Art pioneer passes on

by Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Alma Houston left behind a legacy for the world to appreciate.

Prior to her passing in December, she devoted more than four decades of her life to Inuit artists and their art.

But she was much more than just a promoter or a curator. Alma Houston fell in love with Inuit people and specifically, with the community of Cape Dorset.

John Houston remembers his mother as a woman whose life was changed upon contact with Inuit culture.

"For my mother, it was the experience that completely changed her life and brought her closer to the Inuit people. When you hold their babies and eat their food, you really get to know people," says John.

Alma's first experience with the Arctic came in 1950 when she first met her husband-to-be, James Houston.

"My father brought out the first shows of Inuit sculpture, then called Eskimo carvings, and my mother went and covered it. She was a young journalist at the time and she just fell in love with the art and with my father I guess," says John, 43.

James and Alma married and moved to the Arctic in 1951 and eventually settled in the community of Cape Dorset where they lived until 1962. Both of their sons, John and Sam, were raised in Cape Dorset.

"At the time, this was practically unheard of, taking a young woman across the Arctic, travelling by dog team with the Inuit, building a different igloo each night and travelling in perpetual night for a month and a half," says John.

James says Alma loved the entire experience. "She was a wonderful person, just right. She was only the second non-Inuit woman to cross Baffin Island. She was full of courage, fun and really good about everything," remembers James, who is credited with starting modern Inuit art.

James currently divides his time between his homes in Connecticut and the Queen Charlotte Islands and he travels extensively around the world giving lectures on Inuit art.

"More so than my father ... my mother, she was completely knocked off her feet by the whole thing, so much so that she dedicated the rest of her life to the aims and aspirations of the Inuit people and their art," says John.

He remembers his mother as serving a unique purpose in Cape Dorset.

"A number of the younger artists and the women artists would come to my mother as a more accessible person. My father was always raging around up to his arms in printmaking. There was a certain point where my mother would take the person and say 'come with me to the print shop, my husband needs to see your work' and that person's career would effectively be launched," says John.

Alma was also responsible for starting a bakery, a women's sewing circle and she was Baffin Island's first postmistress.

Nicknamed "Arnakutaak" (the tall woman) by the Inuit, Alma and her family were fluent in Inuktitut.

"At home, we spoke English or Inuktitut when we were alone but the four of us were rarely alone. There were always Inuit people around doing something. We (Sam and John) had a party on the day between our birthdays, on Summer Solstice. I was thinking that it would have been possible to do a census of Cape Dorset because there were 200 or 300 people in our house and that's how many people were in Cape Dorset. The Inuit made our house a happy place to grow up in," says John.

Terry Ryan delivered the eulogy at Alma's funeral and has been asked by Alma's sons to join them when they spread her ashes in the hills above Cape Dorset in August later this year.

The manager of the Cape Dorset Co-op first met Alma in 1956.

"She was very much a part of the community and well loved by the women in particular whom she targeted and loved. A lot of people don't really believe she's gone," says Ryan. "Jim's notable contributions to the North were aided and abetted by Alma who forcibly represented women in their crafts. Women in particular gained when she moved south."

Alma and James parted company in 1962 but remained the closest of friends until her death.

She moved her children to Ottawa in 1963 after her divorce and started a marketing organization called the Canadian Arctic Producers Co-operative Limited. It eventually mobilized the Inuit art co-op system.

"Today, all the co-ops and a high percentage of Inuit art is marketed through here," says John.

After receiving the Order of Canada in 1975 for her devotion to Inuit art, Alma opened the Houston North Gallery in Lunenburg with her son John.

Shortly before her death, John says Alma wished she had more time to spend on the Inuit problem of teen suicide. "Maybe that's what she's doing now."