonework. "Now they can meet one (a carver) and put a face behind the name."

For Felix to attach his presence and skill at AAD gives the co-op immediate credibility. With his carvings already on demand among the numerous higher-priced downtown galleries in Yellowknife, his depictions of Native and northern images can be purchased at a reduced rate among the less-frillier showroom of the co-op.

In addition to the benefit of providing a visible workshop, Arctic Artist supplies an immediate market to showcase and sell pieces at a very competitive price. Without the overhead of mall rents and salespeople, AAD only needs to take a 15 percent commission, a steep drop from what is about 50 percent only blocks away and allows for the artists to receive more remuneration for their creativity.

"You get the building and I'll move over and carve. He got the money and I moved," a gregarious Felix stated with his trademark laugh.

Felix referred to his friend Eddie Kolausok who purchased the 2,400 square foot building after the two of them bantered about the idea for a couple of years. Located midway between the city core that's fueled by diamond money and Yellowknife's Old Town where treaty land, half-million dollar homes and an artisan's community exist in an eclectic harmony, AAD is strategically positioned.

"These are Aboriginal artists working together and what we have here an opportunity because there aren't many people willing to give space to artists," said Kolausok, who's a writer and treaty lands negotiator and a carver by hobby. "We feel by working together, it will enhance the product and enhance their art."

Kolausok knows of only a couple of other similar efforts among First Nations in Canada, so this spirit of cooperation is still a fledgling idea in the country. Having anywhere between a half-dozen full-time artists plus another dozen carving apprentices results in somebody on site during most hours, including evenings and weekends, so the carvers are also required to promote the co-op gallery.

However Kolausok rejects the idea that petty squabbles between the carvers will emerge, including steering potential customers towards their own pieces. Calling that scenario immature, it's hoped that successful artists and styles will be passed along.

"This isn't competitive or individualistic but caring, almost communal," Kolausok said. "People are looking out for each other because they know everybody has families (to support)."

Most of the Arctic Artist carvers hail from Tuktoyaktuk and the isolated Delta region of the Northwest Territories on the Beaufort Sea, 700 air miles away. With his earnings, Felix, who's been carving for 15 years, can support his wife and six children.

He appreciates his gift and now with his reputation has become the master for those looking to learn the craft. His first advice is simple.

"The best part about learning is if you can draw, you can carve. All you're doing is changing a pencil to a file and the things I've seen people (newcomers) do are amazing," Felix said with a laugh.

One of those he's tutoring is 15-year old Rachel Nuttall, who's now been seriously in the art for a year and a half. With more than 50 inukshuks (stone statues used by northerners as direction guides) sold to her credit, she is moving onto more imaginative figures including animals and people.

The timing of her involvement in northern Native carving is coming when the trend is to work the stone for more detail whereas in the past simple, smooth lines were acceptable. From Felix and others, Nuttall is learning the intricacy of animal shapes that's being sought after by the more discriminating purchasers.

"They're showing me the anatomy and how the body works," Nuttall said about how her soapstone pieces can either be too square or too rounded. "These bear's ears go way back here and away from the eyes."

For Arctic Artist's first tourist season, Kolausok is pleased with the small steps taken by the business, especially when he purposely has kept expectations low. Even over the winter, there will be a new influx of travelers to Canada's far north, Japanese tourists who come to see the Northern Lights, a group Kolausok hopes to introduce to the co-op.

From Felix's perspective, he's been encouraged by the initial six months. He thinks the concept of an artist-run gallery should work because of the setting's intimacy and the art's affordability.

"If the galleries don't want to buy my carvings, that's not my loss and I'll thank them for their business," said Felix who noted AAD now gives consumers another option.

Longer-term goals of Arctic Artist include incorporating more of the dozen or so other Tuktoyaktuk artists who are presiding in Yellowknife to join their operation that will ultimately result in the need for a larger workshop and gallery. Further, to publicize the northern Native lifestyle as depicted in their art, AAD is looking at purchasing a traveling studio, such as a bus, that will allow them to expand their horizons into different markets throughout North America.

Arctic Artist Direct can be contacted at its Web site: www.arcticartistdirect.com.