As the Arctic's only ceramic arts studio, Matchbox Gallery is changing our ideas of Northern art
Jim and Sue Shirley have spent 30 years helping to foster a thriving creative scene in Kangiqliniq, Nunavut
"Facing Forward," a collaboration by Inuit artist Pierre Aupilardjuk and Toronto-based artist Shary Boyle, looks like an artifact from another planet. Boyle's contribution — a porcelain, human-like figure wearing a colourful herringbone-pattern dress — is seated, elbows resting on its knees, holding up its three heads. The heads, made by Aupilarjduk, seem ancient, with smoke-fired surfaces and vacant eyes. The piece is like a visual dialogue between the artists, unfolding at an unconscious level. As alien as the figure seems, it also looks profoundly human.
This is the kind of innovative work being created by Inuit artists from Matchbox Gallery, a legendary creative space in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), Nunavut. Jim Shirley, a trailblazing Black American artist, and his wife, landscape painter Sue Shirley, have been running it for the last 30 years. It's the only studio supporting ceramic arts in the Arctic, challenging norms of what Northern art should be.
Jim's bold vision for the gallery and workshop came in part from his upbringing. He was born in New York City and grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx. "The Harlem Renaissance was just coming to a close," he says. "There was a surge of expression and a sense of creativity everywhere."
He was involved in the art world from the time he can remember. "My father was a jazz musician who played with the musical giants of his era: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Smith, and many others. And my mother was the visionary influence in my life," he says. He went on to study at the Pratt Institute on a scholarship, where he majored in visual arts and met Sue.
In 1972, the couple moved to Nova Scotia, where Jim became one of the first Black artists to exhibit his work. They moved to the Kivalliq region five years later when Jim took a position as Northwest Territories Arts and Crafts Development Officer. When he arrived in the Arctic, he was immediately inspired by the creativity and resilience of the local people.
As a Black man from an inner-city environment, he related to the Inuit's intimate relationship with the unforgiving Northern landscape. "I share with them the same longing for harmony between myself and my surroundings," he wrote in an exhibition catalogue. "In this harmony we find self-sufficiency; a peace and freedom that nurtures the growth of our intuitiveness and creativity. In both instances, creativity is a necessity for survival."
Ceramics already had a long, rich history in Kangiqliniq by the time the Shirleys arrived. In 1962, a nickel mine that had been central to the economy shut down, leaving Inuit who had gravitated to the mine for work without an income. The Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources initiated the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project as a replacement economy.
Similar arts projects had proven successful elsewhere in the Arctic, with prints and stone carvings in high demand in southern markets. Officials decided ceramics would be an appropriate niche for the area. Inuk scholar Heather Igloliorte writes that although the government tried to establish a link between contemporary Inuit ceramics and ancient Inuit practices to market the products as "authentic" to a southern audience, there was almost no archeological evidence to support it.
Quebecois ceramic artist Claude Grenier arrived to launch the new Arts and Crafts Centre in 1963. Some of the Inuit artists who turned up had already established themselves as skilled stone carvers, like John Kavik (1897–1993). Grenier encouraged the artists to unleash their creativity — and they did, making bold, freestyle figures with experimental glazes.
But the Canadian Eskimo Council, which decided what work was authentic enough to reach the market, only approved pieces that used "northern colours" and specific glazes that conjured romantic images of the Arctic. Darlene Coward Wight, curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, says that the pieces didn't sell in part because of "the slow reception of the audience to accept ceramics as truly Inuit art." After Grenier retired in 1970, funding dwindled and the project closed five years later.
The Shirleys opened Matchbox Gallery in 1991. Like Grenier, Jim and Sue encouraged the artists to express themselves creatively. They also had funding from the government early on and were able to pay wages. By that time, veterans of the first ceramics program, like Philip Hakuluk (1916–1989) and Donat Awat (1920–1990), had died. "The first ceramics workshop began with a group of younger carvers, and Yvo Samgusak (1942–2004) and Laurent Asksdjuak (1935–2002) came out of retirement to teach the new group," says Jim.
Intergenerational learning became a cornerstone of the workshop. Laurent Aksadjuak brought his son Roger Aksadjuak (1972–2014) to Matchbox, who is recognized as one of the centre's most respected artists and teachers. Mariano Aupilardjuk (1923-2012) brought his son, Pierre, and Yvo Samgushak mentored John Kavik's grandson, Philip Ugjuk. Samgushak and Ugjuk are both deaf, so they communicated through sign language. Younger artists like John Kurok joined in their early 20s, creating modern interpretations of traditional motifs.
"I still have memories of Roger learning by working at his father's side," says Jim. "It was the start of the kind of traditional learning that has made our program effective and rewarding."
A distinctive Matchbox style has emerged over the years. The works are usually coil-built vessels, busts, or freestanding animals with narrative figures applied to them or carved into their surfaces. Multiple artists often work on a single sculpture in sequence, drawing on memory to create pieces that blend spirit, animal, and human worlds. Each artist has developed a highly individual style, and their combined efforts create even more complex and refined works.
Their signature finishing technique took a lot of trial and error to refine, says Jim. It involves applying a slip of liquid clay to a piece before the first firing and then placing it in layers of sawdust to fire overnight in an outdoor barrel. This creates a white to dark brown mottled effect.
Shauna Thompson, curator at the Esker Foundation in Calgary, says that what strikes her about Matchbox are the collaborations it has fostered. "Matchbox has hosted artists from other Northern communities to share techniques, like Jessie Kenalogak from Qamani'tuaq (Baker Lake, Nunavut), who works primarily in drawing," she says. "There tends to be conversation about the North-South collaborations, but North-North collaborations and that way of working was already happening."
As the years passed, government funding diminished and production shifted from wage labour to a piecework system, which posed challenges but gave the artists creative freedom and enabled the gallery to survive. At its creative height in the early 2000s, Matchbox Gallery established the Kangirqliniq Centre for Learning and Arts (KCLA), where members learned problem solving, Inuktitut language skills, arts and crafts. It was a bustling community once more.
Shary Boyle travelled to Kangiqliniq to visit Matchbox in 2016, but by then ceramic production had slowed dramatically. A friend had introduced her to the artists' work and she was blown away. When she learned of the limited access they had to kilns, she wanted to give them the opportunity to create with all of the materials and tools they needed — so she decided to personally invite Pierre Aupilardjuk, John Kurok and Leo Napayok to join her at a month-long ceramics residency in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
After what Boyle describes as a memorable month of experimentation and collaboration, she asked Aupilardjuk if he would make three heads for a porcelain body she had sculpted, which became "Facing Forward." This and other pieces made at the residency were exhibited alongside Matchbox ceramics as part of the Earthlings exhibition, which opened at the Esker Foundation in Calgary in 2017.
The ceramic work from Kangiqliniq has consistently shattered notions of what is considered "authentic" Inuit art — a label that is inherently problematic. In the winter 2019 issue of Inuit Art Quarterly, Boyle writes, "It is a romantic myth that denies contemporary realities and traps real people in an imagined past — a safe, 'pre-contact' world where the uncomfortable truths of capitalism and colonial violence do not have to be reckoned with by a southern audience. Is Inuit art not any artwork made by an Inuk?"
Thompson says that exhibits like Earthlings invite audiences to recontextualize Inuit art by placing it in a contemporary setting. "If you're only seeing things like carving and bead work situated in a museum, in a historical context, then you might not be able to think about it as a contemporary, living, vital practice," she says. "And that's all tied up in histories of colonialism, white supremacy and how value is assigned."
When Boyle invited Inuit artists to share the exhibition in a prestigious contemporary art gallery, she was making a statement. "It was my intention to dissolve the invisible walls, in our minds and institutions, that divide fine art from craft, folk from MFA's and Indigenous from non-Indigenous artists," she says.
However, the attitude toward Inuit ceramics has changed over the years, and Matchbox Gallery's work is highly regarded in fine art circles, says Wight. "Indigenous people's art is attracting a lot of interest internationally, and I think that's helped in the perception of it as being not just a craft," she says. Having spent the last 34 years at the WAG exhibiting Inuit art as fine art, Wight says the modern art world is finally catching up. "It's been a focus of my life and I really think it's where most people are these days," she says.
Jim and Sue Shirley continue to run the gallery as an independent business, but doing so in such a remote location is difficult and expensive. The artists don't have consistent access to supplies, studio space, kilns, or an income.
As the Shirleys decide how and if to move forward, Jim admits that few entrepreneurs would sign up to run this kind of program. But the gallery has become the anchor of creative life in Kangiqliniq, and an unending source of pride and satisfaction for the two. "We set up this workshop because we had a vision as artists and creative people," he says. "It was also out of stubbornness and a lifelong urge to swim against the currents, to go against the odds, that we're still here today."