Unreserved

Inuit artists find a place to carve at Montreal homeless shelter

Some Inuit artists in Montreal have carved out a space of their very own at a homeless shelter that aims to help them get a fair price for their work.
John Awa, originally from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, has been carving since he was a teenager. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)
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This story was originally published May 13, 2018

Some Inuit artists in Montreal have carved out a space of their very own at a homeless shelter that aims to help them get a fair price for their work.

John Awa, who is originally from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, is one of several Inuit carvers who spends most days carving at Open Door homeless shelter. Awa has been carving since he was a teenager. His work includes Inukshuks, owls, whales, and dancing bears.

Carver John Awa at work at Open Door. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

Awa's carvings have shown in many galleries, but he struggles to get paid fairly for his work.

"A gallery will buy a carving for $50 and sell it for like $400," said Awa. "They do that all the time. And we always only make a little bit."

Open Door's clients are largely Indigenous and almost half are Inuit. The shelter provides carvers with soapstone, tools and a space in which to work. When the shelter launched the carving program last year, one of its goals was to give these artists the opportunity to get paid more.

Acting director David Chapman is familiar with carvers not getting compensated fairly by galleries. It's something he's heard from a number of clients.

"One issue that we learned from the carvers was that often galleries would give them a relatively small percentage of what the work would sell for," said Chapman. "The carvers said they often felt ripped off when they took their work to galleries."

John Awa's beluga whale carving, in progress. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

Chapman said people know they can buy carvings directly from artists at Open Door. Staff at the shelter are available to help the carvers get compensated fairly for their carvings, without taking a percentage of the sale price.

"We encourage the carvers not to just give their works away for the lowest price but to actually try and claim a decent price for their work," said Chapman. "The initiative is really about empowering the carvers, not holding their hand."

John Awa’s carvings have shown in many galleries, but he struggles to get paid fairly for his work. 'We always only make a little bit.' (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

'Every month we run out of soapstone'  

The program has been so successful the shelter has trouble keeping up with soapstone supply. In order to ensure that carvers have stone to carve, the shelter sometimes takes to its Facebook page to ask for donations.

Carver Simiuni Nauya at Open Door in Montreal. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

"We go through a lot of soapstone and it is an ongoing challenge," said Chapman. "Every month we run out of soapstone."  

'We just work with what they've got'

"We don't have the funds to get a shop, so we just work with what they got and carve outside."

At Open Door, artists carve outside because working with soapstone can generate a lot of dust.

Simiuni Nauya inuksuk carving, in progress. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

Awa hopes to one day have his own studio to carve in.

Inuit carvers John Awa and Simiuni Nauya at work at Open Door. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)