• Sue McDowell

Serendipity and Inuit Art


Winter Shoreline, 2018

Years ago, when I was in library school, we were just entering the digital age and a topic of much heated discussion was what would happen when everything we needed was available "online." Though many of us could see great space-saving benefits to having all knowledge literally at our fingertips, others of us worried that humans would never get to what they needed without significant formal instruction in search strategies -- which of course we assumed would never happen. This was the age of the argument about which was better - free text or a thesaurus (I know, we were nerds). But we all agreed that one experience that would be lost to internet searchers for generations to come was the experience of the serendipitous find. All of us told our favorite tale of going for a particular book in a library or a bookstore and serendipitously finding something wonderful and unexpected right next to the intended tome. We all agreed, with woeful sighs, that serendipity - at least as far as the information age was concerned -was going the way of the dinosaur.

Well one joy of being old is being able to realize that the full fears of the past have not been realized. In this age of false news, I was heartened this weekend to see the power of serendipity even with the Internet - yay, perhaps because of it. So here's my fun tale of modern serendipity.

Several weeks ago the University announced their excitement at receiving the Inuit art collection of Phil and Kathy Powers. At a subsequent coffee with a colleague I mentioned how excited I was with this news. My colleague mentioned he was aware of Inuit art through his interest in the construction of Arctic kayaks. Which brought us to the topic of James Houston - the Canadian artist responsible for bringing the art of the Cape Dorset (and surrounding communities) to the attention of Canadian collectors in the 1950's-70's. (Search "Enchanted Owl" for a well-known example not replicated here in respect to copyright).

It turned out, my colleague knew of Houston from Houston's young adult literature. I knew of Houston from his spare and beautiful artwork engraved into crystal by the Steuben glass company in Corning, NY. In my travels to the Corning Museum of Glass, I'd retrieved Houston's drawings from the Rakow research library and marveled how the medium (crystal glass), the method (copper-wheel engraving), and the man had culminated in such amazing work. Later, I had the priviledge of taking an engraving course with Max Ehrlacher, a master-engraver from Steuben. Steuben had, by this point, closed it's doors (2011) but Max was the engraver responsible for breathing life into Houston's designs. It was a rare honor to observe Max both at Corning and in his home studio. It was a true gift that I've cherished to this day to have received his wise wisdom and his patience as we struggled on copper wheels to attain even a sliver of his brilliance.

But back to serendipity! So what I really wondered was how did the Powers end up with a collection of Inuit art? And that's when my web searching and love of libraries all started to come together and my serendipity whiskers began to quiver. Turns out Eugene Powers (founder of the local firm, University Microfilms Inc and Phil's father) was a friend of Houston's. At a time when Houston thought the Canadian market for Inuit art might be receding, Powers created an American distribution company, Eskimo Art Inc. so the lower 48 could become aware of the Canadian Inuit artists so long mentored and marketed by Houston. James Houston was even a member of the Eskimo Art Inc. Board of Directors. Eskimo Art Inc. had a presence in Plymouth MI. After his father's death, Phil Powers closed the Eskimo Art company. Wilbur Munnecke, also a member of the Board, donated some of his collection to the Dennos Museum in Traverse City. John Houston (James' son) maintains the online gallery, Houston North Gallery.

With Powers and Munnecke's influence, Traverse City is also the home of the Inuit Art Society. My great regret is that I didn't do this research two years ago. Had I done so I could have joined the Society in their conference last year ... at Corning...with Max and the drawings of James Houston on center stage. That's a missed opportunity but still a wonderful confluence just the same. Tomorrow, I plan to spend a few hours with the business records and correspondence of the Eskimo Art Inc company. How? Well those are stored at the Bentley Library here at the University.

Serendipity? Well it's at least as if a parallel universe has been walking with me all of my life. I've worked for UMI, I saw the Eskimo Art Inc gallery when I was a typesetter working for a company in Plymouth. And then there was the happy afternoon I spent at the Rakow finding James Houston, his lively illustrations, his successful translation of the North to Steuben crystal. And now I'm back on campus, and the Power's collection will soon be across the street. I have more to research (how are the Inuit pieces in the Detroit Zoo connected? are they?) and an appreciation for these businessmen who realized how much the Inuit needed a market for their art - and how much the rest of the world needed to understand the Inuit through their creative expression.

None of this gets me any closer to the Arctic or helps me carve out time to complete my recent work. But perhaps you've enjoyed the links and learned a little about the amazing art coming from the communities of the North.

Polar Bear Progress, 2018

And this little research journey I've been on has restored my faith in serendipity. It still exists. Finding a link that leads to a website, which leads to coffee with a friend, back to a library, to the web, and then off to the archives. All while watching how this weaves in and out of my life well lived. Serendipity - If I hadn't committed to creating my work on behalf of Arctic Research (and this blog) I wouldn't have realized all these creative threads that I still hold to an important collection of Inuit art. Serendipity - I think that needs to be the title of my next work!

#CorningMuseumofGlass #Steuben #JamesHouston #MaxErlacher #InuitArtSociety

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