The Dreaming Hunter
Guest post by: Chelsee Arbour and Heather Campbell
This spring marks the end of the fifth and final year of the Tradition & Transition Research Partnership. The Partnership has brought together community members from youth to Elders, researchers, and students from across Nunatsiavut and far beyond. One of the main goals of this partnership has been to create meaningful relationships and lasting connections between multiple generations of Inuit and academics working in Nunatsiavut. Five years passes quickly, but a monumental amount of work has been undertaken. The Partnership has supported projects focused on: Nunatsiavut’s deep archaeological past, tracing the roots of Nunatsiavummiut family histories through ethnographic and archival resources, and exploring the intangible cultural heritage embedded in Labrador Inuit craftwork. It has been a staunch supporter of language program revitalization and the development of projects focused on multigenerational Inuttut language learning. It has also supported projects focused on documenting the intimate relationship between Nunatsiavummiut and their homeland, and the deep knowledge of the land, animals, and plants at the core of traditional Inuit ways of life. Tradition & Transition has likewise strived to promote and strengthen Nunatsiavut self-governance and the achievements of Nunatsiavummiut in research, business, tourism, and outreach. The Partnership has also highlighted and supported the expression of Inuit identity through theatre, music, and art initiatives. After such a strong period of collaboration, it should come as no surprise that the approaching completion of Tradition & Transition is filled with deep but bitter-sweet appreciation and pride in all that has been accomplished and all that is yet to come.
Heather Campbell, an artist originally from Rigolet, was asked to create a new piece for the Partnership to commemorate its culmination. This request was the impetus behind the creation of “Dreaming Hunter,” a beautiful ink painting and drawing of vibrant, contrasting colours depicting the animals of Nunatsiavut and the intimate relationship Inuit hunters have with them. Heather’s description of how this piece revealed itself mirrors the next phase that the Partnership is moving into, one of reflection and outreach. Below in italicized text are excerpts from a conversation with Heather about her life and her journey as an artist, as well as about how the “Dreaming Hunter” came to be.
Heather has been an artist for as long as she can remember. As a young child, she was very interested in realism and practiced drawing detailed portraits from photographs. Later she explored oil paint, and then mix media and watercolor, before discovering her current medium, ink line and wash. Her life in Rigolet, and her memories of living with her grandfather and grandmother, continues to be a main influence on Heather’s art today:
“Because my grandmother was a teacher, we didn’t have to be in town all year long so our summers were spent up at our salmon fishing place, [and] the animals, and birds, and fish, and the land were a very big part of my life growing up...my grandfather lived a traditional life...he was hunting and fishing all the time, [and he trapped] in the winter...so the animals my grandfather harvested, they were a daily occurrence. Pretty much everyday I was watching him skin animals like the foxes for fur, and in the summers it was ducks and seals and salmon, and everything...he used to love to draw these animals [too]...every scrap of paper in the house had some sort of drawing that he did of animals and I think that is a big influence in what I do now because they are very similar to the ones that my grandfather used to draw...so I feel like [the drawings] are all imprinted on my brain, even though I’ve been out here [Ottawa] for 23 years now, you can't erase the first 23 years of my life.”
Heather has worked in Ottawa in many capacities since moving in 1997. She has been a Cultural Interpreter for the former Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History), an Intern at the Ottawa School of Art, a Research Officer and later a Curatorial Assistant at the Indian and Inuit art centres of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Office, a Language and Cultural Coordinator for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a Curatorial Assistant for the Indigenous Art Department of the National Gallery of Canada, and is currently a Researcher at Library and Archives Canada, but her art has helped her to stay connected to her home and to her culture:
“It is very comforting to me to know that all of that imagery is the first thing that pops up when I look at the ink blots and the shapes and the paint...so even though I have been here for so long, my culture that I grew up with is never going to be erased. No matter how long I am away from home, it is always going to be there, and it is still in my subconscious.”
Her art has also been grounding element in her life and a medium through which she has been able to express herself to the world:
“I think any way of creating is a form of self discovery, and whatever life stage you are at, you are expressing that stage at that moment...I do it [art] for myself, and I do it for others. On the one hand, I find it meditative and peaceful, and a way for me to express the thoughts and feelings that I have. The political pieces that I have been making more recently are a way to combine that meditative process with delivering a message, so with the ‘Methylmercury’ piece, with the ‘Nuliajuk in Mourning,’ and now with the ‘Great White North,’ they are all ways that I can let people know about challenges that we are facing as Inuit today...I think that as I get older and I work through a lot of this stuff, I become more confident in my artwork and in my views about certain things, like the government or about climate change or about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; it’s a way for me to be confident in my own opinion and my ability to express it in a way that is true to myself.”
Heather describes her artistic process today as a symbiotic relationship, one where she is primarily the hand that reveals the art rather than the creator of the art itself:
“The process that I have now I developed after I had my baby Malia in 2011 when I was going through an artist block. [At the time], I had this little piece of paper, I couldn’t do anything big because I just didn’t have the time, so I started with this tiny little postcard piece of paper and I was like ‘I am just going to throw some ink on there and see what happens’...and I’ve just developed it further over the last nine years. I started with that ink blot, letting it dry, and looking at those shapes to see what I could see in those shapes. So, I don’t go in there with a pre-conceived idea of what I want to create, it’s a reaction to the ink wash that I do at the very beginning. I feel like what I do in ink is very similar to…the quote, I can’t remember what artist it was, I think it was [the sculptor] Parr, when he said that ‘you’re not making something with the art, you are revealing what’s already in the stone’…except in a different medium. I think some of the best works of art, visual or even musical for example, that’s where it comes from, you are a conduit. Whatever this entity is, it is the way it is supposed to be.”
Relinquishing control over the final product did not always come easily for Heather, however. After graduating with a BFA from the Sir Wilfred Grenfell School of Fine Arts, where she was introduced to numerous artistic techniques and mediums, and after moving to Ottawa, she went through a period where she struggled with her art:
“Its almost like trying to undo half of what you learned in art school, like you have too much information to choose from and you have to kind of re-find what your focus or your core is...my work before was getting too constrained or it was becoming work because of that idea that I had to come up with a concept first or that I had to make things in a particular way or try to fit the image that I had in my mind, but allowing this really organic process to evolve has lifted the pressure off me.”
Dreaming Hunter is a prime example of her artistic process:
“Conceptually, it is what it is. It came into existence the way the other ones have – they almost have their own life that emerges through my process, that I am just a conduit for something...I have a lot of fun with the positive and negative shapes [where] the negative space of one shape will become the positive space of something else; [what comes out] surprises me even when I am doing it. I think that’s why I like this process so much. [For this piece] I didn’t see the hunter right away, first it was the elements like a lot of the animal shapes that were in there, a lot of the drips that were sort of long and narrow coming out from the center and they reminded me so much of martins, and minks, and weasels, so it was more like a hunter/trapper. Towards the end, I started to see the shape of the person’s head in the top middle and I saw the little peak of the parka hood and I drew that and I was like ‘ahhh…this guy is dreaming of all the things that are part of his daily life, the hunting and fishing and trapping’ and that’s how the name ‘Dreaming Hunter’ came into existence.”
Like Heather’s approach to her art, letting things emerge rather than to fit a preconceived frame has been a foundational principle that has allowed Tradition & Transition researchers and Nunatsiavummiut to build meaningful relationships over the last five years. This next phase of the Partnership, with its focus on reflection and outreach, captures that same spirit of this ‘emerging’ element. A question at the forefront of this new journey is “what does it mean for Tradition & Transition to be coming to an end”? For Heather, her answer to Tradition & Transition, as well as for other initiatives focusing on Indigenous cultures everywhere, is clear:
“My current work with Library and Archives Canada is a three year project [that focuses on] digitizing Indigenous related material, and [we are thinking a lot about] ‘what will our legacy be, this project, will it lead to an integrated focus on respectful depiction of Indigenous materials in archives, museums, and galleries. I hope so…it really seems like a true resurgence right now...I look forward to the day when Inuit based projects are not just special projects or one time initiatives, I want all of this...support [for] Indigenous peoples and our ways of expression...to be integrated into the everyday of our society, whether it be in Newfoundland and Labrador, or Canada, or internationally.”
Similarly, the name of the partnership perhaps also provides some guidance – it reflects the powerful blend of forward-thinking innovation and strong connections to tradition that are weaved into Labrador Inuit culture. This may also capture the spirit for how the Partnership can go forward beyond the retirement of its name; honouring the partnerships, the collaboration and good will, while learning from the relationships and the many lessons of the last five years to create a more respectful and informed future that celebrates Labrador Inuit ways of life and all Indigenous cultures.
Image credit: Heather Campbell. Dreaming Hunter. 2019, Tradition & Transition Research Partnership.