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Her story

Encaustic painting exhibit celebrates Inuit elder’s past and future

Campus and Community

By Mandy Cook

When Inuk Elder Ellen Ford and artist Jennifer Young began their creative collaboration, they spent a long time talking.

Elder Ellen Ford wears a red shirt and stands between encaustic paintings hung in a hallway.
Elder Ellen Ford with some of Jennifer Young’s encaustic paintings at Juniper House.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The purpose was to tell Elder Ford’s story of her childhood in Labrador, of growing up on the land and sea, of going to boarding school, of being adopted and her changing relationship with her family over time.

It also reflects how she has become a knowledge keeper and language speaker for her community.

UnikKausiga: My Story

As part of the artistic journey, Ms. Young gathered up archival documents and issues of Them Days, a Labrador-focused magazine, and Elder Ford’s small collection of family photographs.

They sat together for many hours, the images and the conversation prompting Elder Ford to recollect her store of memories.

One of those photographs made it into one of the eight encaustic paintings — an ancient process involving layers of heated wax and coloured pigments — currently on exhibit at Juniper House, the Indigenous Student Resource Centre on Memorial’s St. John’s campus.

The exhibit, titled UnikKausiga: My Story (Inuk Elder Ellen Ford), coincides with National Inuit Day on Nov. 7.

Kisijamik Attuinnaumutinik: Preparing the Seal Skin by Jennifer Young
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

In the photo, Elder Ford and her sister, Judy, can be seen as young girls, chewing the edge of a seal skin.

The photo, which has been digitally transferred onto tissue paper, sits in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, while a three-dimensional wax mold of a copper and bone ulu (knife) is positioned in the upper left-hand corner.

The majority of the image is an array of white and grey speckles, with longitudinal lines suggesting the shape of a seal pelt.

The chewing was just one part of processing the animal’s hide for its ultimate purpose.

(“It didn’t taste very good,” said Elder Ford with a wry grin.)

The sisters had already been put to work as soon as their father harvested the animal and given it to her mother, a masterful sewer, to transform from hide to useful items such as slippers, boots and other articles of clothing.

“Mom would get us to stamp on the skin to make it soft. Then she would say, ‘Here Ellen, slide on that,’ and we would slide on it to make [the fur] shiny. And she’d say, ‘Make sure you slide with the fur.’”

Gathering details

Because there are so few available photos, Ms. Young and Elder Ford developed a process where they would talk about what life was like growing up in Inuit culture, and the artist would interpret what she heard.

Sometimes it took several attempts to get it right, according to Ms. Young.

“Sometimes it would take two or three tries. I would try one way and Ellen would give me more direction,” she said.

Sapugak — Fishing Island by Jennifer Young
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Like the painting of the tent: Elder Ford remembered it more from the “broadside” view, so that’s what Ms. Young did.

It’s Elder Ford’s favourite – it’s a joyful memory for her.

While her father fished for char in Sapugak, or Black Island, off the North Coast of Labrador, in late June and July of each year, the children would pick berries with their mother and play.

In Ms. Young’s piece, the painting of the tent, sewed by Elder Ford’s mother, is tied open at the end. The black-blue of the ocean laps at the brown shore; snow-covered mountains can be made out in the far distance.

Two little figures in hooded coats are at the far left. Elder Ford says Ms. Young got the details “right.”

Figures strongly

No matter what memory Elder Ford shared with Ms. Young or anyone she recalls her stories for, there is a reoccurring subject: her father, Joe (Julius) Ford.

While he himself doesn’t figure exactly in Ms. Young’s images, he is there in Elder Ford’s description of each piece.

From paintings inspired by his time spent hunting for caribou and cod fishing to working his trap line and keeping a dog team to pull the Kamutik (sled), Elder Ford returns to him again and again.

Not surprisingly, then, when asked how she felt when she saw the first piece, she says it brought her thoughts straight to her father.

“He was such a mild mannered and hard worker. Quiet and peaceful. Whatever came up, he fixed it and got on with his work. He was good to talk to. Mostly I worked with him and the dog team.”

Kullik: Ellen, Elder and Knowledge Keeper by Jennifer Young
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Ms. Young says one of the most meaningful pieces for her is Kullik: Ellen, Elder and Knowledge Keeper.

In it, the figure of Elder Ford stands back on in a traditional hooded coat.

Blue and icy white is prominently swathed across the bottom of the image, but the eye is caught by blue, orange and brown lines curving away from her.

Jennifer Young is at left and Elder Ellen Ford is at right. A group of encaustic paintings is hung on the wall between them. A bookshelf is by Elder Ford.
From left are artist Jennifer Young and Elder Ellen Ford at Juniper House on the St. John’s campus.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

She says that when they started their collaboration, there was not a lot discussed about Inuit culture: lamp lighting, drumming or throat singing, as it was not encouraged by the church.

“This piece, to me, is about Ellen’s future,” said Ms. Young.

“She is now a lamp keeper and an incredible leader that many young people want to emulate … That’s why she’s back on: she’s going into an incredible future. And there’s still much to do.”

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