Inuit woman brought carved stone to life
The Whig | September 15, 2020
Inuit woman brought carved stone to life
Adopting artistic traditions handed down from her Inuit grandmother and parents, Oviloo Tunnillie (born 1949) learned the skills of rock carving in the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut. The motivated woman transformed hard stone into sculptures expressing universal emotions.
One of several children of hunter and carver Toonoo and graphic artist Sheokjuke, Oviloo (also spelled Ovilu) was raised in Kangia and other settlements along south Baffin Island. The family moved to follow the hunt for seals and walrus, caribou and geese. As people from southern Canada made their way north, the sheltered life of the Inuit was altered.
Tunnillie’s experiences informed her artwork, though not always in happy terms. When five years old, she was X-rayed and diagnosed with tuberculosis aboard visiting medical ship C.D. Howe. Obliged to remain on the vessel, Tunnillie was taken to Clearwater Lake (Man.) Indian Hospital for treatment. The child remained there for months without her parents or family.
A year after returning home, Tunnillie was again diagnosed with tuberculosis. This time, the saddened girl was in hospital for two whole years. Communication was awkward and isolating, as the hospital staff did not speak Inuktitut. “Her treatment included periods of bed rest during which medical personnel tied her to the bed,” Dr. Darlene Coward Wight described in Oviloo Tunnillie: Life & Work (Canadian Art Institute 2019), and “at least one doctor sexually abused her.” When back home, Tunnillie’s readjustment was difficult — she had forgotten some of her native language and customs.
Regaining familiarity, the girl was enchanted with family artwork. “I loved my father’s carvings,” Tunnillie said in a Marion Scott Gallery publication, according to Wight. “From there I began to learn and carve, always noticing the beauty and shapes of the rock.” Fascinated with rocks, the preteen collected them when her family travelled by dog team in springtime.
Following her father Toonoo’s path, Tunnillie liked to carve rock into the human form. The 17-year-old girl made her first carving in 1966, titled Mother and Child. She was making a bold step; there were few Inuit women carvers.
“Toonoo took his daughter’s first carving, along with several of his own pieces, to a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post several miles away from where they were living,” Wight explained. The artworks were traded for goods, and Oviloo Tunnillie “was happy to get things I wanted when I got paid for it. … I found, too, that I enjoyed making carvings.”
Traditionally, “Inuit women cut and worked skins into tailored clothing, often insetting or appliqueing skin pieces of contrasting color, or beading pictorial designs,” Janet C. Berlo said in “nuit Women and Graphic Arts: Female Creativity and Its Cultural Context (University of Mississippi 1988). It was an easy step into graphic art, from drawing to stencil-making and then print-making. But Tunnillie preferred the more challenging stone carving.
The novice artist’s early nature carvings were “made with an axe and files, the tools of her carver father,” Wight said. “For an Owl carved in 1974, she remembered using an axe on the body and sandpaper to shape the feathers on the wings.” The work required strength and a level of patient perseverance, plus a gentle touch to create fine details. She then polished the sculpture to a smooth finish. Tunnillie’s skills soon soared to professional heights.
While soapstone is the type of stone generally discussed for carving, the Inuit prefer harder types of stone. A talc-schist metamorphic rock called steatite, soapstone is considered too soft for lasting carvings. “Oviloo Tunnillie and other Cape Dorset (Kinngait, in Inuktitut) carvers have most regularly chosen serpentinite for their carvings,” Wight said. Composed of a group of minerals such as lizardite, antigorite and chrysotile, the light-to-dark greenish serpentinite registers at three to six on the Mohs Hardness Scale. (Diamonds are hardest at 10 whereas soapstone sits at one due to talc content.)
Marrying Iloya Tunnillie in 1969, the bride was welcomed into another creative family of carvers and graphic artists. Between 1972 and 1984, the Tunnillie family grew to six children and was living in the Cape Dorset area. To feed her family, Tunnillie began carving as a career, “and her work soon became the family’s primary source of income,” Wight mentioned. Her husband brought materials to her, mining serpentinite at several sites.
In 1988, Tunnillie was introduced to power tools, allowing her to create more intricate images and scenes. While many of the carver’s sculptures reflected northern traditions, she veered in another direction as well. Many works featured daily modern activity, including Dancer (1995), Football Player (1992), a woman with a suitcase in Self Portrait (Arriving in Toronto) (2002), and a seated woman titled Nature’s Call (2002).
Her art, Wight said, demonstrated “the capacity of stone carving to capture feelings of separation, loss, personal struggle and the joys of life.” Fearlessly tackling controversial subjects, a number of Tunnillie’s pieces express the sadness she felt as a child, her hands covering her sobbing eyes, and of being a tired woman clutching a pillow. Other pieces express the happier times of a bright-eyed child with her father in On My Father’s Shoulders (2002) and My Father Toonoo Building an Inukshuk (1995).
In a pioneering move, Tunnillie carved female nudes. Some are joyful, like the nude Woman in High Heels (1987), others a reminder of childhood fears. A few female torsos were carved, as well as several mesmerizing works featuring Sedna, a sea woman or sea goddess from Inuit lore.
Contrasting with the dark green stone, Tunnillie occasionally included small, sparkling quartz crystals, harvested from a nearby creek.
Tunnillie was destined to become an internationally acclaimed Inuit artist. Her work was sold to galleries through the Co-op, and her first solo exhibit was held in Montreal’s Canadian Guild of Crafts in June 1981. More exhibits followed, including two in Germany and another in New York City.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Vancouver’s Marion Scott Gallery hosted Tunnillie’s work in group and solo exhibits. The artist and gallery director, Judy Kardosh, developed a working relationship that lasted over two decades. Kardosh could see the transformation of Tunnillie from unknown artist to distinguished and respected Inuit carver.
While her success rose, Tunnillie faced distress and anguish in her private life. Her father had been killed in what was thought a hunting accident in 1969, but when his son-in-law (Tunnillie’s sister Nuvalinga’s husband) was seriously ill in 1994, he confessed to murdering Toonoo. Tunnillie’s daughter died by suicide at home at age 13, and her niece also succumbed to suicide not long after.
Moving to Toronto with her family in 2001 then on to Montreal and Ottawa, Oviloo Tunnillie sold entrancing sculptures to galleries directly and continued to supply northern distributors. Titled Toonoo’s Legacy, in 2002 an exhibition was held by Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto. The display was a full family event featuring carvings by Tunnillie’s father, her mother Sheokjuke’s designs, Oviloo’s own carvings, two of her brothers’ works, and art from three of her sons. The family returned to Cape Dorset in 2005.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, the dedicated carver continued to produce captivating sculptures. Undergoing treatment, the cancer returned in 2012, and the artist was unable to work. Oviloo Tunnillie died on June 12, 2014.
Tunnillie’s extraordinary carvings are held by both private and publicly owned collectors. Her heart-touching sculptures may be appreciated at public galleries such as the Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and more. Hers is a legacy truly created in stone.
Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.
Originally posted as: McLeod, Susanna. "Inuit Woman Brought Carved Stone to Life." The Kingston Whig-Standard. September 15, 2020. https://www.thewhig.com/opinion/columnists/inuit-woman-brought-carved-stone-to-life.