Master sculptor
Bill Nasogaluak's carvings are complex and multifaceted

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services

NNSL (Jan 25/99) - Before the interview proper, I sat with sculptor/painter Bill Nasogaluak in an informal conversation.

He pulled out photo after photo of sculptures and paintings he had done and made me a promise: "By the time I'm done you'll understand what I do."

Nasogaluak, a father of three grown children, is now considered a master in his own right. His sculptures are all over the world -- Australia, China, Greenland, Finland, and all over the USA. Collectors are effusive with their praise, yet Nasogaluak is as humble as they come, preferring to stick to what he knows -- doing it.

But doing it is not as simple as it looks. Nasogaluak's carvings are complex and multifaceted.

Depending on where you stand, you get a whole different piece. It's not just a matter of seeing the side-view or the back-view of one unified image. Rather, each piece is in a state of transformation. As you move around it, it become something else altogether.

Nasogaluak, who favours Michelangelo's work, now sculpts soapstone, but his goal is to create life-size pieces in marble. He hopes to have one included in the major show he is currently planning for the year 2000.

The artist was interviewed at his studio, while renovations were being conducted.

Yklife: You showed me a picture this afternoon, a picture of you, your brothers and sisters, your dad, in front of a longhouse.

BN: Yes.

Yklife: You grew up in Tuk, you lived in a longhouse?

BN: We grew up in a longhouse without power, without electricity. We were a big family.

Yklife: How big?

BN: I have six brothers and four sisters. But when I was growing up there were some from the younger half and some of them were already gone.

Yklife: What was your experience growing up?

BN: Tuk was very isolated. A lot more isolated. We didn't have the winter roads, there wasn't many vehicles. It was even before the snowmachine, my dad and my brothers having dog teams at that time.

Yklife: Did you start off in one world and end up in another?

BN: Not totally, no. Maybe my older brothers. Actually the older half. That was before my dad and my mother moved into Tuk. You know, they were nomadic. But when I came we were already established

in the town of Tuk. We were going to school. But this was before telephones, before TVs. That was the era I grew up in.

Yklife: Where does the carving come from?

BN: I'm sure it's on my mother's side. I have cousins on my mother's side that are world renown carvers.

Yklife: You mentioned earlier that, whether painting or sculpting, it all comes back down to drawing.

BN: I think with the type of work I do I rely a lot on my drawing, to be able to draw. I always practice. I'm always drawing. I'm sketching. I always fall back to it. To me it's still my favourite medium.

Yklife: Do you have a favourite piece?

BN: People ask me what is my best piece... is that what you mean?

Yklife: Yes.

BN: I'm always very satisfied and relieved when a piece is done. It's finally there. I get to sign it. It's done. My best piece is my next piece. It's never what I've just done. My next piece is my best piece and it

never happens.

Yklife: It never happens.

BN: It never happens. I think if I decide: this is it, this is the one, this is the day I'll die as an artist. I will start dying.

Yklife: I'm going to ask you a silly question. What's the point of art? (Of course, this is when the drill kicks in, drowning out the answer to this deep question. We stare at each other, grinning.)

BN: To me... there's so much. There's no one aspect. One is the need to create. That's one aspect. The other is the need to express myself. To create something that gives you satisfaction... there's some part of you deep down that gives you a good feeling. I can't recommend a better way of making a living.

Yklife: It must be especially satisfying, then, that you are actually making a living.

BN: Yeah. I've spent all my life planning to become a full-time artist. I had a full-time job. I'm an

electronics technician by trade. I spent 18 and a half years until I could become a full-time artist. To make a living as a full-time artist, to me that's success. It's a long road. It's a tough one. But here I am. I make a living at it.

Yklife: You spoke earlier about the hawk man... does that come from your family and the stories that you heard?

(Earlier in the day, Nasogaluak had shown me photographs of several extraordinary sculptures of a hawk man in various situations.)

BN: I was fortunate enough to be raised with parents that were older. My mother was born in 1917 and my dad was 1906. There was a lot of storytelling that I picked up on, although they might have been telling them to other friends. But Gooblualooq, who you just mentioned, is the last of the

really great powerful shamans from the Western Arctic. I've seen photos of him. And there are still elders in Tuk that knew him, that still remember him.

Yklife: The person the sculptures are based on is a real person?

BN: Yes. Very much so.

Yklife: I've been thinking a lot of the photos you showed me of your sculptures. I've not seen anything like them. Of course, I haven't seen a huge amount... but the multi-dimensional appearance, different images on each side, the story-telling that you do... I've not seen it to this extent. Is that unique to you or unique to where you come from?

BN: I'm not trying to do something different than others. It's just something I'm trying to expand on. Rather than just do a singular image, I'm trying to tell a story. And a story involves more than just one

singular aspect... like say... a polar bear or a walrus... I'm trying to tell a story as a whole. And it needs multi-images to capture a moment... like say... when Gooblualooq is transformed into a hawk... trying

to capture that moment that involves a whole series of events... trying to capture it in one piece. As you noticed, my carvings, they need to be explained. Initially you will see a bird and a person but once I describe the piece to you it has way more elements than what you really see.

Yklife: If you aren't present in the room and somebody comes across one of your pieces, can they come away with the same experience?

BN: There's just no way, unless it's a singular piece like a bear. There's no way unless I actually explain it or leave a written explanation. There's no way.

Yklife: That makes things a little difficult then, for people coming across your work.

BN: I guess it does. I've never looked at it from that point of view, needing to be there to explain it. But yes they do all need explanation.

Yklife: Have there been people in your life who have been instrumental in what you do now?

BN: Right from the onset I think the previous generation... say... people from Cape Dorset that have made Inuit art have the following that it does today. These are the people that I can name, not one

individual. And we're losing a lot of them. Like in the last few months we've lost Judas Ullullaq, we've lost Charlie Ugyuk. These are people that I consider have paved the way for me to be able to have the

success I have. It's an established market that I guess... I guess I fell into it. But just because you fell

into it doesn't mean you can do it. I think you need to be competitive in the art world... and competitiveness is quality. You've got to produce quality work.

Yklife: When you consider your work, do you place it in the context of southern art or world art?

BN: I'd like to. But like everybody else I'm just strictly doing what I know. I'd like to be able to break this barrier of being called an Inuit artist. I believe that I am an artist that is doing what I know best...

that is my culture, my legends, legends that have been passed on to me, and just trying to pass it on. I don't think any artist would be able to express themselves about a subject matter they don't know.

Yklife: So do you go back to Tuk much?

BN: I always made a conscious effort of trying to go back during the spring. I go back to go hunting. This past year I didn't go but I'm gearing myself to go back in May. I usually go back for about a

month and it gives me a chance to speak my own language, get back on the land. Although the weather is a lot milder in May than it is in the winter, it still goes down to -30 at times. It gives me a

chance to get back and grasp some of the feelings... you tend to be away and you think you have it until you actually get back. It feels good.

Yklife: So you're saying it's home.

BN: If I consider home with a feeling, it is home. When I get this feeling of being surrounded by the people I grew up with, the language, all this... yes, I feel I'm home.

Yklife: What else do you have in your life -- besides art?

BN: Like I mentioned, I like hunting and I like going back up North, going to Tuk. There's something so good about going to Tuk in the Spring. There's the freedom... it doesn't get dark... I try explain it to people... 24-hour birds, 24-hour sunlight, you eat when you're hungry, you sleep when you're tired. You don't have to prepare for the dark. I mean, you go to Hawaii and you still have to gear down cause it's gonna get dark. It's better than that.

Yklife: The North is better than Hawaii?

BN: There's no better place than to be out on the land. Nowhere in the world. Only place to be... Only place to be in May.