Artspots

David Ruben Piqtoukun: 'Through stone carving, I learned a lot about my people'

In this Artspots clip from 2004, the acclaimed Inuit artist shares the story of how art brought him back to his roots.

In this Artspots clip from 2004, the acclaimed Inuit artist shares how art brought him back to his roots

In this Artspots clip from 2004, the acclaimed Inuit artist shares how art brought him back to his roots 1:15

Name: David Ruben Piqtoukun

Hometown: Paulatuk, N.W.T.

Lives and works: Sutton, Ont.

Artspots appearance: 2004

The story:

Artist David Ruben Piqtoukun was already a veteran carver by the time this episode of CBC Artspots originally aired.

His sculptures, which might mix stone, metal, bone and antlers, are connected to his Inuit heritage, and they often explore themes of spirituality while also reflecting contemporary life.

As a young man, art became a way of reconnecting with his roots. Born in 1950, Piqtuoukun was raised in residential school — taken from his family at just five years old. 

Through stone carving I learned a lot about my people and the stories.- David Ruben Piqtouken, artist

By the '70s, when Piqtoukun was starting his career, he met an art patron named Dr. Allan Gonor. It was a breakthrough moment that he discusses in the episode. 

"He told me, 'When you travel north, collect the stories — and from there, you introduce them into your carvings and then you start learning,'" Piqtoukun says in the video.

Family members and elders shared the oral histories of their home. "Through stone carving I learned a lot about my people and the stories," says Piqtoukun in the episode.

"One carving develops into another. It just keeps on expanding and it's really nice to have that feel. My personal objective is to explore the world for my people, so I share the stories through the work, through the images, and likewise."

The last time he saw his Artspots episode:

"It's been a long while since I have seen the video," Piqtuoukun tells CBC Arts by email.

"I was tickled to see the Shaman Returning from the Moon again! One of my all-time favourite stone carvings."

Shaman Returning from the Moon by David Ruben Piqtoukun, as seen in CBC's Artspots. (CBC)

Made of stone, sinew and chalk, Piqtoukun carved the piece in 1984. It's now part of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

"It was my father's story," writes Piqtuoukun, talking about the piece. "I recall the composition in every detail. Right down to the last rock, holding down the Shaman."

"As my father's story, I made sure that I respected all the details of the story and the final presentation of the stone carving. Even to the last crater on the Moon! This concept is a stone carving that captures and represents a message from the human heart and soul."

Memories from the shoot:

"I really enjoyed the making of the video as I have a personal knowledge of the stories and the stone carvings. It was brief but it carried the message from the Elders who told them. I am just the translator/stone carver of the stories. I really enjoyed how the cameraman would pan in/out and capture the detailing of the stone works."

What he's working on now:

Two of Piqtoukun's sculptures are currently part of Thunder in Our Voices. It's a travelling exhibition that revisits recordings and photographs collected from the Northwest Territories in the 1970s, when the region's Indigenous communities successfully blocked what would have become the largest pipeline project in North America.

Two of David Ruben Piqtoukun's sculptures appear in the touring exhibition Thunder in Our Voices. The piece in the foreground is a portrait of Rosemary Kirby, a teacher from Paulatuk, N.W.T. who vocally opposed the pipeline project at the Berger Inquiry hearings. Her speech is carved into the work. (Photo: Paul Joseph/Courtesy of Drew Ann Wake)

The show's organizer, Drew Ann Wake, was a CBC reporter in the '70s, and her audio recordings and photographs from the time inspired the initiative.

For the next three months, the show will be taken to high schools in Vancouver and area. Summer plans include a tour of the Northwest Territories. The complete schedule is still TBD, but the tour is expected to open in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. on National Aboriginal Day, June 21.

Follow the project on Facebook for more information.

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