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Nelson sculptor teams up with Nunavut carvers

In a kind of reverse architecture, Inuit carvers have created scale models of existing Arctic buildings under the tutelage of Nelson’s John McKinnon.

McKinnon, whose sculptures are featured prominently around town, has made many trips to the Arctic since the 1980s to teach stone carving techniques. But he hadn’t been back for a few years and was itching to return when the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association asked him to visit two communities and help carvers create pieces commissioned by an architectural firm for a European exhibition.

They called on McKinnon’s expertise in part because the subject matter wasn’t what Inuit carvers are used to: they rarely do buildings, much less from blueprints, much less to scale. “These guys carve bears out of stone, but never anything like this,” McKinnon says. “I’ve seen carvings of igloos, airplanes, skidoos and boats, but didn’t think buildings would entice them much.”

In January, McKinnon went to Pangnirtung, on the east coast of Baffin Island, and in March to Arviat, near Rankin Inlet. He spent a week in each place with a mix of veteran and beginning carvers who were given plans of prominent Nunavut buildings — including schools, churches, hotels, and recreation centres — and asked to recreate them in miniature from soapstone. The building styles ranged from pre-fab to A-frame to “space-age looking stuff.”

The rough carving was done outside in minus-30 degree weather — closer to minus-40 when the wind was blowing — but the hand-tool work and sanding was done indoors.

McKinnon says the trick was getting the proportions right. “It was difficult for some of them and in a few cases there was a language barrier. It’s mostly the idea of doing straight lines.”

Normally, he says, Inuit carvers let the stone’s shape dictate their subject and it’s not important that the finished product closely resemble its real-life counterpart.

It’s also unusual for them to spend a full week on a single piece, but it allowed for a lot of detail. “That was nice actually, because we gave them time to perfect it. In the end they were really satisfied with what they’d made.”

McKinnon was also pleased: “Some are quite nice. There are some good craftsmen and it shows. It expresses the Inuit perspective.”

Most of the 13 carvers did one piece each and McKinnon also did one himself. Collectively known as Arctic Adaptations and curated by Toronto firm Lateral Office to mark the 15th anniversary of Nunavut’s creation, they will be exhibited from June to November at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

McKinnon isn’t sure if he’ll be at the opening, but a couple of carvers will probably go. Some like Jaco Ishulutaq have already exhibited work internationally.

“I think it’s going to be quite successful,” McKinnon says.

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