Lucy Tasseor: I Turn to Stone

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, MOTHER AND CHILD, ca. 1970, Stone, 5 1/2 x 3 1/4 x 3 in.

Exhibition opened January 31, 2015

John Vincett

Collecting has to be one of the more benign mental conditions. Often we are not quite sure how it starts; but we find ourselves in its powerful and magnetic grip. If a radio dial welded to the CBC can teach us about the country, then surely a pursuit of literature and other tangible forms of art can open doorways to a culture.

Living in the fringe areas of northern Ontario in the 1970s, my introduction to the visual arts in Canada was through Joshim Kakegamic, Norval Morrisseau and Saul Williams; three gifted Woodlands artists. Working with them and others to develop an artists’ print co-operative, it was natural and logical to look further north to models in the Arctic for inspiration – particularly to Baker Lake. Exposure to the graphic works was an important link to the world of sculpture. With Winnipeg close by there was extraordinary access to a rich stream of work from the Keewatin Region and I was greatly seduced by the smoothly rounded volumes of work from Baker Lake, teasing stories from stone. Then a number of stimuli drew my attention more specifically to work from Arviat. In Kingston, I stumbled upon a show of work by Lucy Tasseor – large scale angular carvings, often with two dimensions roughly equal and a third providing a contrast in shape. Minimal detail and intriguingly chiseled heads emerging organically from the rock in both likely and unlikely locations and combinations. A similar experience in Banff, and another – most bizarrely – in a restaurant on the way north in a small town – somewhere in the Almaguin Highlands, I found a counter filled with dusty carvings ranging from the enormous to the tiny. They had been brought back by somebody who had lived in the Keewatin for a while and collected voraciously and with a strong interest in the muted greys of stone from Arviat and Rankin Inlet ultimately overwhelming those beautiful rounded forms from Baker Lake. It was the work of Lucy Tasseor that always drew my attention.

In my career, work has always meant travel, often to interesting and remote places as well as major cities; in the down time between meetings, what could be a more fulfilling pastime than to visit galleries to learn more about the work of artists that intrigue me? At some point, these visits became something close to stalking and I would often return with additional pieces for my expanding collection. Along the way, I somehow shifted from a person that was interested in art to a “collector” – a label that does not always feel comfortable. Gallery owners would talk with great animation about both the work and the artists, and sometimes we forget to assign sufficient importance to the role played by commercial galleries in educating collectors and in providing the curatorial framework for our individual journeys of discovery in art. If public galleries carry out the important business of shaping public taste, then certainly independent private galleries play a critical role in developing the collecting pathway of individuals and in the inadvertent curation of private collections.

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, FAMILY, 1994, stone, 5 x 5 1/2 x 2 in.

As a collection grows, so does an ability to draw conclusions from a body of work. So in the case of Lucy Tasseor, one can discern a compulsive need to make an impression on any stone surface available. Finding useful stone has been a large challenge for northern artists. Sometimes the lack of stone meant an orientation to small chips of stone left over from other work. Lucy transformed them into tiny monuments.

I was travelling in Orkney and wading out to a historic stone age site only accessible at low tide. Whilst watching my footing in the shallow seawater, I was thrilled to find a “Lucy stone” – or a at least, a piece of sandstone that looked as if it was made to be a Lucy carving – lacking only a few heads to make it perfect. I put this stone in my backpack and carried it around Scotland for a week, noting that it weighed about four pounds, finally bringing it home in my luggage. It lay on the woodstove for about a year and acted as a useful buffer between the teapot and the surface of the stove for a while before inquiries as to the future of this artifact became unavoidable. It was suggested that if I think it would be a perfect stone for a Lucy carving, there is a chance that the artist may see the same quality in the stone. So I parceled it up and sent it to Arviat addressed to Lucy, along with a letter explaining the genesis of the stone. I asked her if she liked the stone, would she carve it for me? If she did not, just put it on the shore and someday a passing geologist will create a theory of how once Hudson Bay was joined to Scotland – for how else could Orkney sandstone be found in Arviat? A few weeks later, Air Canada advised me that there was a package for me at the airport and I now have a beautiful Lucy carving (likely the only one completed in Orkney sandstone) and a cheerful letter from her daughter telling me how the family had a great laugh about this. I am so pleased to have brought her just a little of the pleasure that her work has brought to me.

I Turn to Stone
Ingo Hessel

Lucy Tasseor began carving around 1965 or 1966. She was fond of telling the story of how her first carvings of seals and polar bears were rejected, and how subsequently she was inspired to carve faces by her grandfather’s drawing of faces in the sand. Tasseor was encouraged at first by Dennis Webster, the local federal arts and crafts officer who had established a crafts centre in Eskimo Point that year, and soon after was both encouraged and promoted by the Inuit art scholar George Swinton, who was no doubt responsible for the inclusion of five of her sculptures in the famous international traveling exhibition Sculpture/Inuit of 1971-1973. The works illustrated in Swinton’s Sculpture of the Eskimo reveal the artist’s already fully formed sculptural style – still mostly semi-abstract figural groups, but already some more highly abstracted clusters of faces.[1]

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, FAMILY, ca. 1990, stone, 8 1/4 x 5 1/2 x 6 in.

Tasseor befriended the somewhat older carver John Pangnark (1920-1980). The two artists had much in common; not only were their carving styles similar, but they also shared an amused acceptance of the strangely contradictory messages of outsiders, peers and the art market. Perhaps as bewildered by the enthusiastic reactions of George Swinton and other qallunaat [2] as were their fellow carvers, Tasseor and Pangnark were nonetheless proud and grateful to be singled out. The attention brought opportunities for travel and other perks, and although it never really translated into much extra money, Tasseor took it all in stride.

Tasseor and Pangnark frequently carved together, often joking about their work (and no doubt about the qallunaat as well). It is quite likely that Tasseor’s carving style was influenced somewhat by Pangnark’s. By 1970 Pangnark’s art was becoming increasingly minimalist and geometric; to a large extent, his almost exclusive focus on the solitary human figure allowed for this type of radical simplification.

I really like Pangnark’s work because it’s not realistic, just like mine… Our carvings are similar – they don’t look real. I understand now that carvings that are not realistic are more interesting because of their shape… I like imaginary things rather than realistic things.[3]

Tasseor never reduced human forms as drastically as Pangnark aspired to. Through the 1970s her sculptures grew gradually more abstract, but she was following a slightly different path. Tasseor’s carving style and compositions became guided increasingly by the original shape of the stones she was working on. She allowed ridges and protrusions to suggest overall composition and the placement of heads and faces. Like many Arviat carvers, Tasseor did not try to hide the marks of rasps, files, and sandpaper. These surface textures became part of her artistic vocabulary, and they varied according to the hardness of the stone and the composition. Sometimes Tasseor retained areas of the stone’s original textures as well.

I was told people just like to touch and feel my carvings even if the surface is rough. People are pleased about me and are satisfied just to be able to run their hands [along] my carvings.[4]

Thematically, Tasseor continued to represent smaller or larger family groups, and sometimes community in a broader sense. One could argue that in a sense, some of Tasseor’s so-called “abstraction” was conceptual; she was interested in representing the idea of family, maternity, community, and Inuit identity in her art rather than carving straightforward depictions.

It’s the imagination of the shape that I like. It does not look just like a real thing. If it looked like a real person, you would simply see a copy of what is alive.[5]

Something that remained consistent in Tasseor’s work right to the end of her career was a feeling of monumentality. Many works, especially larger ones, seem quite literally to be “monuments.” Her sculptures, both the great ones and the more ordinary carvings, have a truly monolithic quality. Whether miniature or fist-sized or relatively large, they speak not only of family and community but also of hardness and resilience, of stone-ness. Instead of a frontispiece, the 1982 Winnipeg Art Gallery catalogue Eskimo Point/Arviat offers this remarkable little poem by Tasseor:

My hands turn to stone
My feet turn to stone
I turn to stone
All of Me.

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, COMPOSITION (FACES), Coloured pencil, 18 x 12 in.

By the 1990s Tasseor was not as strong as she had once been, and she spent much of her last decade in and out of a wheelchair. Her daughter Elisapee worked more and more as a carving helper. Tasseor was fiercely proud of her style and wanted it handed down within the family. Elisapee was given permission to carve in her mother’s style, as was Tasseor’s daughter-in-law Mary Tutsweetok. Richard Tutsweetok, Tasseor’s husband, helped with the carving as he had always done, but most importantly he worked to find stones on the land. The family was chronically short of money, and Tasseor purchased carving stone only as a last resort. Most of the stones he found were quite hard; these included the large and small boulders that Tasseor carved into what have sometimes been nicknamed her “bowling ball” sculptures. These stones were tough to carve and almost always required the use of disc grinders.

In an interview, Tasseor made some comments that might surprise those who see her deceptively simple-looking sculptures as being “just families” or “just faces.” Here are some of them: [6]

Sometimes I find that people who haven’t any idea of our old times look at my carvings and think they don’t have a meaning behind them.

I try to recall the past way of life of our ancestors. Our present way of life is among the Qablunnaat.[7] Just a short while ago, there were only a few houses here. We were a large camp of people. I reflect the change that has come about for us with the Qablunnaat. I try to portray the experience of the first people. We used to be many, but we are vanishing. These are the things I work into my images.

I portray the hardships of the first people and the transition to modern society. My carvings have the theme of changing times. I know that carving was a pastime of our ancestors, to stave off loneliness. I reflect on that. You know, now that people have jobs in town, it is carving that is a lonely activity.

In 2004 Tasseor, along with her fellow elder artists Luke Anowtalik, Mary Ayaq Anowtalik and a few others, was encouraged to make drawings to diversify her artistic output and income. The results were exhibited in the 2005 Feheley Fine Arts exhibition Arviat Originals. Tasseor continued drawing on and off until her death. Perhaps because her sculptures were the most abstract and the most sober in appearance, Tasseor’s drawings were the most surprising. Some of them reference her sculptural imagery, while others veer into – what was for Tasseor at least – seemingly uncharted territory: shamans, the world of spirits and monsters, landscape. The drawings went far beyond what we had seen in the occasional image incised on a sculpture by Tasseor. They revealed thoughts and memories that had been occupying the artist’s imagination all those decades but had never – seemingly – been hinted at in her sculpture. Tasseor’s drawings are as free and exuberant as her sculptures are restrained.

Or apparently restrained, at least. Tasseor’s life and words allow us to see another side of her: the proud artist, the proud woman, mother and grandmother, and the proud Inuk. Her drawings give us a glimpse of her wide-ranging imagination. Perhaps we would do well to take a closer look at her sculptures. As is so often the case with art that at first glance seems so simple and straightforward, still waters run deep.


[1]  Swinton, George. Sculpture of the Eskimo, 1972, pp. __.
[2]  Qallunaat: meaning people that are not Inuit.
[3]  Artist interview with the Ingo Hessel, 1989.
[4]  Artist interview in Mark Kalluak in Pelts to Stone, 1993, pp. 32.
[5]  Artist interview with the Ingo Hessel, 1989.
[6]  Artist Interview with Simeonie Kunnuk in 1994, published in Inuit Art Quarterly, Winter 1998, 20-22.
[7]  Qablunnaat: previous spelling of qallunaat.

To view available artworks by Lucy Tasseor, click here.