North

Take a look at this Tuktoyaktuk artist's powerful work

Maureen Gruben says she owes her success to the skills she learned, and materials she still gathers, in her hometown.

Artist Maureen Gruben points to her Northern upbringing as fodder for success

Maureen Gruben prepares materials for Stitching My Landscape, an installation piece she did in the Western Arctic in 2017. (Courtesy of Kyra Kordoski)

A condom wrapper sits sealed in a beluga intestine, hanging with other items like on a clothesline. A polar bear bone is filled with colourful resin, then, with along many others, placed into the shape of a spiral seashell. An assortment of aging sleds is pushed up precariously against the snow, evoking the idea of a family — or of a barricade. 

It's stark images like these that artist Maureen Gruben is known for: bold pieces that mash up the natural and industrial worlds.

Gruben's works have been called "clearly and poignantly articulated" and a "singular blend of personal history and environmental consciousness." An art book on her work will be out in January next year. Curators in Seattle and Sweden have shown her pieces in their galleries. But when she's at home in Tuktoyaktuk, she's just as much a local B&B operator as she is an artist on the rise.

The 898-person hamlet is often the birthplace of her ideas, whether she's processing a caribou, or finding quirky bones during a walk on the beach.

With Consumed, Maureen Gruben revived traditional techniques of working with beluga intestine to make these translucent pouches holding found modern objects like USB cords, elastic bands and condoms. The technique of working with beluga innards is no longer used by the Inuvialuit, but is still practiced in nearby Alaska. (Courtesy of Kyra Kordoski)

She moved back full-time in August with her family after spending a decade living primarily in Victoria. "It's incredibly beautiful here." 

This ocean community in the Western Arctic influences many of her pieces. In one art installation, called Stitching My Landscape, she got help from the community to bore 111 ice holes. She pushed red broadcloth through the snow and dumped cloth into each hole, anchored with a rock — until it was zigzagging from one hole to the next. The line went along the frozen ocean near Ibyuq Pingo, close to the last winter road before Tuktoyaktuk got its permanent all-season highway. 

In Moving With Joy Across The Ice As My Face Turns Brown From The Sun, Maureen Gruben celebrated April ice fishing season by borrowing 14 hand-built sleds from Tuktoyaktuk community members, and bringing them out onto the ice. (Courtesy of Kyra Kordoski)

Few people would ever see the original installation of this immense outdoor art piece. After all, it was made in one of the most remote corners of the world. But captured on a video of the piece's creation, the resulting images evoke a sense of a parka's zipper, closing up one chapter on the community's history. 

It's a story that continues to get attention from galleries. The video and two other pieces of Gruben's are showing until April 2020 in the National Gallery of Canada's Àbadakone, an international art exhibit that features contemporary Indigenous artists across the world, including in the North. 

Gruben hopes the art will help give people a message that words and figures can't.

"I think artists are very important as activists," she says. "I think it's about respecting what you have and taking care of what you have. And that means the land and the animals and all things that help us to survive." 

Maureen Gruben lies on the Western Arctic ice on the path of the traditional ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. She tore apart red broadcloth, then after community members dug 111 ice holes, pushed the cloth in a zigzag from hole to hole. It was an exhausting, 'physically intense process,' says Gruben's assistant Kyra Kordoski. 'But there was also a real peacefulness to it.' (Courtesy of Kyra Kordoski)

Art writer Kyra Kordoski, who is also Gruben's assistant, says Gruben's trajectory is atypical in the art world.

"I think from a lot of people's perspective she has kind of come out of nowhere in the last few years," she said. "But she's coming into it where there's this lifetime of experience."

Gruben studied art and graduated with a diploma in 1990 before raising children. She returned to fine art practice with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria in 2012.

Kordoski says that gives the artist "a real maturity."

Seal in Our Blood is one of the first pieces viewers will see as they come into Abodakone, an international art exhibit featuring Gruben's work. She drew inspiration from her brother's harvest out on the land, when she saw him pull out the viscera of a seal until they reached their end point. 'That beautiful red line, that really struck me, and it's been in my memory,' she said.  (Submitted by Maureen Gruben)

There's also Gruben's technical skill, after decades of sewing and spending time on the land. Her mom, a talented seamstress in Tuktoyaktuk, made their clothing when she grew up by hand — skills Gruben learned and brings into her work. 

"There's a fine line between craft and and so-called art. But I don't think there's a big difference," Gruben told CBC. "It's all made."

She told CBC she sees herself, and her work in Àbadakone, as part of a global Indigenous art movement, where traditional skills are used in a way that speaks to the present.

"It's presented in a new way," Gruben said. "But I think the work stems from our traditional roots and what was passed on to us."

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