Photos: NWT artists work with seal skin

Hovak Johnston works on an intricate seal skin pattern, hand-stitched together for the back of a vest. Emelie Peacock photo
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Piles of sealskin in bright reds, greens and natural shimmering silver lie in a big pile beside a group of artists hard at work cutting, measuring, sewing and pounding together their creations.

Hovak Johnston says she is feeding off the energy of the artists beside her and feels privileged to learn from someone who has studied design and worked in the fashion world.

“Learning the different tools and techniques from somebody that went to school for this, it’s such a privilege. I feel like we’ve been so spoiled with all the amazing material we’ve been using.”

She and seven other artists took part in a week-long learning experience on seal design in March, led by famed fashion designer D’arcy Moses. They hail from across the NWT, most from the Inuvialuit region, with others from the South Slave and Yellowknife.

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For some this was their first experience working with seal skin. Hay River artist Julia Pokiak-Trennert says it’s much quicker to work with, compared with the slow and detailed work of caribou and moose hair tufting she has been doing for 30 years. Pokiak-Trennert even has a tufted crest she made hanging in the Nunavut legislature, to celebrate the territory’s creation 20 years ago.

“I’ve never seriously thought of working with seal skin and I’m really happy I came,” she says. “I did years and years ago, when I was younger, I used to make miniature seal skin dolls. And I’ve started getting requests for beaded vests and I thought ‘well, I’ll have to learn to make custom-fitted vests.”

Others, like Johnston, have worked with seal ‘forever’. Used to using her hands to measure and eyeballing things in the ‘traditional way,’ the learning in the course is about patterns and adjusting them from a fashion industry veteran. She says learning these skills are important to create clothing for Inuit who are moving into urban areas and dealing with climate change.

“You know you still want to wear the traditional stuff but the traditional Kamiks, the bottom gets ruined from salt and pavement when you’re living in the city. But you still want to wear them traditionally, you want to learn the modern way too so you can still do both,” she says. “And now that you’re not living in extreme cold – it still gets pretty cold, but we’re not out there hunting, some people go hunting but the weather is still milder. And we have different jobs, right. So you still want to represent Inuit culture and practice your culture and your traditions, but you also want to modify them for the work you do.”

The artists learned patterning, designing, grading and how to price their artwork. This knowledge is crucial for their success, especially in smaller communities, says manager of arts and crafts with the GNWT Johanna Tiemessen.

“Improving their skills is so vital to them to continue to make and create art that is for a modern marketplace. The more skills that they can have to advance their own creations, the more economic stability they can generate with an income from making and creating their art and selling it.”

Tiemessen hopes Aurora College will offer this kind of workshop in the future, whether it be a week or longer, as the need is there.

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