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Northern arts festival continues to expand

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INUVIK, Northwest Territories - To the hushed awe of a crowded gallery, the
entrance of the carved whalebone signified the beginning of the 10-day
gathering.

The city of Inuvik welcomed artists from throughout the north and travelers
from around the world to the 16th annual Great Northern Arts Festival
(GNAF). Unquestionably the premier festival of its kind in Canada's far
north, the affair offered more than just the venue to promote and sell
creations.

Eighty-three artisans were selected to attend and for at least half of them
their appearance represented going "to the big city," even if Inuvik's
population is only 3,600. Located at 68 degrees north latitude, this town
is the hub of the Western Arctic and is the largest center within an
800-mile radius.

Artistic Director Lynn Feasey immediately cited the benefits for
participating in the festival. Besides having their work displayed in a
professional gallery setting, the artists can collaborate with their peers
who work in a wide array of mixed media.

"They get an opportunity to experience many things they otherwise would not
have a chance to do," Feasey said, stating geography and vast distances in
the north as tremendous barriers for conducting business.

While the festival was open to all artists, more than 70 percent were of
Inuvialuit (western Arctic Native), Inuit (eastern) and First Nations
heritage. Stone carvings and animal portrayals were prevalent yet between
printmaking and paintings, pack dolls and photography, there was more than
enough to satiate the demands of the most discriminating tastes. Prices
were also suited to meet the budgets ranging from the impulse buy to those
pieces well into the thousands of dollars.

Whereas most arts festivals last for a weekend, one of the reasons the GNAF
spans two weekends was to give its attendees the chance to unwind from
their travels without the pressure of having to sell the entire time.
Within this open-gallery concept, artists weren't required to man their
booths during the full 100 hours the show was open and were encouraged to
perform demonstrations of their craft, attend the seminars or participate
in the half day public workshops.

Feasey is aware of the limited breadth of work within individual northern
communities. That's why, she said, it's in their interest to observe other
craftsmen.

"When I can reach an artist and try to explain to them what they can expect
when they come, they'll have a good time and learn and the experience will
help them grow professionally," Feasey said about the recruitment
techniques she uses.

Craftswoman Lucy Nigiyok was an example of whom the festival wanted to
expose to a bigger audience. A resident of Holman, population 425 and a
three-hour flight from Inuvik, Nigiyok makes pack dolls (stuffed animals),
prints, wall hangings and tea cozies among other handicrafts.

She comes into Inuvik two or three times each year and it is where she was
pursued by Feasey to attend. Both of their decisions proved fruitful.

"I'm just learning each day as I come to the gallery," said Nigiyok as she
was sewing a mother seal and pup doll. "This has been really interesting
for me to find out what they [other artists] do."

Even with this encouragement, Nigiyok was reluctant to come to Inuvik
because of the "unbearable" weather. Holman's harbor was still frozen into
July and Inuvik, with moderate temperatures in the 60s, was uncomfortable
for Nigiyok. That's one of the cultural challenges the festival has in
getting artists to come, noted Feasey

One of the hour long afternoon classes was titled "Exporting to Alaska"
presented by a federal government representative. Nicki Dewar, a cultural
trade commissioner with the department of Canadian Heritage explained how
active Ottawa is in promoting Native arts, both domestically and
internationally, including an upcoming exhibition in November in Boston.

Two thick government publications, available to every Canadian artist,
describe how artists can register themselves so that that foreign trade
officers can offer information to global purchasers. There was also a
representative from the Anchorage Museum in Alaska who stated her purpose
was to purchase artwork, an announcement that excited those in the
conference room.

"If we can bring in collectors from New York, they can influence the entire
world," Dewar said about why the government intervenes on behalf of all
Canadian artists, especially those from Aboriginal backgrounds. "We know
the work is excellent and can be purchased, we just have to expand the
market."

With an interpreter available most of the time to speak Inuktitut,
including for the seminars, there are obstacles in arranging the GNAF that
few other committees have to face. Even if language wasn't a barrier,
communications are.

"It's a challenge to find artists because they don't have photos or are
without e-mail because they're not [all] computer savvy," Feasey remarked
about how there needs to be some flexibility with application deadlines.

"'Did everybody get the mail or fax?' because technology is not always 100
percent reliable in some of the communities."

Fortunately for the artists, getting to Inuvik was never going to be a
problem. With government, territorial and the festival's own resources,
most of the northern Canadian artists were provided stipends for their
transportation, accommodations and meals. Even with the expense of
traveling north of the Arctic Circle there were an additional five
Americans and one French artist who attended.