The Ceramic Artists of Kangiqliniq

Artist Project: Shary Boyle celebrates the history of innovation and collaboration in clay at Matchbox Studios in Nunavut. 

ᓴᖅᑭᑎᑦᑎᓂᖅ ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᑉ ᑲᓇᖕᓇᖓᓂᑦ ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒌᖕᓂᖅ ᑭᒡᒐᖅᑐᐃᔩᑦ
Ceramic sculpture of a women with long hair and a fish tail, there are 3 heads emerging from her tail and hands.

The 1960s witnessed a ceramic Big Bang in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU, hurling wild new forms into the Inuit art stratosphere. Though their works were often misunderstood by government funders and private collectors, the artists worked to pave the way for a new generation. Since the early 1990s, ceramic artists of the Matchbox Gallery have taken up the mantle to vibrantly create, innovate new techniques and collaborate. In this Feature, a renown southern ceramist celebrates Kangiqliniq artists’ unique creative output during a transitional juncture in the scene.

Black and white photograph of 9 men facing the camera. They are all holding pots in their hands and wearing parkas—many have sunglasses on and cigarettes in their mouths.
Back: Eli Tikeayak, Charlie Panigoniak Middle: John Kavik, Michael Angutituak, John Okalik Front: Claude Grenier, Laurent Aksadjuak, unidentified, Yvo Samgushak in Kangiqliniq, 1965. PHOTO GEORGE SWINTON COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA ARCHIVES.

Clay records the imprint of a hand, and so contains an intimate record of the person who touches it. It is dug from riverbanks and transformed through chemistry and fire; it is elemental. I have been working with clay for 15 years and have been drawing my whole life. With my own art I tell stories, boldly and with love. I want to communicate, to provoke recognition of our common unconscious. This is what I feel I share with Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, Pierre Aupilardjuk and John Kurok—artists I have collaborated with in ceramic sculptures and drawings. 

In December 2015 I proposed a seven-person exhibition to the Esker Foundation in Calgary, AB; a show of narrative, handmade art and cross-cultural collaboration that ‘bridged’ the contemporary/ historical, Inuit/colonial settler, and craft/fine art divides. Earthlings was originally to be a solo show of my work, but I wanted to share that big space and opportunity with artists I loved and whose work I connected with, all of whom happened to be from the Arctic. The exhibition would introduce the extraordinary ceramics created at the legendary Matchbox Gallery to contemporary art audiences across Canada.

Tan-coloured ceramic sculpture of a head with two faces. The noses on each face are animal-shaped: a seal and a whale.
Robert Tatty, Three Faces with Animal Noses (c. 1966). COURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY.

The Matchbox Gallery was not the first to experiment with clay in the Kivalliq Region. Intriguing evidence of ancient ceramics have been found and debated throughout the Arctic, and in the mid ’60s local clay from Kangiqliniq riverbanks was harvested for the original ceramic program. [1] Launched in 1963 as a government expansion of the northern arts and crafts economic initiative, Quebecois artist Claude Grenier was hired to manage the first Arctic ceramic art centre. Clay was to become a signature medium of artists in Kangiqliniq.

Historically, Inuit of this region travelled the western coast and inland rivers of Kivalliq for seasonal fishing and hunting. In the 1950s, Kangiqliniq was a makeshift mining settlement, one that had drawn Inuit from various camps to the hard wage labour of nickel extraction. When the deposit ran out, the mine closed, but many people who had migrated for work now felt it their home and did not want to leave.

Copper-coloured ceramic sculpture of a head with two faces stacked vertically, on the top of the faces are Arctic marine mammals.
Pie Kukshout, Two Faced Head with Climbing Figure and Bird (c. 1970). COURTESY WADDINGTON’S.

Some turned to art. The talent was there and collectors were buying—many excellent carvers like George Arluk, John Kavik (1897–1993), Eli Tikeayak (1933–1996) and John Tiktak (1916–1981) had established themselves, using the hard local stone dug up from the mines. But the idea of ceramics was interesting: it had the appeal of softness, and no stone dust, which made working inside possible through the long winter. Also, the Arts and Crafts Centre would pay wages.

Artists took to this new, complex earthly material. Early attempts at the wheel were abandoned in favour of hand building, with the artists freestyling sculptural interventions. Pie Kukshout (1911–1980) and Robert Tatty (1927–2009) seemed to be in a competition for best psychedelic portrait. Prismatic faces, noses transforming into seals, abstracted patterning of hair and feathers, creepy bugs, distorted birds and bears, pop-cultural influences such as alligators—the artists were on fire and clay afforded an elastic pliability that matched the speed of their imagination.

Ceramic sculpture in white, beige and dark brown of a head with two seals on the cheeks of the face.
Roger Askadjuak, Head with Seal (2003). COURTESY WADDINGTON’S.

The first ceramics were wild, funny and fierce, with experimental glazes (including shoe polish) that didn’t go down well with the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council, a southern body tasked with determining what art was to reach the market. Grenier and his wife Cécile cultivated an atmosphere of joy and innovation, allowing artists to develop their voices and craft, but the reality was that the works weren’t selling, even after exhibitions were held across Canada and internationally. [2] 

It has been proposed that people in the South were resistant to Inuit ceramics because they weren’t made of traditional materials, and were therefore not “authentic.” This was despite early marketing attempts to link the ceramics with ancient Thule pottery shards, justifying the production in Kangiqliniq by way of historical precedent. [3] 

I am troubled by the word authentic in reference to art. It is a romantic myth that denies contemporary realities and traps real people in an imagined past—a safe, ‘pre-contact’ world where the uncomfortable truths of capitalism and colonial violence do not have to be reckoned with by a southern audience. Is Inuit art not any artwork made by an Inuk? [4]

White, grey and dark brown ceramic sculpture of a face with no pupils and a goose emerging from its mouth.

Claude and Cécile Grenier left Kangiqliniq in 1970 and were succeeded by Robert Billyard, who continued the fight for support of those early, exceptional ceramic artists. Program funding, however, had moved from the federal government to the Government of the Northwest Territories, who were not willing to invest in the production of experimental ceramics that didn’t sell. Michael Kusugak, who ran the studio after Billyard’s departure in 1973, was young and enthusiastic but also faced significant difficulties. Governmental influence on the program had increased, and the Department of Economic Development refused to allow the ceramics to be marketed across Canada. They insisted on limiting retail outlets—and audiences— to Kangiqliniq and Yellowknife only. 

The creativity of artists Donat Anawak (1920–1990), Joseph Angatajuak (1935–1976), Michael Angutituak (1912–1982), John Kavik, Joseph Patterk (1912–1993) and many others blazed in ceramics for little over a decade. The program officially closed in 1975. 

I think about these artists and their work as I enter Kangiqliniq. The low January light slanted between backlit sheds like the set of a shadow play. Muskox pelts lay on hard-packed snow by the door of Kivalliq Arctic Foods; the -45°C wind whipping their fur like long dark strands of women’s hair. In January 2016, my friend art collector Marnie Schreiber brought me north to meet the artists working with Matchbox Gallery and the American couple who revitalized the current ceramics program: Jim and Sue Shirley. I came in person with an invitation for artists Pierre Aupilardjuk, John Kurok and Leo Napayok to join me in Alberta for a month-long ceramics residency.

Ceramic sculpture of a head and neck in light tan, its eyes are looking to the side and four bear-like creatures are on its cheeks and forehead.

Painter/printmaker Jim Shirley first came from New York City to the Arctic as a Northwest Territories Arts and Crafts Development officer in 1979. His wife, landscape watercolourist Sue Shirley, followed him shortly thereafter, and they settled in for what has now been decades of a life split between Kangiqliniq and rural New York State. A visionary artist-philosopher concerned with social justice, Jim Shirley was deeply inspired by the excellence of the first Kangiqliniq ceramic program and the creative resilience of the local people. The couple’s early conversations with Philip Hakuluk (1916–1989), Donat Anawak, Laurent Aksadjuak (1935–2002) and Yvo Samgushak (1942–2004), veteran ceramic artists who spoke with great fondness of the original program, encouraged the Shirleys to launch the Matchbox ceramics workshop in 1991.

What followed was an odyssey of artistic innovation and communal learning. Early grants from the Department of Economic Development and Tourism of the Northwest Territories allowed for a ‘matchbox’ building to be moved to the Art Centre site and transformed into a studio for ceramics, drawing and printmaking. Word got out that the Matchbox was holding courses and paying wages. Hakuluk and Anawak had passed away by the time ceramics were firing again, but elder Laurent Aksadjuak was an honoured member of the new studio, bringing his talented son Roger Aksadjuak (1972– 2014) in to learn by his side. Mariano Aupilardjuk (1923–2012) and his son Pierre heard of the new ceramics course while they were living in Arviat and drove by snow machine to learn clay together. [5]

Two white, tan and dark grey ceramic sculptures of figures are facing each other with their arms raised as if in conversation. Many faces emerge from their bodies.
Pierre Aupilardjuk, Friends Sharing Gossip (n.d.). COURTESY ESKER FOUNDATION PHOTO M.N. HUTCHINSON.

I spoke to Pierre Aupilardjuk in August 2019 and asked him if there was a ceramic artist that influenced him in those early days. He immediately answered: Laurent Aksadjuak. “I watched him telling stories about his artwork. And from him I started thinking about my dad’s stories,” he said. Sharing stories is important to Aupilardjuk who elaborated, “If I say something in words you can hear it, but you cannot see it. When I see something with my eyes and ears, I can remember easier. It’s more—much stronger than just words.” [6]

Ceramic program veteran Yvo Samgushak helped teach young Phillip Ugjuk, grandson of the legendary carver/ceramist, John Kavik. Both artists are Deaf and do not speak, but communicated through demonstration and sign language. Gifted local drawer John Kurok and his friend Jack Nuviyak (1971–2016) joined the studio in their early twenties, interpreting traditional subjects with modern eyes and hands. Of Samgushak in those early days, Kurok pays his respect, “I learned a lot from him just by watching and talking to him.”

Dark copper-red ceramic sculpture in the shape of a vessel, two carved fish emerge from one side.
Laurent Aksadjuak, Men, Muskox, Fish (1990). COURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY.

Though men have dominated the discussion of ceramics from Kangiqliniq since production began in the 1960s, women have always played a significant role. Helen Iguptak and Amauyah Noah participated in the Matchbox’s Traditional Arts Workshop and worked in the studio to create prints and dolls. Both occasionally made ceramics as well. Lucy Sanertanut, an ivory carver originally from Naujaat (Repulse Bay), NU, was a strong, vital presence at the Matchbox, and a valued instructor. She began working at the studio in the 1990s and specialized in hand-built pots with stylized faces and sensitively observed bears. She stopped working in the studio when she moved from Kangiqliniq. 

Clay is a difficult medium to master. Over time Jim Shirley and the Matchbox artists taught themselves and each other how to sculpt, dry and fire the clay properly to avoid cracking and blow-ups in the kiln. The chemistry of glazing didn’t compel them: telling stories and refining personal style was their collective preference. After much trial and error, Matchbox developed their signature finishing technique: sealing bisque-fired ware with a slip-like coating of terra sigillata, then carefully nestling the sculptures in layers of sawdust to slowly smolder overnight in an outdoor barrel. Like a seal’s fur, the spotted, swirling brown, grey and white surfaces caused by the smoke can’t be pre-determined. This is a dangerous stage. “In wintertime when we did barrel firing, the hot and cold temperatures changing meant that the ceramics could crack or spoil. That is the worst part of ceramics,” says Kurok. A successful surface pattern was a mysterious offering of the process, and as such, humbling and beautiful. 

The Matchbox style often took the base form of a hand-coiled pot, bust or more rarely, free-standing animals such as a bear or muskox. The artists then applied their own imagination to create narrative elements attached onto or cut into the clay. Roger Aksadjuak learned from his father, becoming one of the most admired sculptors in the program. His expressive characters—animals, mer-men and multiple figures crammed into boats complete with tiny motors and radios—remain classics of the era.

White and beige ceramic sculpture of a head with two birds in its hair, many figures and animals are carved into its face.
John Kurok and Leo Napayok, Three Birds (n.d.). COURTESY ESKER FOUNDATION PHOTO M.N. HUTCHINSON.

Unique to the success of the studio was the leap into collaboration. Like a conversation, sculptures were passed between artists. Salliq (Coral Harbour), NU, stone carver Leo Napayok joined the studio and began to cut bas-relief imagery into the surfaces of the other artist’s unfired ceramics. Of the process he said, “Everyone had something different to say and we all liked it.” Napayok especially enjoyed the peace that would come when everyone settled into collective focus. “When we talk too much, we’re not getting anything done, but when we started being quiet, there was something going on. Progress was going on.” 

At its buzzing height in the early 2000s, the Matchbox held education sessions. John Kurok remembers, “We did English in the morning and math, so that was nice. Then in the afternoon, we would be doing ceramics.” Artists such as Jessie Kenalogak from Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, were invited to draw and share new techniques, keeping local artists challenged and engaged. Elders, children and family dropped by to watch the artists and the community ceramic workshops that were offered. This collaborative, cross-cultural spirit lifted their work to new heights of experimental excellence. But as time passed, funding became harder to access. Matchbox began working with an Inuit arts distribution company but found the pressure to produce higher quantities diminished the quality of their work. Finally, payment was shifted to piecework and artists began coming in more sporadically. Elders Laurent Aksadjuak and Yvo Samgushak had passed away, and the deaths of Roger Aksadjuak in 2014 and Jack Nuviyak a few years later were a blow to everyone. By the time I travelled to Kangiqliniq, the studio was rarely open, and only a small handful of artists were still sculpting.

Light tan and dark grey ceramic vessel with two figures reaching over on each side, marine mammals emerge from the inside and surface of the form.

In the months that followed, funding to bring the three artists south to Medalta in Medicine Hat, AB, was secured from organizations including the Esker Foundation and the Inuit Art Foundation. At the last moment Napayok was unable to join us, so for the month of September 2016 Kurok, Aupilardjuk and I worked together at the big Medalta ceramic studio in the grassy heart of Alberta’s badlands. Supported by a knowledgeable staff, the residency is right next door to Plainsman Clays, the same company that produced the materials the artists used at the Matchbox. Right away Kurok and Aupilardjuk got busy, warming up with forms they were familiar with. Kurok made a series of his signature masks, with perfectly combed hair and snow geese emerging from heads and mouths like migrating ideas. Aupilardjuk started an ambitious story-pot, circled by men, Nuliajuk and a small figure peeking out of a snowhouse; his child self watching for his father to come home from hunting. Two fat seals sit on top near the vase hole, as if deciding whether to slip off the ice and under the surface of the sea. 

Many wonderful sculptures took shape that September and we experimented with new clay and firing techniques such as porcelain and the soda kiln. Kurok taught me how he sculpted such fine and perfect hair, and I taught them both how I made my large, expressive sculptures of hands. Aupilardjuk made his landmark piece Giving Without Receiving (2016) at that time. 

Towards the end of this memorable month, I asked Aupilardjuk if he would like to make three small heads for a porcelain body I had sculpted, showing him a sketch of my idea. Facing Forward (2016) turned out so well that Kurok was inspired to sculpt a reclining version of the goddess Nuliajuk, and asked Aupilardjuk to make heads for her raised arms and tail. Once they completed this sculpture, they invited me to paint, glaze or fire it any way I chose. These collaborations between artists of different imaginations, cultures, genders and ages became symbols of what can be achieved when we work together and are inspired as equals. ᓄᓕᐊᔪᒃ ᐅᖃᓗᑉᑉᖅᐳ (Nuliajuk oqaluppoq) (2016) is currently on public display as part of the permanent collection of the Canadian Consulate in New York City.

Ceramic sculpture of a women with long hair and a fish tail, there are 3 heads emerging from her tail and hands.
Pierre Aupilardjuk, Shary Boyle and John Kurok, ᓄᓕᐊᔪᒃ ᐅᖃᓗᑉᑉᖅᐳ (Nuliajuk oqaluppoq) (detail) (2016). COURTESY ESKER FOUNDATION PHOTO M.N. HUTCHINSON.

In January 2017 the exhibition Earthlings opened at the Esker Foundation in Calgary. Most of the works created at Medalta were included, as well as an exceptional selection of earlier Matchbox ceramics. By inviting Aupilardjuk, Kurok and other artists to share the exhibition in this prestigious contemporary art gallery, it was my intention to dissolve the invisible walls, in our minds and institutions, that divide fine art from craft, folk from MFA’s and Indigenous from non-Indigenous artists. If an artist desires to use clay—a material demeaned by critics as “craft” as well as culturally “inauthentic”—the only thing the artist can do is smile and flip those authorities the bird. 

But when artists are singularly dependent on their sales to feed their families, like many in the North are, they can’t afford to laugh. The Arctic doesn’t support the romantic European notion that artists create exclusively from a ‘passionate calling,’ nor do Inuit families hold legacy wealth. Why were most of the ceramic artists men? “It’s very hard to find a job for them up here in Rankin,” Aupilardjuk told me. Napayok had moved to Kangiqliniq from Salliq, “because I was a carver and there was more work and people buying more carving, so I moved here.” When asked about his focus on ceramics, Kurok said, “When I’m drawing, I walk around town and try and sell them, but I don’t make much. For ceramics I can make more.” These three people are just a few of the many talented artists now without consistent access to supplies, studio or income in Kangiqliniq.

Jim and Sue Shirley have much to weigh as they decide the future of the Matchbox. Their studio has a deep, rich legacy that has affected many lives, and it has been at the epicentre of theirs. My conversation with Napayok touched on his compassion for Jim Shirley’s difficult succession. “We understand. We also understand because that was his life, and he don’t want to let go for now,” Napayok said. The Shirleys are artists and rightfully proud of what they gave to keep the studio running for 30 years. Making ceramics requires infrastructure. This means consistent funding, decent space and indoor tables, running water, a supply chain to organize the materials, shipping and sales, and most importantly— kilns. I asked John Kurok, Leo Napayok and Pierre Aupilardjuk about their greatest wish for the future of ceramics in Kangiqliniq. Napayok responded, “My wish would be to build a brand-new building, better kilns and to open the place year-round.” Kurok proposed, “I want it to grow bigger, get outside of Canada. Get to be well known. That’s my purpose, to go for that.”

Ceramic sculpture of a white hand with a red seal emerging from the wrist, white seal on the palm and four heads on each fingertip.
John Kurok and Shary Boyle, Sugluk (2016). COURTESY ESKER FOUNDATION PHOTO M.N. HUTCHINSON.

Over the phone from Kangiqliniq, Aupilardjuk responded, “I would want to have somebody working here to keep the Matchbox Gallery going. It would help people who need jobs up here to make art. A person from the South, working together with Inuit, would be very nice. Like, a non-Inuit person could work there, and that person would know about the South and we would know about the North.” I liked his practical activism and started to say, “That sounds…” but before I could finish, Aupilardjuk responded, “Strong.”

The artists of Kangiqliniq have much to teach about innovation, adaptability and working together. The Matchbox ceramic sculptures were a huge hit in our touring Earthlings exhibition, gaining many new, enthusiastic fans and collectors. Ceramics as a medium is becoming an important, respected material across contemporary art circles internationally, and the clay artists of Kangiqliniq should be in a position to benefit. The excellence of their unique ceramic history justifies full government and public support. With talented, skilled ceramic artists ready to create, the spark is alive to build an exciting and successful future. It takes many hands to run a ceramic studio, and many stages to create a finished piece. As the lines dissolve between craft and fine art, and restrictive notions of authenticity fade away, let us all step up to the collaborative challenge of keeping ceramics alive and thriving in the North.


[1] Heather Igloliorte, “Inuit Ceramics and Other Outliers,” in Earthlings, edited by Naomi Potter and Shauna Thompson (Calgary: Esker Foundation, 2017), 93-99. Published in conjunction with the exhibition “Earthlings” curated by Shary Boyle and Shauna Thompson, shown at the Esker Foundation in Calgary, AB. 

[2] Between 1967 and 1970 ceramics from Kangiqliniq were exhibited in Edmonton, AB, Montreal, QC, London, ON, Ottawa, ON, Saskatoon, SK, Toronto, ON and Winnipeg, MB in Canada, Fort Worth, TX, Los Angeles, CA, Middletown, CT, Milwaukee, WI, New York, NY, Palo Alto, CA, Rochester, NY, Scottsdale, AZ, Washington, DC, Seattle, WA in the United States and Paris, France, Sydney, Australia and Stockholm, Sweden internationally. 

[3] Stacey Neale, “The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project, Part Two: The Quest for Authenticity and Market Share,” Inuit Art Quarterly 14.2 (Summer 1999): 6-17. 

[4] Abraham Anghik Ruben, “Where We Go From Here,” Inuit Art Quarterly 30.3 (Fall 2017): 54-63. 

[5] Jim Shirley, excerpt from “A Change in Fortunes,” Ceramic Work from Rankin Inlet, (Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, 2006), 12. 

[6] Quotes from Pierre Aupilardjuk, John Kurok and Leo Napayok from interviews conducted by the author in August, 2019.


Credit: This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. Copyright the Inuit Art Foundation.

This story is part of the Nunavut Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.