Thoughts On A Basic Inuit Art Library

What are the basics of a collector’s library on Inuit art?

There are some books every collector should have; some books collectors should have based on their collecting interests; some books that would be nice to have; and even some books that no one needs.  Let’s look at what I think of as a basic library.

Sadly, many books recommended here are out-of-print, so it may be necessary to haunt the web to find copies (try eBay or the ABE book website).

Introductory Works and Overviews

James Houston’s Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, a volume in his autobiography, is a good introduction to the beginnings of contemporary Inuit art – he’s a great storyteller and it’s a fun read for those who collect the art.

For a very good, well-illustrated, general introduction (and to lend to friends who don’t understand our passion), I like Ingo Hessel’s Inuit Art, but you could also be satisfied with his catalogues of the Albrecht collection at the Heard Museum in Phoenix (Arctic Spirit), or of the Sarick collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Inuit Modern). They’re all well done and worth the price of admission. They cover a lot of the same ground, but illustrate the specific collections that they are documenting.

Darlene Wight’s Creation & Transformation from 2013 is also a good recent overview. It is illustrated with pieces in the great collection at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and includes some interesting historical chapters, though I’ve previously expressed my regrets over the omission of the works of Kenojuak from this exhibition and catalogue.

For those who like history, statistics, and no photographs (raise your hands, please) Richard Crandall’s  Inuit Art (2000) and the accompanying An Annotated Bibliography of Inuit Art (2001) will give you more detail than you probably want or need, although the Bibliography will lead you to a lot of valuable source material.


George Swinton’s Sculpture of the Inuit is considered the “bible” on Inuit sculpture – the fourth, and final, revised edition of the book came out in 1999, and it provides many examples of the art and major artists whose work is known and collected today.  It doesn’t cover current artists and their sculptures. Earlier editions abound at various prices; the final edition can be a bit harder to find.

Sculpture/Inuit (1971) by the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council is essentially a picture book of a major exhibition of Inuit sculptures, but it is a great introduction to, or just a browse through, some great sculptures. There are a lot of copies out there, mostly in the trade paperback edition; the hardcover is harder to find and probably not worth the difference in price.

For collectors whose interests focus on certain regions or communities, the Winnipeg Art Gallery did a series of exhibitions in the late 1970s to early 1980s documenting sculpture from specific communities or regions Baffin Island (1983), Belcher Islands/Sanikiluaq (1981), Cape Dorset (1980), Eskimo Point/Arviat (1982), Rankin Inlet/Kangirlliniq (1981), Repulse Bay (1978), Port Harrison /Inoucdjouac (1976), and Povungnituk (1977).  Some of these are still available from the WAG; several are seriously out-of-print and cost more than they’re worth.  Unless you’re a fanatic (I plead guilty), I would just buy Swinton’s book and skip these (there’s a lot of overlap in the sculptures illustrated too, since Swinton was working with the WAG’s collection in writing his books).

A more recent book on the sculpture of the Gjoa Haven area, Art & Expression of the Netsilik (2001), by Darlene Coward Wight, illustrates the work of artists like Karoo Ashevak, Charlie Ugyuk, Ralph Porter, etc. I love these humorous and fanciful works, and am happy to have a well-done separate volume on it. Ms. Wight has also written an excellent exhibition catalog (actually a 192-page book) identifying carvings by early carvers (Early Masters: Inuit Sculpture 1949-1955 (2006)) that is not to be missed – it includes interesting biographies of many master carvers and great illustrations.

For collectors interested in the carving stone used, Northern Rock: Contemporary Inuit Stone Sculpture (1999), by Susan Gustavison, documented an exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Gallery. It is well-illustrated with interesting carvings showing the varieties of carving stone. There’s a fair amount of geology, if that’s of interest.

If you have an interest in pre-contact carvings from various historical periods, there are several excellent books covering these works. Allen Wardell’s Ancient Eskimo Ivories of the Bering Strait (1986) is the classic work covering the more westerly Arctic area cultures. More recently, Edmund Carpenter’s Upside Down: Arctic Realities (2011) documents an exhibition organized by the Menil Foundation and is beautifully illustrated and has interesting essays on these cultures and their arts.


For prints, the only general overviews specific to Inuit printmaking are from the 1970s – Arts of the Eskimo: Prints (1975) and The Inuit Print (1977) from the National Museum of Man. They show the differences in printmaking style and subject matter among the printmaking communities, but don’t reflect what’s been happening since. However, that’s not a problem as there are many more recent books and catalogs that cover prints from specific communities or annual collections.

Cape Dorset

Obviously, Cape Dorset has the greatest representation in the literature, with annual catalogs of the print collections from 1959 to the present.

Books include a nice Cape Dorset printmaking review, Cape Dorset Prints: A Retrospective – Fifty Years of Printmaking at the Kinngait Studios (2007), edited by Leslie Boyd Ryan from Pomegranate Press (which has been doing calendars and other small books on Cape Dorset prints for a number of years now); Norman Vorano’s Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration (2011) is an interesting book on James Houston’s use of Japanese printmaking techniques in starting Inuit printmaking;  Uuturautiit: Cape Dorset Celebrates 50 Years of Printmaking illustrates the entire 1959 collection and various prints from 2004 to 2009; and there are literally dozens of books and catalogs on various aspects of Cape Dorset drawings and printmaking. I should also note the Kingait Press’s The Inuit World (1977), a limited edition work printed in Cape Dorset based on a small print by Kananginak (included).

You can collect Cape Dorset calendars (they go back annually to 1968) with good-sized copies of many great prints that would look nice framed on a wall at a fraction of the price of the print (if you could even find an original of some of those prints).


There are many, many other exhibition catalogs from galleries and museums documenting sculptures by specific artists or art from specific areas, or art from specific collections.  You can choose among them based on your collecting interests.  Some have been reviewed in the Inuit Art Quarterly so you can get a feel about whether a book might be interesting, but sometimes it’s a shot in the dark. Rarely is it a waste of time – I’ve identified the artists of two of the sculptures (one purchased on eBay, one from a gallery in Vermont) in my small collection from such catalogs. I like a recent catalog from Bowdoin College in Maine, Imagination Takes Shape: Inuit Art from the Robert & Judith Toll Collection (2014), in part because I find the collectors’ statement to be compelling, but also because most of their collection provides a nice walk through the art of the Kivalliq region.

Documentation specific to your collection

Obviously, if you collect works by a specific artist or from a specific region, it makes sense to try to document the art and the artists whose works you own.

Love Kenojuak’s prints? There’s Jean Blodgett’s Kenojuak (1985) which illustrates all her prints to that date (there’s even a limited edition bound in bleached caribou hide!); a biography, Kenojuak: The Life Story of an Inuit Artist (1999) by Ansgar Walk; a 1963 documentary film that was nominated for an Academy Award; etc. Get the annual catalogs that feature works in your collection; find articles in the Inuit Art Quarterly that feature Kenojuak (there’s a recent retrospective issue celebrating her life and work); heck, there are even three Canadian postage stamps and a coin featuring her art.

Into Germaine Arnaktauyok’s prints? She just wrote a book featuring much of her artwork – My Name Is Arnaktauyok: The Life and Art of Germaine Arnaktauyok (2015). There are two previous, but much smaller, catalogs of her works in exhibition; there are IAQ articles; and, again, there are coins bearing her art from the Royal Canadian Mint.

There are books and catalogs featuring the works of many of the better-known Inuit artists – Pitseolak, Pauta Saila, Kananginak, Jesse Oonark, Parr, Pangnark, Kavik, etc. The Internet has made it easier to search out these catalogs and books if you’re interested in a particular artist.

Similarly, there are works relating to art from various communities or regions, e.g. Cape Dorset sculpture, Baker Lake prints, pottery from Rankin Inlet, etc. Collect dolls? There are a number of great books out there. Whatever your collecting interest, there is probably some publication that could enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of your collection.

Inuit Art Quarterly

Don’t subscribe?  It’s a judgment call, depending on how actively you are collecting. I have a copy of every issue (some just photocopied) back to the first one (maybe I’m compulsive, I’ve a complete set of Sandra Barz’s Art & Culture of the North too). However, it’s a pretty good review of what’s going on in the current world of Inuit art, between the articles, the ads, the calendars, and, sadly, the artists we have lost recently. You can collect back issues selectively based on whether articles relate to your collection or interests, too; it just takes a little more effort to find the issues you need.

Auction Catalogs

For years Waddington’s has printed lovely catalogs for their semi-annual sales – Walkers’ jumped into the fray a few years ago with Ingo Hessel as their curator and has generated some gorgeous and informative catalogs of their own. I must confess that I have an intermittent collection of these auction catalogs. I love them, but they sometimes seem darn expensive, especially now that you can download the catalogs and the prices realized off the web. If you’ve submitted something to auction they will provide a catalog to you without charge.

The World Behind the Art

There is a lot of literature relating to the Arctic and its peoples, their legends and lives, the world they live in, the whole issue of acculturation, and now, sadly, on the effects of global warming on their environment. This literature is beyond the scope of my topic – I probably have 40 books that fall into this category – so I won’t say much. Some are gorgeous picture books, covering the landscape and wildlife of the region. Some are written or photographed by Inuit, more by kabluna. My most recent purchases include Richard Sale’s The Arctic: The Complete Story (2008) which is probably the most comprehensive in terms of history, wildlife, peoples, ecology, etc.; Jerry Kobalenko’s Arctic Eden (2010) covers his journeys through the changing high Arctic; and Wayne Lynch’s Planet Arctic (2010) documents Arctic flora and fauna.

A few additional works that I like

(Listed in chronological order)

Jean Blodgett – Grasp Tight the Old Ways: Selections from the Klamer Family Collection of Inuit Art (1983) A great family collection at the AGO, sorted by community, but, sadly, illustrated mostly in black and white (16 color photos), which is a disservice to many of the prints.

Norman Zepp – Pure Vision: The Keewatin Spirit (1986) An excellent reference work on the classic minimalist artists of the Kivalliq (Keewatin) region, which may be supplemented nicely by the 2003 catalog of the Zepp-Varga Collection (Vision & Form) at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver.

Seidelman & Turner – The Inuit Imagination: Arctic Myth & Sculpture (1993) Inuit myths and stories, illustrated with wonderful sculptures.

Inuit Women Artists: Voices from Cape Dorset (1994) Again, too many b&w print photos, but the voices of the women are heard well and the art is great.

Lorraine Brandson – Carved from the Land: The Eskimo Museum Collection (1994) commemorates the Museum’s first 50 years and provides insight about the interaction of the Catholic Church with the Inuit in that region.

Celebrating Inuit Art 1948-1970 (1999) Exhibition catalog (hardbound and 189 pages) for the Museum of Civilization’s Iqqaipaa exhibition marking the inauguration of Nunavut. (I admit, I’m a sucker for well-illustrated catalogs, but a nice retrospective essay by James Houston helps too.)

Sanattiaqsimajut: Inuit Art from the Carlton University Art Gallery Collection (2009) Exhibition catalog with many interesting essays, including artist  interviews and commentary.

Tuvaq: Inuit Art and the Modern World (2010) This book was thoroughly panned in IAQ after it came out, but I found it nicely illustrated with interesting essays, but apparently not interesting enough for the reviewer.

Listening to the Stone: Inuit Art from the Bieri Family Collection (2015) Exhibition catalog from the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis – well-illustrated with great pieces by classic artists, and nice biographical  information.


I think any collection is better with documentation of the art and artists whose work you own (not just your provenance of the work), but that is my own personal bias. You can love and enjoy the art without the books and catalogs, but there are also times when it’s fun to sit down and enjoy great Inuit art from illustrations because you can’t be at the museums that house those pieces (or when a museum isn’t currently displaying them). Having more information about artists and their work never hurts. Do you like Kananginak’s many carvings and prints of muskoxen? Isn’t it interesting to know there aren’t any living on Baffin Island and that he never saw them there?

I know my view of a basic Inuit art library is skewed toward more rather than fewer works, but the pleasure they bring certainly complements the joy I get from being surrounded by the art I love.

Lane Phillips

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