Lifestyle

They"re Inuit - Islanders have 2,000-plus piece Inuit art collection

By Diane de la Paz

A lot of shape-shifting is going on at John and Joyce Price's Mercer Island home.

People are turning into bears, and bears look mannish. Owls travel by boat. And John Price, a tax accountant, is likened to Qudjuk, a trumpeter swan.

``That's me,'' says Price, ``because I'm big and white.''

Qudjuk is also the name of a small, black serpentine stone piece in ``Life Abounds,'' an exhibition of 90 Inuit prints, drawings and sculptures at the University of Washington's Burke Museum through Sept. 5.

The exhibition features but a fraction of the more than 2,000 works of Inuit art from Arctic Canada that Price and his wife have collected for about three decades.

Price has stories for just about every piece. To him, these aren't inanimate objects. They're friendships made tangible; transformation made visible.

The seed for his fascination with Inuit art was planted in 1975, when Price stopped in at The Snow Goose, then a Lake City art gallery, at lunchtime. There he found a work by Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashonna -- and couldn't get it out of his mind. He bought it the following day.

Since then, the Prices have traveled six times to Cape Dorset, on Baffin Island, to stay with their Inuit artist friends.

``I thought it was going to be impossible to be friends with an Inuit,'' because of the physical, cultural and linguistic distances, Price says.

But the art, the animals, and the land erased those barriers. Kenojuak Ashevak, one of Canada's best-known Inuit artists, has visited the Prices here and worked with Northwest artists at the Pilchuck Glass School, located in the Stanwood area and co-founded by famous glass artist Dale Chihuly.

In turn, the Prices have visited Ashevak by taking the long flight to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut and the closest airport to Ashevak's home.

Traditionally Inuit, sometimes called Eskimos, have been known for art that deals with animals, family, the land, hunting, fishing, forklore, a spiritual world and Inuit history, said Price. However, Inuit artists now concern themselves with a variety of subject areas, among them terrorism, the abuse of women and life in Afghanistan, he said.

At the Burke Museum, the Inuit art arrests even a casual visitor. Ashevak's stone sculpture, ``The Owl within Kenojuak,'' shows the artist's human features on the back of an owl's head. And her ``Enchanted Owl'' gazes straight into the viewer's eyes.

A big dancing bear sculpted by Pauta Saila, Price points out, is part shaman, part polar bear. That's classic Inuit perspective: The natural and spirit worlds are spaces where humans and other animals listen to one another.

Andrew Whiteman, designer of the ``Life Abounds'' display, added a slide show of images from Price's Inuit collection. It was a way to show visitors a lot of art in a small gallery, he says.

``We had no idea how bowled over we would be,'' by the Inuit creations, Whiteman adds. ``There were three visits I had with John on the Island ? it was just a joyful process. It's John in his element, in his sandbox. He's having wonderful fun with these miraculous things. I thought, `I've got to go along on that ride.'''

A flock of owls -- there they are again -- goes for a distinctly Inuit ride in another of the show's most alluring artworks.

Joe Talirunilli's ``Migration of Umiak of Owls,'' a small, finely detailed sculpture, was the Inuit artist's gift to his neighbor, a nurse who moved to the Arctic in 1961. Her name was Arden Barnes, and the story goes that she bought Talirunilli's doghouse to use as a storage box, while she lived contentedly in a tent. Barnes became a fan of Talirunilli's art and of the Arctic owls, and one day in 1965 he presented her with the umiak -- an Inuit boat sculpted in stone, with a sealskin sail. On it are 34 owls, faces upturned, and one dog.

The umiak is part of Talirunilli's family lore, Price explains. When he was about 9, Talirunilli's clan took him on a fishing and seal-hunting trip. They camped on a stretch of ice. Then their campsite broke off and began heading out to sea, to ``certain death,'' says Price.

The Talirunillis searched through their supplies and found they had the makings of an umiak. They built the boat and sailed it back to the mainland.

The umiak of owls, given to the white woman, was the artist's way of saying thank you to her for loving his homeland, Price says.

He and his wife, Joyce, have enjoyed a similar exchange.

``One of the greatest things that's ever happened to us, was when we've gone to Cape Dorset,'' to visit Ashevak and the other artists who had visited them on Mercer Island.

``It's almost like we're part of the community. The joke is that they've reserved a spot at the senior center for me,'' says Price, who will be 62 this year.

As the artists named Price ``Qudjuk,'' they gave Joyce an Inuit name: ``Pialajuq,'' which means ``woman who does a lot of things in a short period of time.''

``They were right on,'' Price says. Joyce is a homemaker and grandmother.

The Prices leapt at the chance to explore the wild land around Cape Dorset, even when it was 30 or 40 degrees below zero.

``We have these giant Arctic parkas. With those we can go outside, briefly,'' Price says.

In summer, temperatures can reach 70 degrees and allow for long walks.

``The thrill of the Arctic is to be out on the land. When you're out there, you feel like you could be Inuit,'' Price adds, ``because when you can't see anyone else, it puts you in that space where you're dependent on the land for survival. And around the next bend, there could be a polar bear,'' which could be disastrous. Or there could be caribou -- an animal that sustains the Inuit.

At the Burke Museum, to give visitors a richer Arctic experience, Price and Whiteman mixed in selections from Price's collection of Inuit music. So the ``Life Abounds'' show has a soundtrack of songs that are, Whiteman says, ``people imitating animals, their heartbeats, their breathing, flying. It is cool. And it's very different. It catches some people off guard.''

Adjacent to ``Life Abounds'' is ``Seasons of Life and Land'' a roomful of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge images by Seattle photographer Subhankar Banerjee. Integrated into that show are a few sculptures from the Price collection, including ``Circle of Animals'' by Osuitok Ipeelee and ``The Legend of the Giant'' by Davidialuk Alasuak Amittu.

``Seasons,'' with its sculptures, will stay up till Dec. 31.

Whiteman sees this art as a connector between humans and other animals, and a tonic for city dwellers.

``There's so much joy and whimsy and attention to the life force of these animals,'' he says. The birds, caribou and bears ``are front and center, interacting with the people all the time.''

Price agrees. To him, the dancing bears, boating owls and trumpeter swan affirm the connection between two cultures.

``You don't have to speak the same language,'' he says, ``in order to be friends.''

The Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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