"untitled," circa 1950, Sanikiluak (Belsher Islands), stone, coloured medium, 8" h x 5.5" w x 5.5" d
THE BANKS OWLS
ONLY A LITTLE OVER 50 YEARS OLD, THIS UNTITLED SCULPTURE OF THREE STONE OWLS IS PART OF A REMARKABLE COLLECTION OF FORGOTTEN WORKS BY UNKNOWN INUIT CARVERS.
Douglas Banks, a mining engineer and executive in Toronto, collected Inuit art for several summers in the late 1940s and early 1950s while working on the Belcher Islands in southeastern Hudson Bay. At the time, the commercial carving industry that was emerging in communities across the North at the urging of James Houston had not appeared in the Belcher Islands — little, if anything, appears from this region before 1954.
Banks obtained the circa-1950 sculpture of three stone owls perched on a stylized base, along with some 150 other works, directly from artists through trade, as opposed to buying them on the open market. This sculpture, known informally as The Banks Owls and valued at $7,500, remains untitled. No record was kept of the names of the artists, and we may never learn their identities since the sculptures are unsigned, at the time a not-uncommon practice.
Stored in crowded display cabinets in Banks’ suburban Toronto home prior to his death 10 years ago, the sculptures had no public exposure until recently, when the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver exhibited the Banks Collection and began to unravel its significance in northern art history.
“The works in the Banks Collection straddle the pre-Houston and post-Houston periods,” says Robert Kardosh, curatorial co-director of Marion Scott Gallery. “While Houston didn’t make it to the Belcher Islands until 1954, the artists would have had some knowledge of what others were carving on the mainland, where Houston had been active since 1949. The use of stone is especially relevant in this regard, as most of the earlier trade art, on the Belchers as elsewhere, would have been made in ivory. At the same time, the Houston influence is minimized in these works, which are smaller and more stylized than Houston-era work.”
Kardosh adds that the works are remarkable for their refinement and delicacy of execution. “Certainly they are not what you would expect from a region and a group of artists who were supposedly new to stone carving at the time. More precisely, many of the works exhibit a special kind of elegant stylization that is remarkably modern in feel and appearance.”