At the Great Northern Arts Festival, artists revel in camaraderie


Each year, the Great Northern Arts Festival hosts artists from Canada’s northern communities and visitors from across the world. This year, many artists say the theme feels like “inspiration.”

Inuvialuit Elder Gerry Kisoun has been attending the festival since it began in 1989. He says the importance of the festival remains the same as 30 years ago.

“This is a great festival. It’s great to watch how they’re bringing art in and showing it to up-and-coming artists, to show them what can actually be done out there,” Kisoun said.

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“We’re starting to see some pretty good work in art. We’re starting to see some of our traditional artists coming in with their sewing work. At one time, when I was a kid growing up in the Delta, pretty-well all the clothing I ever got my mother made and my grandmother made, and that was what we used.

“To see that in the gallery, some of that clothing that we used to wear at one time, it’s so nice. It brings back some memories.”

Dustin Smith with the garments he sews. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

Inuvik resident Dustin Smith, appearing at the festival for the first time, has been sewing for two years and is serving as the festival’s fashion coordinator.

At his booth this week, Smith could be found working on a traditional Delta braid for a parka.

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“Seeing people look at my work warms my heart. You don’t see people doing what I’m doing often,” said Smith.

The festival is also providing motivation to artists who haven’t always called the North home.

Karin Lange says she has been creating art since she was a young child. Having moved to Inuvik seven years ago from Penticton, BC, she feels the North is helping to deliver what she calls the “good, swift kick in the rump” she needs to develop her “old-lady, impressionist kind of stuff.”

“I want to have a different vision. I want to be freed, to have the courage to be freed into semi-abstract art, into more emotional art, rather than painting swans and cygnets and flowers,” she said. “Those are all predictable things.” 

Now 81 years old, Lange says she feels a strong desire to “go over the edge of doing something different and more poetic.” 

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Having an event like the Great Northern Arts Festival gives her the opportunity to do that, she said.

“I get very encouraged and affirmed, and I feel that my artwork is a bridge to other people because they open up and they share with me what they get from it, and what kind of brand of beauty they see, and that’s really important.”

Her ambition is now to delve into writing.

‘Northern artists are collaborative’

Painter Blair Thorson, from Spruce View, Alberta, is known as “the map guy” for his realistic images painted onto maps, a art form he began while travelling 15 years ago.

Thorson is currently finishing a three-piece set of paintings depicting caribou and wolves on a map of the Yukon.

“I’ve been painting since I was a kid, but I started off with pen and ink and just a lot of black-and-white things,” he told Cabin Radio.

“I was an editorial cartoonist. I had moved from BC to the Yukon and they didn’t need a cartoonist, so I started painting.”

A painting by Blair Thorson. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

Thorson had two workshops in cartoon drawing planned this week. He says teaching the skill to kids feels like a “respite.”

Teaching his form of painting on maps, he said, is much trickier, but “when you give kids a box to draw in, they come up with great things.”

This is Thorson’s seventh appearance at the Great Northern Arts Festival.

“I always believe that northern artists are more collaborative than southern artists,” he said.

“In the south, artists are so much more competitive, but in the North, if somebody comes to me and says, ‘Do you know a basket weaver?’, I’ll send them to Cathie [Harper], and if someone wants something painted on a map, they’ll be sent to me.

“It’s truly inspiring and great to be so collaborative. We’re rubbing shoulders all week, we’re exchanging ideas and telling stories to one another.

“It’s so enabling to be all under one roof at one time.”

Harper, a basket weaver from Yellowknife in her eighth Inuvik festival appearance, says spending 10 days creating and watching others create is a “great opportunity.”

“Meeting and mingling with artists from all over the North and other parts of Canada and the world, you get some really neat ideas and different ways you might want to be doing things,” she said. “And sometimes you end up with a collaboration.”