Matchbox Gallery: building strong minds and artists for more than 25 years
“If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know think any clay work would exist here"
RANKIN INLET — At Rankin Inlet’s Kangirqliniq Centre for Arts and Learning, co-founder Jim Shirley has always made of point of encouraging participants to be good and capable people first.
Being a good artist comes second.
And that’s a recipe that seems to work for the many who have come through the centre, which co-exists with the Matchbox Gallery, since it first opened its doors in 1987.
“I got a lot of help from this place,” said Jackie Ittigaitok. “I learned to do stencils and jewellery from taking courses here.
Ittigaitok, who’s working on a ceramic bust today, has grown to specialize in repairing cracks in the studio’s ceramic works.
“I wasn’t really into ceramics at first, but I’m slowly doing more,” he said. “It takes time, but I’m starting to like it more.”
“My English got a lot better too… I have more skills,” he added. “A lot of people I know have learned a lot from being here.”
And there’s been at least one positive spin-off; Shirley says Ittigaitok is a now a superb Scrabble player.
“We’re not an organization whose primary objective is to sell — we’re more into the community aspect of it.” Shirley said. “If you’re confident and your brain is strong, there are lots of thing you can do.”
And more than 25 years after the Matchbox Gallery first opened, Shirley says people from every community in Nunavut have come through the centre to learn and create, then take those skills home with them.
Somewhere along the way, the studio has developed an international reputation for its work.
“This ceramic work is on par with work being done anywhere in the world,” Shirley said. “There’s this assumption that a small community couldn’t, but look what we’re doing here.”
Shirley points to one of many ceramic pieces sculpted by Roger Aksadjuak, an artist who has been with the centre since it opened.
Shirley is drawn to Aksadjuak’s boat sculptures; one detailed piece shows a group of traditionally-dressed Inuit hunters in a motor boat. Another “funeral” boat sculpture portrays a dead hunter lying across the boat’s floor.
Aksadjuak learned from the best; his late father Laurent Aksadjuak was another founding member of the gallery, renowned for his soapstone, clay and ivory work.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know think any clay work would exist here,” Aksadjuak said, as he fashioned four caribou legs for his latest sculpture.
“It’s home,” he added.
When asked about what inspires the centre’s art, Shirley says that much of the work produced through the Matchbox Gallery is narrative, but rarely planned.
“There’s this idea that you start out with an idea of what you want to do, but that’s more of a southern or western thing,” he said. “Inuit don’t work that way — most of the work that’s done here is stream of consciousness.”
Those stories come alive in the expressive human and animal faces that peer out of the many ceramic pots which comprise the gallery’s permanent collection.
“There are so many people in the North who have these phenomenal capabilities, who are driving cabs or hauling freight,” Shirley said. “And they never get a chance to express their full potential.
“This place gives them that chance to express themselves,” he said. “I like to think we’ve saved lives here.”