Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut March 23, 2017 - 8:30 am

Nunavut transplant thriving in Calgary’s fine arts scene

"My clientele, whether they are old or new, they love to hear the Inuk perspective behind the art"

STEVE DUCHARME
Sophia Lebessis, born in Arviat and the daughter of art dealer Nick Lebessis, has now opened her own gallery in Calgary, Alberta. (PHOTO COURTESY S. LEBESSIS)
Sophia Lebessis, born in Arviat and the daughter of art dealer Nick Lebessis, has now opened her own gallery in Calgary, Alberta. (PHOTO COURTESY S. LEBESSIS)

When the historic Calgary Grain Exchange building opened its doors in 1909, it was a place of business for more than 30 wheat companies and, despite its diminutive six-storey height, loomed over the surrounding “cow town.”

Nowadays, in the shadow of the Calgary Tower, the building can hardly be considered the skyscraper it once was, but the location has only risen in value as the city’s modern downtown core developed around it.

And behind its doors is something that might seem out of place in the heart of the prairie—an Inuk-owned Inuit art gallery that’s celebrating a successful first few months of business and proving there’s strong demand for Inuit art in Canada’s heartland.

“The interest has been overwhelming,” owner Sophia Lebessis told Nunatsiaq News, March 21.

Lebessis, who was born in Arviat and the daughter of an Inuk mother and Greek father, opened the Transformation Fine Art gallery in June 2016.

“What I’ve experienced so far, my clientele, whether they are old or new, they love to hear the Inuk perspective behind the art,” the 38-year-old said.

“They love to see an Inuk face greeting them at the door of an Inuk-owned gallery.”

Lebessis moved away from Arviat when she was eight and grew up helping her father, Nick Lebessis, run his art gallery near Lake Louise, Alberta.

Sophia traces her family lineage back to prominent artists such as Axangayuk Shaa and Kiowak Ashoona, and is related through her mother’s side to Joseph Idlout—who appeared with other Inuit on the back of an infamous run of two-dollar Canadian bills issued in the 1970s.

When her father passed away in 2014, Lebessis, who had been working in community development, decided to make a radical career shift.

“This is my calling, this is want I want to do,” she said.

The gallery offers tailored visits by appointment, featuring art from eastern Keewatin [Kivalliq], Cape Dorset and masterworks from the Woodland School of Art.

According to Lebessis, about 80 per cent of the gallery’s holdings are Inuit art.

And a few floors above the gallery, another Lebessis—George—practices criminal law.

Slowly, but surely, it seems the family is taking over the building.

“He’s the first Inuk criminal defence lawyer that graduated from the University of Saskatchewan,” Lebessis said.

As for the future, Lebessis says she’s taking the success of her gallery in stride, keeping in mind she opened the business in the midst of an economic downturn in once-booming Alberta.

“As a young entrepreneur, I’m really taking it one day at a time,” she said.

“I’m excited to offer a unique and educational experience to our vibrant arts scene.”

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