Makituk Pingwartuk – Inuit Ceramic Artist
Makituk Pingwartuk is an Inuit potter from Nunavut. She lived in Nelson, BC for some time in the late 1960s while she attended the Kootenay School of Art. It was in Nelson that she made friends with my wife’s family who have several of her ceramic sculptures – hence my interest in her and her work. In future posts I will feature one sculpture at a time (this link will display all of them once published). This collage shows all that we had found when I was taking these photos four years ago. Since then a small seal has turned up. There were two other small seals as well, and one of them should be around this house somewhere. In this blog I will give a bit of information about Makituk that I have been able to find out from various sources. If I learn more I will either edit this post, or add information to future posts.
I prepared this and the other posts in this series in September four years ago a few weeks after I started blogging. I did not post at that time for a number of reasons. One was that my wife, though a child in Nelson, was befriended by Makituk and has been trying to find a way of getting in contact with her again. Another was that I attempted to find out more information from the Houston North Gallery and Houston family who had been selling Alma Houston’s collection of Makituk ceramics – I was assured of a response by a staff member but it never came. Also, I was hoping to interview Walter Dexter, one of Makituk’s ceramics teachers and a family friend who also lives in Victoria. He had been very ill so that chance never arose and sadly he died just a few weeks ago. This year we also tried to contact a person we think is a member of Makituk’s family, but have not yet had a response.
Since these pieces will soon be out of the family’s hands and in a national public collection now seems like the time to post these words and photos.
There is very little information on the internet about Makituk Pingwartuk’s work with only a handful of images of small sculptural and functional works. Many are apparently learning pieces. Most pictures are of her functional pottery; bowls, cups, vases and the like. There is next to no biographical information about her on the web. One picture of her was published in the 2005 issue of Inuktitut Magazine #95 (page 41) but the link I had 4 years ago is broken now, and the new location doesn’t seem to be the same issue. She was born in 1936, is from the community of Kingnait, more widely known in the south as Cape Dorset, in Nunavut which has been a highly important centre of Inuit art since the 1950s.
Makituk Pingwartuk was initially supported in her potting by a federal government program sponsored in Cape Dorset. The ceramics program funding was cancelled after 2 years and to further her work she went to the Kootenay School of Art. There her ceramics teacher was Walter Dexter, one of Canada’s outstanding potters and head of ceramics at KSA from 1967 to 1974. She is also said to have been taught during the late 1960’s by Chizuko Shumano in Cape Dorset.
The archived Houston North Gallery reference (see next paragraph for links) says that after only her first year of potting she entered a piece in the Biennale in Florence (Firenze) and won 3rd prize. There is also reference to her being one of two Inuit ceramic artists to show in 1967 (or perhaps 1966 the sources are conflicting) at the International Exhibition of Ceramics in Faenza, Italy. Probably this is the same show, though it did not become a Biennale until a few years later and if so she had probably been potting for 6 or 7 years at that point. There is another reference that I have only seen as a truncated snippet on a google book search in North, volume 15, page 38 that reads “Makituk Pingwatuk Halfway around the world at Faenza, Italy, international recognition was given to the talents of … her enthusiastic instructors entered three of her pieces in the 1967 International Exhibition of Ceramics held in Faenza, Italy.” More light is shed on this award, and Makituk’s time in Nelson in another google book snippet from the BC Government’s Annual Report of the Public Schools Volumes 94-96, Page 91 (dated 1966 but perhaps covers three years) which reads “The Kootenay School of Art gained further recognition and awards by having all its ceramics entries accepted for exhibition at the International Exhibition in Faenza, Italy, with Lydia Makituk Pingwartuk being awarded third prize and the school receiving a silver medal for its entry.” So it seems that the pieces I am writing about from the family collection are contemporary with those that were submitted to the competition in Faenza.
The source for some of the above information about Makituk appears to be the Houston North Gallery website in Nova Scotia, but the page referenced here and apparently here is no longer active. Fortunately the page was archived in 2009 and can still be viewed with a concerted effort – below I have excerpted the entire biographical text from that source which is now so hard to track down. The archived page shows a lot more of her pottery for sale at that time. The gallery currently lists a number of pots for sale, mostly bowls, cups and vases, and also 4 years ago a teapot (no longer shown) and a “representation of a teapot” as well as a “happy little animal“. The source for these names appears to be the Houston family and ultimately it is likely that is how Makituk referred to them.
Below is the excerpt from the discontinued Houston North Gallery webpage. A note on spelling – John Houston uses an “o” in the last syllable of her surname, while I have used a “u” which is how her name appears in other on-line sources, though this source makes it clear there are several spellings of her first name in the Roman alphabet, her last name is most commonly spelled the same way as I am using. Her signed pieces read Makituk.
“Inuit Pottery from Alma Houston’s Private Collection
“Makituk Pingwartok found her passion in ceramics, working with Japanese potter Chizuko Shumano in Cape Dorset in the late ’60s. Scarcely a year after she found out how pottery was made, her work was entered in the prestigious Biennale in Firenze (Florence, Italy) and won 3rd prize internationally. Soon after that, the program was closed down, as often happened with such pilot programs, but Makituk sent her work to us for safe keeping, with the idea that one day we would exhibit it.
“Her choice of glazes that reflect the colors of Arctic summer, her use of Inuktitut syllabics and traditional Inuit forms, her Japanese inspired learning pieces, all add up to a unique and special vision, and one that we wish could have continued and flourished. Perhaps ceramics can be re-incarnated, as Inuit jewelry has been…
“During our childhood, Makituk Pingwartok was a second mother to my brother Sam and me, even coming with us when we moved to Michigan for a time. It is my pleasure to broaden the circle of people who recognize her special talent.
“- John Houston”.
There is more information in the Western Potter (1967: v.8, pp 12-13) where Santos Mignosa, then the head of Ceramics at the Kootenay School of Art, wrote the following:
“Meesa and Makituk, the young Eskimo artists attending the Kootenay School of Art, have just completed their three months course in Ceramics. During this time, they have displayed tremendous facility in handling most of the ceramic processes taught at our School, including kiln loading and maintenance. Together, they have produced over 100 pieces including a number of large ones — these being Eskimo figurines of people and animals, utilitarian and hand built pots. Six of their works have been included in our entries of thirty pieces to the XXV Concorso Internazionale della Ceramica d’Arte in Faenza, Italy. …
“Meesa and Makituk will be returning to Nelson next year to complete a full year’s study in Ceramics.”
“Ceramics was tried — in fact, two Dorset artists won a competition and travelled to Europe (footnote 3) — but the bureaucracy decided to move this artproject to Rankin Inlet.”
“Footnote 3 Makituk Pingwartok was one of the two; she travelled to Faenza,Italy in 1967 to see her work on display in the International Exhibition of Ceramics.”
In the Ottawa Journal, (Sept 15, 1967, page 34) an article titled Cape Dorset Eskimo Wins International Award includes photos of Makituk’s winning pieces, and of a picture of her as well. Unfortunately, I can only see a bit of this article without buying my way past the paywall. This is the only source I have found that shows and describes the pieces that she submitted to the competition. The bit I can see reads:
“Miss Makituk Pingwatuk of Cape Dorset, has become the only Canadian to win honors at the 1967 International of Ceramics held in Faenza, Italy. Miss Pingwatuk, 31, brought to the Kootenay School of Arts in Nelson, B.C., a silver medal for her two figures of a mother holding her child, and a large ookpik. In competition with 400 entries from 50 countries she also won $50 …”
There are some more general sources regarding the ceramics program in Rankin Inlet which gives some context for the genesis of these pieces. Two by Stacey Neale in Inuit Art Quarterly can be found at this link – both need downloading and are quite large. Neale’s MA 1997 thesis The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project: A Study in Development and Influence can be found here (another pdf download). The following passage from Neale’s thesis (p.52) refers to Makituk and sources from a government record (see John Houston’s last paragraph above about her moving to Michigan with his family):
“By 1960, the art program at Cape Dorset was well established and the fledgling print shop was receiving strong encouragement from the southern market. I do not know what prompted the notion of working with clay but interest in the medium was strong enough that Makitoo, a Cape Dorset artist, accompanied Alma Houston to Ann Arbour, Michigan to study ceramics in the fall of 1960. She had a strong aptitude for the medium yet, despite having received training in pottery-making, plans for establishing a ceramics program in Cape Dorset were never truly developed.”
The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) has some additional information (with references) from the National Gallery of Canada-Library and Archives about “Makituk Pingwatuk” including:
“An Eskimo artist of Cape Dorset, West Baffin Island, she took up ceramics because of the good quality clay that had been found in her area. She attended school in Nelson, B.C., to learn ceramics and while there won one of the top prizes in an international ceramics competition in Italy. The local clay near her home is sand coloured and is strengthened by adding chips and dust from the soapstone carvings. In 1968 she was invited to place an exhibition of her work in the Women’s Pavilion of the “Hemisphere 1968″ Exposition at San Antonio, Texas. She was one of the representative women of North America to be featured in this pavilion.”
The Inuit Artwork Database includes one of her unglazed sculptures of an Inuit person which looks as if it is the one listed for sale through the Houston North Gallery. Unfortunately the information in the database does not give its dimensions, or a precise date (the 1960’s). A different written source appears to be for the same sculpture and shows it’s size as 6.5″ x 3.5″ x 3″, which is the same information as the one on the archived gallery page. The database image (depending on your browser, you may need to search her first name, then download the .mov file and look at it in Quicktime) although small is useful because you can rotate it 360º with your mouse and it is quite clear from the finger marks on the back that this sculpture is based on a wheel-thrown pot. It is particularly interesting to me because of the striking similarity to a glazed version that is in my wife’s family, shown above, that is more than 3 times bigger.
Another photograph (here) shows one of her wheel thrown bowls.
There appears to be a contemporary photo of Makituk with her work in the Olea Davis collection at UBC. I will see what I can do to get my hands on a copy.
EDIT: I have now obtained copies of the two photographs in the Olea Davis collection and have their kind permission to post them here. I paid for this single use of these images, and the UBC Library retains control of them so please contact them if you would like to use them. Link in previous paragraph, and in captions to images.
Olea Davis was the founder of the BC Potter’s Guild and her archival fonds appear to contain a lot of information about pottery in BC, including these two photos in a folder (9-14) titled “Makituk, and her work”. No other information is included with the folder and the photographer is not known.
The list below is of each piece I plan to post about. As the posts are published the links will become active. The sculptures are listed from largest to smallest, but I will post in a different order.
- Man – LINK
- Walrus – LINK
- Bear – LINK
- Ice floe with walruses – LINK
- Bird – LINK
- Bird with chicks – LINK
- Seal – LINK
- Small Seal – LINK
I apologise for grainy photos throughout the series – I accidentally shot at ISO 6400 before I learned how to set my camera in live view (while focusing) so it did not default to program mode when taking stills.
All images in this post and series are copyrighted and may not be used without permission except by Makituk’s family members, though we would love to hear from any family that choose to contact us (contact: ehpemm_at_gmail.com).