1 of 11
"Parents Swinging Child"
Goota Ashoona, "Parents Swinging Child," beluga whalebone, 2008.
2 of 11
Goota Ashoona in the Yellowknife Studio.
3 of 11
Bob Kussy in the Yellowknife Studio.
4 of 11
Joe Ashoona in the Yellowknife Studio.
5 of 11
"Charging Mother Muskox"
Robert Kussy, "Charging Mother Muskox," blue whalebone, 2008.
6 of 11
Outside Ashoona Studio
Outside Ashoona Studio’s new location in Yellowknife.
7 of 11
Robert Kussy, "Sedna," bowhead whalebone, 2008.
8 of 11
Goota Ashoona, "Piggy Back," beluga whalebone, 2008.
9 of 11
"Parents Swinging Child"
Goota Ashoona, "Parents Swinging Child," beluga whalebone, 2008.
10 of 11
Heather Benning, "Doll House," installation view, 2008.
11 of 11
Heather Benning, "Doll House," installation view, 2008. All photos, Heather Benning.
A DELICATE BALANCE
Carving ethereal figures in found whalebone, the Ashoona Studio keeps it all in the family.
BY Nicole Bauberger
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Patrick Kane
Goota Ashoona’s Whalebone Carver holds twin male figures in her hands. They form a ring, joined at hand and foot, gleefully proceeding from her heart-shaped torso. Her torso has a hole through the middle, the shape of the whale vertebra it’s carved from. In Bob Kussy’s Mother, a mother carries a child in her hood, their faces carved from the porous, vulnerable centre of a whalebone. Smooth, hard wings grow from their bodies, sporting propellers.
At the next bench in the Ashoona Studio in Yellowknife, Goota’s son Joe files alabaster into the shape of a man transforming into an owl, the smoothly powerful wedge of the beak contrasting with the curved, translucent wing. When Joe was a kid in Cape Dorset, his grandfather, the gifted carver Kiawak Ashoona had the whole family sand his carvings. The power in Joe’s grandfather’s work still inspires him. “It makes me want to do something like that,” Joe says, “But in my own way.” Family ties are tight in this studio and exhibition space, and the strands have come together serendipitously over the years.
It began decades earlier, and much further south. The way Bob Kussy tells it, he often just missed a bus outside the Winnipeg Art Gallery as a kid, and wandered inside to visit the Gallery’s excellent collection of Inuit art. He bought Inuit art magazines to read on the bus. During the 1990s, the recession brought Bob to the Northwest Territories, and within a few years he had moved into Yellowknife to teach art programs at the jail. Later, he offered art therapy in one of the first solvent abuse programs for youth in the north. He noticed that many of the young people in the centre were Inuk, and that many of them didn’t understand English. “We need a translator,” he told his supervisors.
When the petite Goota Ashoona stepped off the plane from Cape Dorset in her fur hat, he originally thought she was there for treatment. He soon learned that she had come to help, to translate for the youth from her community. The professional relationship between Bob and Goota grew personal, and Bob became a committed father to Goota’s twin sons, Sam and Joe. But at the beginning of their relationship, despite the fact that Bob was teaching art, Goota still hadn’t revealed her own artistic side. When the boys were in elementary school, Goota studied English with a tutor, and she asked Bob to take her to his carving studio so she could make the tutor a gift. She told him to leave while she worked, made him stay out of the studio for two days. When he was finally allowed back in, she showed him a sculpture in stone, an Inuk man creeping out from behind a stone blind with a bow and arrow, shooting at a carved bird. Bob was delighted. “I used to carve long ago,” Goota says. “I didn’t want anyone to find out until I was ready. I was just trying to prove to him that I could do it.” She goes on to explain that she’s too shy to promote her own work for herself. For the past 15 years, Bob has promoted her work, and the work of the family. “The real joy in all this is watching my wife work,” he says.
Both Bob and Goota love to carve the weathered whalebone they find washed up on beaches in the high arctic. Goota finds the bones’ inherent shapes inspire her. “There’s something in there you can see,” she explains. As a carver works on whalebone, dust coats the skin and permeates clothing. Bob finds as he carves he contemplates the fact that he’s working intimately with the remains of an enormous animal, one that lived at least half a century ago. Goota has mastered this material — her family has carved whalebone for more than 50 years. The earliest documented piece was a doll’s face created by Kiawak Ashoona in 1959 and presented to the Queen.
The economy of working with whalebone follows the seasonal calendar. For years, the family carved over the winter and hoped to sell enough to offset the high costs of summer bone gathering along the northern coast. Beachcombing in the Arctic with family and friends has been one of the highlights of Bob’s life. Back in the studio, they begin carving, and the cycle continues. Each time the Nunavut land claims officers visited Yellowknife, the family double checked to ensure they were following proper protocols gathering whalebone. In the summer of 2006, the cycle hit a blip.
That summer, Bob and Joe collected whalebone together along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. When they applied for the permits to take the whalebone home, the Nunavut government denied them under legislation meant to protect archaeological sites. Bob explains that there aren’t many places to camp along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and so anywhere you set up a camp, odds are good someone camped there before you. The family shot video of the ancient encampments they found along the way, collecting whalebone without disturbing the archaeological value of the sites. Over a year later, the government finally determined the carvers had broken the rule, but chose not press charges. They didn’t give the whalebones back. The next summer Goota, a Nunavut beneficiary, went on a similar gathering expedition. She didn’t have a problem bringing the bones back.
The incident emphasized a tight spot Bob has sometimes found himself in since he began his art practice in Yellowknife. He’s a Ukrainian descendent making art that looks Inuit. “Most Inuit carvers get what I’m doing, but some don’t,” he says. Bob’s work is profoundly influenced by the Inuit culture he’s married into. It’s also original and totally his own.
Last summer, Bob joined Julien Feingold, a 93-year-old collector from California, on what turned into a bone-hunting trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands. As the two men explored galleries and studios, they met Fred Watmaugh, a marine scrimshaw artist and coral carver. He suggested they visit Betty and Neil Carey. When she was in her 20s, Betty Carey carved a log into a rowboat and rowed from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska. Now well into their 80s, the Careys have been beachcombing on Haida Gwaii for four decades. They had amassed a whole yard of scavenged blue whalebone, and they gave it all to Bob.
The blue whale bones have a different pore size, grain and scale from the bow and beluga whalebones Bob and Goota are accustomed to. Picking up a large vertebra and holding two ribs beside it, Bob predicts that “Joe’s going to carve the biggest whalebone owl in the history of Inuit art.” Bob has already carved Charging Mother Muskox out of a colossal blue whale finger bone from Haida Gwaii. Her solid, square body springs from the stone base with fierce eyes framed by horn tips.
The family is creating work for a spring show at the Birchwood Gallery in Yellowknife called The Gift from Haida Gwaii. It will feature large carvings in blue whalebone, including a piece with multiple figures carved from a rib six feet high. They’ve been working with Queen Charlotte Islands carver Chris Dobranski, another Watmaugh contact who travelled to Yellowknife to learn some Inuit carving techniques in stone and bone. Bob has accepted an invitation from Council of the Haida Nation president Guujaaw to return to Haida Gwaii next June for a cultural exchange, carving with Haida artists there. He hopes they will be able to showcase some of the finished collaborative work at the newly expanded Haida Gwaii Cultural Centre.
The family’s reach has been expanding geographically as well as artistically. For 15 years, they carved out of a small studio at the end of the Yellowknife peninsula. They hosted about 1000 visitors per year, showing their work and talking about technique. They’ve just moved into a larger space with a showroom, two blocks from Yellowknife’s visitor information centre and one block from two major hotels. Already their guest book is filling with comments in English, Inuvialuit, and Japanese.
The new venue makes space for a community of artists, including jeweller Martin Goodliffe. In the main space, family friend Bob Galipeau meticulously sands a soapstone lamp, while Joe’s cousin Koomuatuk ‘Kuzy” Curly shapes a polar bear of sandstone from the shores of Cameron Island north of Resolute Bay. Joe himself has been carving since he was a kid. He would carve something small, sell it, and take the family out for pizza. Now at 20 he contributes to care and medication for his twin brother Sam, diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“I always knew he could carve,” Bob says about Joe, “but I didn’t know whether he would stick with it.” He confirms that Joe has grown creatively over the past year, and has learned the delicate art of promotion, speaking about his work with visitors to the studio, both Inuk and non-Inuk. This hands-on education is difficult to come by, even for descendants of a legendary family of artists. “It’s really cool, working with all these different artists and watching what they do,” Joe says.
This spring, Goota will have her own opportunity to spread the word. She will be one of four artists in residence at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, where she’ll carve, teach throat singing and bring some of the Inuit culture south. Goota is the first artist from the Canadian Arctic invited for the Eiteljorg’s residency program. Shy Goota worries about representing herself and her art without Bob as spokesman. “I’ll have to bring his mouth with me,” she says. “Or maybe just record him.”
Goota Ashoona, Robert Kussy and Joe Ashoona will present The Gift from Haida Gwaii at the Birchwood Gallery in Yellowknife April 20 to 25, 2009.