Published: October 24, 2000
The Confessions of Canada’s Living Treasure
STONINGTON, CONN. – Marguerite Riordan is well known among antiques collectors for her unerring taste in New England furniture and folk art. Less widely known is her role in the lively community of Stonington, a seaside village whose exceptional charm and historic stature draws quietly sophisticated weekenders, antiquarians and artists of every stripe.
To this last group belongs James Houston, a writer, painter, designer and collector who is introduced at local dinner parties as a living treasure of Canada. Houston, who has lived in the village since the early 1980s, was recently honored with an exhibition at Riordan’s gallery at 8 Pearl Street. The wide-ranging display combined a lifelong assortment of drawings, prints and paintings by the artist, as well as his much sought after creations in glass for Steuben.
Houston is a prolific talent whose accomplishments have included two dozen books and one feature-length film, The White Dawn. For much of his work, the artist has drawn on his experiences among the Inuit, with whom he lived between 1948 and 1962. In 1991, Houston published the first volume of his fascinating memoirs, Confessions of An Igloo Dweller: .
“I ran out of the Hudson’s Bay Company staff house where I had been staying with the 1948 crop of young clerks fresh out from Scotland, bound for Indian country, along with a few young Canadian nurses. To hell with coffee,” wrote Houston, describing how, as a young man, he had hopped a flight on a single-engine plane to Inukjuak.
There were no roads or rails in the wilderness, no scheduled transportation, and, until Houston came along, no market for Inuit craft or even currency to pay for it. Nine years earlier, in 1939, the Canadian government had formally assumed responsibility for the nomadic hunters then called Eskimos. The artist wrote presciently, “I felt that I was visiting them at the end of an era.”
Houston acquired his first carvings in exchange for the drawings he made of his Inuit friends. “Were these carvings something old, I asked myself, perhaps made by their grandfathers or handed down over many generations? I had seen such ancient ivory carvings in the Royal Ontario Museum with my father and later in museums in London and Paris.”
Houston returned home with his sculpture to Grand Mere, Quebec, where he worked as art director of a small advertising agency. At the suggestion of a friend, he soon called on the Canadian Guild of Craft in Montreal. The Guild asked him to return to the Arctic to acquire more carvings, setting up a chit system that allowed native artists to exchange carvings for credit at a Hudson’s Bay Company post.
Houston’s first exhibition at the Guild in 1949 was both well publicized and commercially successful. It attracted the attention of early collectors of contemporary Inuit art, among them Ian Lindsay, whose holdings are now at the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Harry Handel, whose assemblage went to the Art Gallery of Ontario; and Sam Sarick. Carvings that Inuit artists might have received $4 or $5 for at the time now sell for as much as $50,000. Houston’s own collection is one of the best, despite the fact that he has given dozens of works to both the National Gallery of Canada and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At Houston’s encouragement, more Inuit began to carve, but by 1953 supply had overwhelmed demand. Houston and his first wife, Allie, began searching for other markets. They flew to New York, then Chicago. In Ann Arbor, Mich., they called on an old friend, Eugene B. Power, president of University Microfilms. Power assembled a group that included Dr Robert Hatt, director of Cranbrook, and Dr. Bruce Inverarity, an anthropologist who subsequently gave his collection of Inuit art to the British Museum.
Interested in purchasing and selling native art, as well as publicizing it, the group formed Eskimo Art, Inc. Through its activities, Eskimo Art generated enough interest in the carvings to offset the Guild’s temporary slump. The group succeeded in having carvings declared an art form by U.S. Customs, thus enabling the pieces to cross the border duty-free. Eskimo Art was also involved in organizing exhibitions at the University of Michigan, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Museum of Natural History in New York.
“Canadian galleries suddenly became aware of the existence of this new art phenomenon born in Arctic Canada, and of the remarkable individual quality of the sculptures. Collectors began to know the name of the sculptors, and in time Inuit art appeared on postal stamps,” Houston wrote. Canadian Eskimo Art, a booklet Houston designed and wrote with R.A.J. Phillips, was published in 1954 and remains a collector’s rdf_Description. That same year, Life magazine printed photographs of a show at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., bringing worldwide attention to the art of native Canadians.
Houston made his first trip to Cape Dorset, or Kingait, as the Inuit call it, in 1951. In the winter of 1957 he initiated what is now a world-famous print workshop. As Houston tells it, he took an ivory walrus tusk engraved by an Inuit carver named Osuitok, rubbed it with black ink, and laid a piece of toilet tissue across the surface, quickly stripping it back for the hunter to see. “I had pulled a fairly good negative image off Osuitok’s incised design,” Houston wrote. The Inuit carver was persuaded.
To the Inuit’s traditional imagery and style sense Houston contributed techniques he had absorbed during his study of woodblock printmaking in Tokyo and engraving at Atelier 17 in Paris. In 1960, Terry Ryan, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art, joined the workshop. “This led to the development of a limited Inuit print series, a practice that is still in progress not only in Cape Dorset, but now in a good number of Arctic settlements, extending across Canada and into Alaska and Greenland,” wrote Houston. The cooperative has been managed by the Inuit for more than 40 years.
“It was Houston who encouraged Eskimos in their ancient art of stone carving, brought their work to the attention of collectors and museums, and introduced them to the modern art of printmaking,” wrote Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., president of both Steuben and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Houston joined the art-glass company in 1962, adapting to Manhattan as readily as he had to the Arctic. “He has been one of Steuben’s most able and prolific designers,” Houghton wrote in 1987, on the occasion of “James Houston: a Retrospective.” For a second exhibition in 1991 of the Master Designer’s work, “The Natural World of James Houston,” the Canadian was photographed by the legendary Irving Penn. Houston arrived at the studio wearing a parka. As he reached for a comb, Penn cried, ‘Stop!’ The resulting portrait captured the rugged adventurer in an appropriately wind-blown state.
Most of Houston’s designs for Steuben explore natural themes, and many allude to his experiences in the far north. One of his best known works is “Trout & Fly.” In this dynamic 1966 exhibition piece, a leaping trout snaps at an 18-karat gold fly. The trout’s spotted scales are cleverly suggested by a pattern of bubbles beneath the smooth surface of the glass. A series from the early 1970s – “Arctic Fisherman,” “Ice Bear” and “Ice Hunter” – brilliantly exploits glass’s icy qualities.
“Houston is certainly one of Steuben’s most recognized and popular designers,” says Jeffrey Purtell, an Amherst, N.H., dealer specializing in vintage pieces by the company. “His themes have very wide appeal. His work is really timeless. It transcends the generations. I like the pieces myself and try to have them available for my clients.”
The comprehensive display at the Marguerite Riordan Gallery represented every era and medium in this energetic man’s career. There were sensitive renderings in chalk of bears, owls, huskies and cranes. Colorful, hothouse canvases reminiscent of Gauguin were worked in acrylic. Best of all were the simple, self-assured pen and ink drawings and prints that record Houston’s youthful infatuation with the intimate tangle of the Inuit hunting community, a lost world of snow and sea. “I believe the opening of Canada’s Arctic was as exciting in the 1950s and 1960s as the opening of the North American West a century earlier,” wrote Houston, whose first-hand account will forever be treasured.
Marguerite Riordan Gallery is at 8 Pearl Street. Telephone, 860/535-2511.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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