A Bridge in Pangnirtung

Stephen Osborne

In the spring of this year I acquired two stone-cut prints that I had been admiring since shortly after meeting the artist Elisapee Ishulutaq in 213, on the hottest day in August, at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver. The occasion was an exhibition of work by eight artists from Nunavut for which I had received an email invitation. Recognizable as the guests of honour were Elisapee Ishulutaq, who is from Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, and Mary Ayaq Anowtalik, who is from Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay; they were the oldest people in the room, dressed distinctively if rather anomalously in winter parkas, leggings and mukluks. It was warm in the gallery and the temperature continued to rise as more people arrived. The two guests of honour, both of them grandmothers, seemed to be the only ones not wilting in the heat, although like many of the onlookers they fanned themselves continuously with copies of the exhibition notes, which had been printed on a convenient weight of cardstock. They sat in chairs on one side of the gallery, a well-lighted ethereal space filled with art and crowded with people; there were prints on the walls and along a hallway, and small sculptures here and there.

I was uncertain of the protocols of the private gallery, where I felt more like a rubbernecker than a legitimate patron; I hesitated at the back near the street door before making my way through the crowd toward the artists. In another moment I was bending toward Elisapee Ishulutaq and shaking her hand and speaking to her rather awkwardly as I didn’t know whether she spoke English. A young man appeared at her side and identified himself as her grandson, and with his help I was able to introduce myself as a Pangnirtungmiut; that is to say as someone who was born in Pangnirtung. Elisapee Ishulutaq smiled and said that she remembered my mother, and that she remembered me too. Some years ago, my mother had given me a beautifully toned stone-cut print that she had purchased in Pangnirtung in 198, from Elisapee Ishulutaq: it was an image of the caribou hunt: a seated figure in a field of white, a shadow of a caribou in the distance and the form of an arrow hovering in the space between them.

As the speeches began I retreated to the rear of the crowd, and as the speeches went on I studied some of the art on display and felt, briefly, and in some confusion, the challenge that certain works of art can present, at certain times and in certain places, when the object of one’s scrutiny, so to speak, seems to pre-empt perception and to present a challenge of its own, or an admonition, at the least a species of reminder. I was inexperienced in art galleries, and equally unsettled looking at the art and at the people around me: patrons, clients, collectors no doubt, well-wishers and passersby who happened to drift in through the open door: like some of the art on the walls, they too threatened to look back. When the speeches were done and the artists had been suitably applauded, each of them sang a song in Inuktitut by way of welcoming the audience assembled to welcome them; Elisapee Ishulutaq, I recall, sang a song about a man (according to her grandson) who turns to stone.

After the songs, I allowed myself to drift out to the sidewalk, where it was cooler and where I could return to the invisibility of civilian life. I walked north for a few blocks, onto Granville Bridge to where the bridge rises in the middle, and looked out over False Creek at the myriad condominium towers sheathed in turquoise glass and concrete slabs, above which in the distance could be glimpsed the proprietary view of mountain peaks unconcealed from sight by the View Protection Guidelines of 1989 (expressed in the formula Hx = ((Dx)(Lr-Lv)-LBx-Lv)/Dr); in fact, I was standing at the intersection of View Cones number 1, 12.1 and 12.3, and therefore had a clear view of the peaks of Hollyburn, Grouse and Seymour mountains respectively, and above the fringe of mountain peaks, the blue sky and the white fleecy clouds.

A few days later I found some of the work of Elisapee Ishulutaq online, at the website of the Uqqurmiut Centre on Baffin Island, where I came upon images of the two stone-cut prints that seemed immediately to speak to me, and that I would eventually “acquire” for myself: one was an imaginary urban scene called Downtown Vancouver and the other was an Arctic village scene called Bridge in Pangnirtung; they were both produced in 21 in editions of twenty-five. The Vancouver print was the first Inuit rendering of an urban scene that I had seen; the Pangnirtung print reflected an image of my birthplace that I could almost recognize but for a strange truss-like structure, the bridge named in the title, which looked like it had been dropped into the scene from another world. The image of Vancouver had seemed instantly familiar to me as a glimpse of a city no longer to be seen: colourful low-rise apartments, smoke rising from chimneys, distant mountains obscured in the haze; these days there are few colourful buildings in Vancouver and no chimneys: all is shades of beige, cement grey and toothache-inducing turquoise. Nevertheless, I thought that perhaps the artist had in mind certain parts of the West End, an old neighbourhood near English Bay, and over the following months I walked several times through the West End looking for configurations of older high-rises that might fit the image by Elisapee Ishulutaq that I had seen online. I could find nothing that matched, but the image of Downtown Vancouver, which I returned to again and again, seemed with each viewing to adhere more closely to a dimension of Vancouver that persists in the phase space of the optative, what might have been or what ought to be: a ramshackle assembly of colourful buildings with an appropriate sky and mountains that serve only as backdrop to much more interesting foreground; in fact, not at all the city that I know but a city that I would like to know: the city that I had been seeking on my walks through the West End.

I printed copies of the online images from my computer and pinned them to the wall as a memento or perhaps a reminder of something I meant to do, but at that time I couldn’t say what that might be. I have many photographs of Pangnirtung taken by my parents when I was three years old and younger; none of them has a bridge in it. I had last been in Pangnirtung when I was thirty-five years old and passed a month there in the summer watching the sun circle the fjord beneath iron cliffs and the fringes of the distant glacier; the land remained in full colour twenty-four hours a day, awash in warm light that made details of rock, grass, tundra, ocean, snow and ice stand out in bold relief. Nothing had prepared me for the shimmering air of Pangnirtung: the particular colours and the shapes of the land, or the green and blue undulations of a melting iceberg that lay stranded in the shallows. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at paradise, a tropical paradise as painted by Henri Rousseau, whose imaginary jungle scenes in their lushness and attention to detail could stand as a sign for Pangnirtung in the summer, or at least, I suppose, for “my” Pangnirtung in the summer. Otherwise I have only a distant connection to Pangnirtung and to Arctic scenes: like anyone from the south, I see the North with southern eyes. I couldn’t remember a bridge like the one in the image designed by Elisapee Ishulutaq; what I could recall were a couple of simple beam bridges, mere extensions of the two roads crossing the river that runs through the village.

Several months passed and at Christmas I received as a gift from my partner another print by Elisapee Ishulutaq, made with the grease pencil technique, of a snow goose in flight, and sometime after that it occurred to me that I might look into acquiring, obtaining or collecting Downtown Vancouver and Bridge in Pangnirtung to add to my collection of (so far) the two prints given to me as gifts. And so in the spring of this year I returned to the Marion Scott Gallery on Granville Street and learned that prints from both editions were still available for sale and at a reasonable price. I placed my order, and in conversation with the curator and assistant curator I spoke of my attempts to find the site of Downtown Vancouver, and learned that Elisapee Ishulutaq had created her design in 21 before she had ever seen Vancouver, a fact that made the print even more desirable, and made me think that the condominium view to the north of Granville Bridge might in fact be the appropriate analogue to the stone-cut version. I had only recently discovered that visibility in Vancouver, like the View Cones, is a volatile issue at City Hall, and that “visibility management” has become a matter of growing concern: a recent study by Environment Canada placed the cost of a single “poor visibility event” (as measured by a “visibility index”) at $4.3 million in lost tourist revenue; the struggle to limit these negative visibility events constitutes for some a civic duty of a high order.

A negativity event of another order is reflected in the blue trestle bridge depicted in Bridge in Pangnirtung, which, I have since learned, was assembled with great urgency in 28, when the two beam bridges over the river were destroyed by a flash flood that tore “pieces of permafrost the size of refrigerators” out of the tundra and carried them to the sea; it was the first such event on record, and in the dawning age of global warming, certainly not the last.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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