Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Iqaluit January 16, 2017 - 1:10 pm

Making art from tiny, shiny things in Nunavut’s capital

“Beading was almost lost but it has been revived in the past 20 years”

LISA GREGOIRE
Elisha Kilabuk threads his needle at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre Jan. 14 to demonstrate how he does his beadwork. Kilabuk was participating in the Inuit Art Experience, a weekly event offered at the visitor centre on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Check out the Unikkaarvik Facebook page for details of upcoming events or call 979-4636. (PHOTO BY LISA GREGOIRE)
Elisha Kilabuk threads his needle at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre Jan. 14 to demonstrate how he does his beadwork. Kilabuk was participating in the Inuit Art Experience, a weekly event offered at the visitor centre on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Check out the Unikkaarvik Facebook page for details of upcoming events or call 979-4636. (PHOTO BY LISA GREGOIRE)

Elisha Kilabuk bends over a plastic grocery bag flattened on a table onto which he’s deposited pools of blue and white beads. With a long, narrow beading needle he has bent for this purpose, he deftly skewers five beads.

A pair of visitors in parkas stand by the table where he’s seated at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre in Iqaluit, fascinated by the skillfulness and by the stories he’s telling.

“The Scottish whalers brought beads as gifts for the Inuit,” Kilabuk says, leaning in close to attach the five beads to the flower pattern choker he’s making as a gift for a young girl and then pausing to look up at the two women. “Beading was almost lost but it has been revived in the past 20 years.”

Kilabuk is one of many Iqaluit artists—carvers, print-makers, jewelry artists and others—who participate in the weekly Inuit Art Experience event offered at the visitor centre.

Every Saturday afternoon, a different artist is invited to set up at a table in the main lobby to explain how they make their art and sell some of their works if they so choose.

“It’s nice,” Kilabuk says. “It helps the artist. Some of us are still struggling artists.”

Kilabuk’s mother was a seamstress but she used beads sometimes to decorate amautiit and other pieces of clothing, he says.

Kilabuk learned to bead mostly by watching others and asking a lot of questions. Now he makes intricately patterned doilies, bracelets, necklaces, lighter cases and Christmas tree ornaments.

“I’ve known beads all my life,” he says, piercing another five beads with his needle once the two women have departed. “I used to do it as a pastime to make gifts for my family and friends and they would say, you’re giving away money!”

He laughs. “But I liked to give things away.”

In the past 10 years, beading has become a source of income for him. He sells his works in bars and restaurants in the city and also through local gift shops such as Malikkaat and Northern Collectibles.

As the youngest of 14, Kilabuk has learned to be resourceful and creative when it comes to making a living.

He leans in to scoop up another five beads and offers a bit of family history as one might tell stories around the qulliq in the old days.

His great-great grandfather was Scottish, he says. His great-grandmother was a light-haired, blue eyed Inuk commonly mistaken for an English speaker when Europeans saw her.

His South Baffin family lived through difficult times in the 1950s. They ate three of their dogs one winter because they were starving, Kilabuk says. That was before he was born.

After that, the family moved to Iqaluit and any time he or his siblings complained about the food on their plates, his mother would tell them, “at least it’s not dog.”

When asked how old he is, Kilabuk smiles and makes a joke before revealing he’s 47. He says he used to hide his age out of vanity until his nephew Pootoogook Kilabuk, who was only 22, was murdered in Ottawa in 1999.

“Now I am not shy about getting old,” he says, looking up. “It’s a gift to get old.”

Aaron Watson, who runs the visitor centre, said Jan. 16 that the Inuit art experience has been offered at the centre on and off over the years but since he took over two-and-a-half years ago, he’s been offering it weekly, year-round.

Artists receive a small honorarium to demonstrate their work over the two-hour period on Saturdays, Watson said.

“That falls in line with our wanting to promote the local art scene,” Watson said.

“We value art and it’s important that the artist gets paid. So yes, they’re getting table space and they can sell but I think it’s important to pay them as well because they are doing a service by showing how they do their art.”

There is a roster of 30 or so artists who regularly participate in the program, Watson said. Some have been involved since the beginning, others fall away and new ones join periodically.

Watson isn’t usually at the visitor centre on weekends but staff members record interactions with artists and its usually a dozen or more. In summer, when there are more visitors in town, those numbers go way up.

If you’re an Inuk artist and want to participate, contact the centre at 979-4636. If you’re a visitor, you can also call that number or toll-free at 1-866-686-2888.

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