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The native peoples of the far north have been making artworks out of bone, stone or ivory for thousands of years. Most of the earliest carvings were of utilitarian objects and tools that were decorated and often embellished with figurative imagery. Later the Inuit began trading small carvings of animals and other representational pieces with European whalers and other travelers.

My father was a very good carver; he was better than I am. When he carved an oopik or a man or a woman it was done perfectly. It was completely real. He used to make igloos that were quite large and some smaller ones too. He would make whole camps….He made them look just like real snow. He made them for the HBC bosses. He used to give sculptures to them when they came by ship.  
Pauta Saila (1)

PAUTA SAILA BEAR, mid- to late 1960s Serpentine H9 x W8.5 x D6 in. © Marion Scott Gallery

BEAR, mid- to late 1960s
H9 x W8.5 x D6 in.
© Marion Scott Gallery

It wasn’t until the late 1940’s, following the impetus of James Houston that Inuit art began to be encouraged as a commercial enterprise. The story goes that while on a brief sketching visit to Inukjuak in northern Quebec in 1948, James Houston was given about a dozen small stone and ivory carvings which he took home with him.

 I see this guy come running up the beach at me ... first out, clenched like that, and I thought this could lead to a punch in the nose. Instead of that, he opens his fist, and I see for the first time, the first Inuit carving, that I'd ever seen. I took it in.  I was so excited by it. The following day, I went down to the HBC outpost, this fellow, Norman Ross who was the Hudson's Bay manager. I know this thing is 100 to 150 years old. So I raised it up in front of Ross, and I opened it up like that, and I said, "How old do you think this is?" He says, "I don't know, maybe it was carved last night, or early this morning, just for you".  At first I thought, oh how disappointing. And then I thought some more, I thought, "You don't mean to say that there are people around here who can make this thing today, this marvelous thing that I've got in my hand?". And, he said, "Yah sure, they made it for you." Well, the whole world opened up for me, and I thought, anything could happen from this.
- James Houston (2)

Following this initial ‘discovery’, Houston accepted an offer by members of the Canadian Handcrafts Guild in Montreal to travel to various communities in the north to purchase further items which were then exhibited at the gallery in 1949. The positive public response to this inaugural exhibition was so overwhelming that a concerted effort was made by both public and private interests to encourage and promote Inuit art as a viable commercial enterprise and as a means for Canada’s northern peoples to maintain and celebrate their unique culture. Today carving continues to be an important economic and artistic endeavor for a large number of Cape Dorset citizens.

OVILOO TUNNILLIE MY FATHER CARVING A BEAR,  2004 Serpentine, Antler H14 x W12 x D9 in © Spirit Wrestler Gallery

Serpentine, Antler
H14 x W12 x D9 in
© Spirit Wrestler Gallery

I was nine I returned from hospital in the south and I saw my dad Toonoo carving. I really liked rocks and stones and I thought, gee, rock can be made into art! I sold a piece in 1965 and another in 1970, but I really started to carve when i had children, because I needed income to buy milk. It was hard at first, but now I enjoy it. Other women inspired me-I saw we could do this too. When I started, women were not sure as being as important as men, but now women get a lot of recognition.
- Oviloo Tunnillie (3)

Cape Dorset artists rarely use the term sculpture to describe the three dimensional representational objects they make. They prefer the term ‘carving’ and perhaps rightly so. There is a direct and immediate bond between the medium of expression, the environment they live in and the history and development of their culture. Carving is a direct extension of the skills developed through centuries of fashioning and manipulating tools and implements by hand.
Today artists in Cape Dorset work primarily with a regional stone called serpentinite, a metamorphic rock perfectly suited for carving the naturalistic forms and extravagant compositions that are so indicative of the Cape Dorset style.

This wonderful green stone that ranges from a pale putty green to bluish green grey to almost black is quarried at Korak Inlet and Markham Bay, about 200 miles down the coast. On any given year as much as 40 tons of rock is quarried and transported to Cape Dorset by boat or snowmobile.

Black stone, light green stone, or dark green stone. These are the ones I really like to work with. The white marble? It’s harder than the other stones but I do work with it if there’s nothing else left. Mostly, I am really happy if I have stone that doesn’t have any cracks. Sometimes when I’m working the stone it breaks and I have to make changes as I go along. I try anything that comes to mind. Or sometimes I mix the green stone with a white marble or black stone. I also like to do a lot of inset work, using bone or antler and other materials. I have also used a seal claw for a nose.
Palaya Qiatsuq (4)

Most carvers work out of doors or in dedicated carving shacks next to their homes. You can usually tell a carver’s home by the front yard of greenish grey dust. Many artists use an upturned cable spool as a work bench for bigger pieces or they sit on a slab of cardboard or plywood on the ground to work on smaller pieces.

Traditionally the artist begins by chipping the stone with a hatchet or a small ax but nowadays most artists rough out the desired shape of their carving with electric grinders and dremels. When the shape has been determined with the power tools the artist then uses rasps and files to further define the subject and to add critical details. He might then use an awl or just a nail to incise fine lines.  When everything is complete he will finish the carving by smoothing the surface with decreasing grades of sandpaper. Finally he may rub a little wax or oil all over the stone and buff it to a nice shine.

After all the chiseling and filing, I start the sanding using four different grades of sandpaper, from the roughest to the smoothest. I have used wax on a few sculptures but now there’s fine grit sandpaper such as 1500 that I can use. I would like to get to 2000 because the finish would be even shinier.
- Oviloo Tunnillie (5)


1. Sue Gustavison, Northern Rock: Contemporary Inuit Stone Sculpture, 1999
2. Jennifer Alsop, “History of Cape Dorset and the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op”, 2010
3. Penny Williams, “Cape Dorset Carvers: New Generations, New Visions”, Above and Beyond
4. Sue Gustavison, Northern Rock
5. Sue Gustavison, Northern Rock