The Art Gallery of Hamilton is planning a major public exhibition to showcase Inuit art created by Inuit recovering from tuberculosis at the former Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium.

The 132-piece collection of sculptures and prints will be put on display at the AGH next year, celebrating an important period in the city's history.

'They created works that depicted what they were missing in the north and what their life was like in the North.' - Marvin Cohen, owner , Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery

The collection was purchased anonymously from the Chedoke Hospital site — formerly the sanatorium — and recently donated back to the art gallery to be displayed for the community to enjoy.

Fox

Standing Fox, created by Henry Evaluardjuk. Serpentine stone. (Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Shelley Falconer, the president and CEO of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, said the artwork created at the Mountain Sanatorium more than a half century ago had a huge impact on the rise of Inuit art in Canada.

Not every piece in the collection was created at the treatment centre in Hamilton, but many were.

The pieces provide "a window into their culture in a wonderful way," she said, adding the works that were created locally "gave birth to a lot of what we see today" in the Inuit art world.

Sanatorium history

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Hamilton's sanatorium played a key role in treating patients with tuberculosis from across the country. The quarantine/treatment centre was one of a handful of sanatoriums in Canada and ended up treating more than 1,200 Inuit who were brought in by ship from the North to receive medical care for the illness.

The Mountain Sanatorium

The Mountain Sanatorium was founded in 1906 to provide care for people from Hamilton and the surrounding communities who were ill with tuberculosis. Between 1958 and 1962, 1272 Inuit were treated at the Mountain Sanatorium for tuberculosis. (Black Mount Collection, Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives)

Before a medical cure was developed in the mid-1900s, sanatorium treatment was a popular way of dealing with the disease. At these facilities, patients would be segregated from the population and given rest, fresh air and nutritious food.

Patients might spend two or more years at the sanatorium with very little to do to keep themselves busy.

As a form of occupational therapy and to help them pass the time, many of the Inuit patients were provided with soapstone and materials to create art. 

These crafts were then sold at the San Shop — "San" short for sanatorium — with the money going back to the patients.

When the shop closed, the pieces that hadn't sold were given back to the hospital. Some of the artwork purchased from the shop also eventually found its way back to Chedoke health centre.

Otter

An otter with a fish in his mouth, created by Simon on dark green and black steatite. (Art Gallery of Hamilton)

A window into another world

Marvin Cohen was the volunteer curator of the collection at Chedoke from 1988 up until last week, when the AGH received the artwork. The 63-year-old is the owner of the Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery in Hamilton.

He opened the gallery in 1983 after teaching in the Arctic for several years and learning firsthand about the Inuit art world.

He said the sanatorium and the artwork created there is an important part of the city's history. 

"These people came and they were given something to do to spend the time," he said.

"They created works that depicted what they were missing in the North and what their life was like in the North so that people here could understand where they were coming from and what was important to them."

Four birds

Four Birds, created by Lucy. Stonecut on paper (Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Pieces left behind

He said after many of the Inuit had gone back up north after healing from the illness, many of the art pieces left behind were stored in a flimsy cabinet at Chedoke.

The administrators at the health centre weren't in the art business, he said, and didn't realize the value of these pieces they were holding on to.

Occasionally, if the hospital brought in a guest speaker to give a lecture, they would reach into the cabinet and hand out one of these pieces of art as an honorarium, he said. 

Child

A seated Inuit child holding a seal pup. Created by Sammy on grey/green mottled steatite. (Art Gallery of Hamilton)

In terms of value, these pieces are along the same caliber of work as the pieces shown at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, Cohen said. Some of the pieces were created by artists who became well-known in the art world years later.

Some of the artists included in the collection are Kenojuak Ashevak, Guy Mamatiaq, Moses Meeko, Noona, Alivaktak Petaloosie, Simon POV, Mikisiti Saila, and Kanayuk Tukalak.

The exhibit is expected to open in 2017.