Contemporary Art in Labrador
Content provided by: Herb Brown, Birches Gallery, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador
To begin with a brief history of visual arts in Labrador would perhaps be in order. Art and craft in Labrador has its roots in both the aboriginal cultures and the European contact period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the 1700s, the Moravian missionaries came to northern Labrador and in the late 1800s, Grenfell's medical mission to southern Labrador and northern Newfoundland. It would be safe to say that all of the visual arts of that and previous eras were lumped together under the "crafts" label, as seen in the "Grenfell Handicrafts" production, marketing and promotion out of the St. Anthony area during the early 1900s.

Today, visual arts and artists are reasonably well-defined; painters, print-makers and sculptors are visual artists. Only recently, have mat-hookers, teadoll-makers and grassworkers been accorded some recognition as artists, rather than mere craft producers. Art forms, as such, should be recognized in the wider sphere of contemporary and historical visual arts, and smaller "mass-produced" souvenir craft items continue to be hand-made for the tourist market in order to satisfy that market.

Contemporary visual arts in Labrador are rooted in millennia of production. Archaeologists from the USA (Smithsonian Institute) and Canada (Memorial University) have unearthed intriguing stone, bone and ivory miniature carvings on Labrador's north and south coasts (see Fall '91 issue of The Inuit Art Quarterly). During the previous two centuries of European trader and missionary contact with the Inuit, Innu and Settlers of Labrador, there was a little trade in available carvings and crafts. A few museums in the UK, the USA and Canada hold the (rare) collections of mainly Inuit ivory miniatures and soapstone pieces from that era. A few North American museums have preserved collections of the Grenfell hooked mats from the Great Northern Peninsula and Straits shore of Labrador, dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
It was during the 1970s that "contemporary visual arts" actually began to flourish in Labrador. This was sparked by some new initiatives by government and by the coming of "the information age" and technologies and transportation which could speed up the transfer of knowledge and the sharing of ideas. One of the "new ideas" or "discoveries" from the south, was that northern and aboriginal art held intrinsic value and merit as cultural and artistic objects-of-worth (as collector items). In Labrador, this began with a Provincial Government rural development initiative (LCPA, Labrador Craft Producers Association) headed by the late Garfield Warren. At nearly the same time, Nain was visited by visual artist, Bill Ritchie. This began a long and fruitful association with an artist who not only encouraged sculpture and printmaking among Labrador's Inuit artists, but started a little collective for the development and sale of visual arts from that north coast community by artists like Gilbert Hay and John Terriak. For a decade or more (through the 1980s), the Labrador Inuit Association, through its development and cultural departments continued the work of Ritchie with some active marketing and promotion of north coast Inuit art. For all the rest of Labrador (and including the north coast), arts and crafts as an industry were developed by the LCPA, demonstrating both the range of innate creativity and talent, and the marketing opportunities of the works produced in the region's visual arts and crafts cottage industries. Just prior to its demise, the LCPA demonstrated both the scope and the history of art and craft in Labrador by mounting a major exhibition (1991) and video project entitled "Visions of Labrador". By 1993, LCPA not longer existed and private entrepreneurs (Labrador Handicrafts Inc. and The Birches Gallery) stepped in to fill the void left by government and aboriginal associations now more involved with larger resource-based developments. Individual artists and artists' collectives in the Straits, Lake Melville and Labrador West began to develop, market and promote themselves in the visual arts.

In Goose Bay, The Birches Gallery mounted a series of exhibitions and promotional events stretching from Goose Bay ('94), to St. John's, to Halifax, to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Phoenix (1995 - 2004). This, combined with a new initiative in Labrador of the (St. John's - based Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Council's) Labrador Craft Marketing Agency (in 1996) provided new impetus and set the stage for a strong arts and crafts industry in Labrador. The growth of the tourism industry here has provided a good deal of the market for this industry and has demonstrated the need to keep the visual arts alive and in a healthy state. Visitors from southern Canada, the USA and Europe are particularly drawn to the high-end works or our painters, carvers, grassworkers and dollmakers. With the completion of and improvement of Labrador's transportation network, there will be an increasing need for artworks. At the start of 2004, there is still probably more Labrador art being produced than the market can handle, but this could change rapidly with increased numbers of visitors.
Currently, the visual arts in Labrador art highlighted at several points. For 20 plus years of development and growth, a strong and vibrant Visual Arts Association continues in Lab West, headed by visual artists like Joyce Channing, Sheilagh Harvey, Margorie O'Brien, Ed Owen and others. The presence of an Arts and Culture Centre (with a very nice little art gallery) has greatly aided the growth of visual arts in western Labrador. Unfortunately, none of the rest of Labrador possesses such a public display and promotional space for the visual artists of the rest of Labrador. Newfoundland boasts a network of public gallery and cultural spaces which have provided a venue and a vehicle for the growth of visual arts in almost all parts of the Island. Emerging artists in Nain, Natuashish, Hopedale, Rigolet, Goose Bay, and Southern Labrador have yet to realize their potential. Some visual artist from these areas have with the assistance of The Birches Gallery in Goose Bay (or galleries in St. John's), been able to develop their art; other young visual artists "wait-in-the-wings", quite literally, for an opportunity to develop their potential and find venues to show and sell their work. It is with both pride (and with some regret, that they are so few) that we celebrate the accomplishments of visual artists like Boyd Chubbs and Robin Smith Peck (represented by Christina Parker Gallery, St. John's) and Mike Massie (represented by the Alaska On Madisson Gallery, New York). Fortunately, even without a public space to show in Goose Bay for the past 7 years, we have also been able to celebrate and market the other leading visual artists like: Gilbert Hay, John Terriak, William Lucy, George Flowers, Derrick Pottle, George Collins, David Terriak, Georgina Broomfield, Emily Flowers, John Neville, Madeline Michelin, Barry Pardy, Garmel Rich, Shannon Simms, to name a few (represented by The Birches Gallery, Goose Bay, established in 1994).

Currently, The Birches Gallery is preparing (in partnership with hosts Dr. Wayne and Bev Gulliver and sponsor, Air Labrador) a third (in 6 years) one-night February show in the East End St. John's home of the Gullivers. Six to eight carvers and visual artists from Labrador will travel to St. John's for a most unique and enjoyable evening of art, music and food from Labrador. This is a by-invitation-only show which attracts professional, corporate and government buyers, collectors and supporters of the contemporary Labrador visual arts.
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