Keeping the Ancient Ways Alive –
Alec Lawson Tuckatuck Pursues His Passion & His Destiny
By Kellie Underhill
It’s a drizzly autumn day when the taxi drops me off in front of the house on the north side of Fredericton. I’ve come the three and a half hour bus ride from my home in Sackville to meet an artist I’ve heard great things about. I know only that he is Inuit; he is young, well-liked and respected; and, like me, he’s a Miramichier.
In the yard, the dog’s body vibrates from the force of her wagging tail and her big paws land on my middle as she jumps to lick my hands. I appreciate her warm greeting on this dull grey Saturday afternoon. As the young man comes to the door I’m struck first by his huge grin. I don’t remember the last time I saw such a genuinely friendly face. I’m instantly at ease in this man’s presence and I can’t help but smile myself. I feel honoured to have been invited into this home.
Sitting at the dining room table with Alec Lawson Tuckatuck I’m touched by his unassuming mild manner. He is the type of person my grandfather would have called “the salt of the earth,” what I call “good people.” He tells me he worked late into the evening and again this morning to finish his newest carving in order that I might see it. The penguin rests on the tabletop between us. She peers over the edge of her iceberg scanning the deep waters below, perfectly poised to dive and hunt the fish she needs to feed her young. Her back is an inky pool, polished so smooth I’m startled to recognize my own eyes staring back at me from the blackness.
Alec speaks to me about inspiration and the process of creation, about how the stone tells him what it wants to be, all the while rotating the penguin so I may see all her beautiful arcs. The effect is hypnotic. There’s a whispery quality to his voice that pulls me through space and time to the far north of his childhood, as he talks of his grandfather and uncle and the tradition of carving in his family.
The penguin sits on the table between us.
“I am named after my uncle, Alec, whom I call saounik. This is how we identify and call each other and it means bone,” he says. “I was born in Fort George, Quebec, at the nearest hospital to Kuujjuaraapik, where my family is from. Fort George no longer exists itself but is now called Chisasibi. When the dam projects were in effect, the water level rose and the community had to evacuate and relocate to Chisasibi.”
Alec was raised in Kuujjuaraapik, an Inuit and Cree community of about 1, 400 people located on the Hudson Bay. It is the first accessible Inuit community in the north and can only be reached by airplane.
“Kuujjuaraapik is one of the largest communities in Nunavik and is one of the more beautiful ones as it has white sandy beaches, large sand dunes, big islands and incredible atsanik (northern lights),” he says.
“I started watching my grandfather carve when I was very young. I would sit with him as he carved and he would give me some tools to play with and I would imitate him,” Alec recalls. “He would ask me what I see in the stone and tell me to look for an animal. When I was seven he started teaching me how to use the tools. He died shortly after beginning to show me how to carve, so my uncle started to teach me.”
Alec comes from a long line of artists. His grandfather, Sarowilly Ammittuk, his grandfather’s brother Davidialuk Ammittu, and his great aunt and uncle, Lucy and Noah Meeko, were all well established artists. Alec’s mother, Louisa Tuckatuck, is also a creative and unique artist well-known throughout the north, along with his uncle and aunt, Alec and Maggie Tuckatuck.
“I remember there were times, before my grandfather died, that he would be gone. I
remember asking my mom where he was and she would explain that he was carving sikkuq (ice) for people far away with my great aunt and uncle. They were often invited to places like Quebec City, Japan, and places in Europe to carve ice sculptures during festivals,” Alec says. “At that time, I did not understand how important it was but I remember it was a proud event for our family.”
At the age of seven, Alec made his first carving.
“It was of a seal lying down on its side,” he says. “I still have it. I continued to watch and observe my uncle carving and I would often work beside him making my own.”
But soon Alec’s carving education under his uncle would be postponed for many years, as the family left the north to move to Chatham, New Brunswick, in support of his grandmother, Dorothy MacDonald (née Johnson), after his grandfather, Lawson MacDonald, passed away.
“I did not have the tools or materials like I did with my uncle and family in Kuujjuaraapik so I stopped carving,” he says. “I started getting involved in other activities such as hockey and baseball.”
His success as a hockey player was even featured in a CBC North documentary at one point.
In 1994, Alec graduated from James M. Hill High School and went on to get a Bachelor of Physical Education from the University of New Brunswick. But throughout all his success and learning, he never forgot his northern homeland, never lost his desire to return there and reconnect to his people and culture, perhaps because he had been introduced to the traditional ways of his people at such a young age. By the time he was five years old, his uncle had started to take him out on the land and water to learn hunting and the traditional ways of survival. His mother and her brothers and sisters lived on the land their first years in the traditional nomadic way of the Inuit before the missionaries and the federal government changed their way of living, moving them into small houses and a formal school system. It was traditional for the first child to be raised by the grandparents.
“My uncle, Alec, being the oldest child was traditionally raised by his grandparents. And my mother being the next oldest was given the traditional role and responsibilities of being the oldest child being raised by her parents. As I am the oldest male child of the next generation I was taught early in the ways of Inuit living and support so that I could be a provider and leader of the family and of the community,” Alec says. “It was fortunate for me that I still had the opportunity to learn first-hand the traditional methods of living and survival. Although I believe I may be one of the last generations to have this knowledge and upbringing.”
In 2000 an opportunity to return to the north presented itself and after years of longing for “home” Alec returned to Nunavik to teach. He moved to Kuujjuaq, the largest community of Nunavik, with a population of about 2, 200. In Kuujjuag he reconnected to his traditional culture and began to pass on what he had learned to other Inuit youth.
“I began teaching there and giving back to my people as they have always supported me in my journeys,” Alec says. “They did not have the opportunity to go out on the land and learn our traditions as I was taught. I was then able to provide for my family again also through hunting and fishing and pass this knowledge of how important it is to take care of your family and community.”
But perhaps even more important to his task of giving back to his people and teaching the traditional way of life, Alec started carving again.
“As I was teaching full time I would carve in the evenings in my shack and after work and on the weekends when I wasn’t on the land,” he says. “When I was on the land I began seeing the animals as I once did when I was young with my grandfather and my uncle.”
And through the re-ignited passion of his carving he realized many things.
“I began seeing not only the animals but our people, our traditions, our culture, our land. And how beautiful and strong it all is and how important it is to pass on, maintain, and preserve,” he says. “I began to realize how fast our traditions and language were being lost and forgotten, as I had lost a lot of my language while in New Brunswick. The more I began to see, the more I needed to carve. I needed to express what we need to keep and remember, what we need to preserve and practice, what is important to our culture and what people need to see of it. Not only do our own people need to appreciate and acknowledge the changes we have and are going through and remember also what traditions we have lived, but people outside of our culture need to see it too in order to understand how we lived and how we survived and continue to survive.”
Although he enjoyed teaching in a school, after discovering his passion for expression through carving he stopped teaching physical education and began carving full-time, determined that through his art he would continue to preserve, maintain and educate people about the Inuit culture.
“I feel the need to express what we need to keep and remember,” he says.
With his respectful soft-spoken tone, Alec seems wise well beyond his 30 years. While he possesses a natural talent that’s been in his blood for generations and the traditional knowledge of his ancestors, even as he embraces his people’s culture, he also recognizes the importance of new technologies in the modern world and understands how they can be utilized to help preserve the Inuit tradition.
In 2005, Alec purchased a website. He wanted to start using the tremendous power of the Internet to spread the message of his art to the world. Inuit Stone Carving dot com is now home to an online gallery of Alec’s work, including his latest sculpture of Kiviuq carved from black soapstone, ice blue marble, and caribou antler. Kiviuq is an Inuit legend of an Inuk who has lived many lives and had many encounters with people, animals, and places. The website also shows photographs of several of the artist’s past creations that have either already been sold or are a part of his private collection. Earlier this year, Alec added a shopping cart feature, allowing him to sell his work directly from his website to art enthusiasts.
In the beginning, some may have been sceptical about mixing Inuit art and the Internet, but for Alec it seems to be paying off. Like his grandfather before him, since launching his website Alec has been invited to participate in exhibitions and his talents are being commissioned by patrons from all over Canada and the United States. His work is so much in demand that recently he added an email newsletter feature to his website so fans and potential buyers can be notified as soon as new pieces are completed and put up for sale.
Like the penguin resting on the tabletop in front of us—a symbol of an ancient tradition poised to slip into the water at any moment—Alec Lawson Tuckatuck seems to have one foot rooted in the past and the other in the present, with a watchful knowing eye trained on the future.
“As we have survived for thousands of years through the cold and challenging conditions, we now have a new challenge that we must accept in order for our language and culture to survive for thousands of more years,” he says. “Every single one of us are important in how we survive, protect, and preserve our culture. I have accepted this challenge and carving is how I am doing it.”
I ask you, can anything be better than a day spent in the company of a great artist? And the answer is yes, when the day is spent in conversation with a great entrepreneurial artist who truly “gets it.” I thank him for his warm hospitality.
For more information about Alec Lawson Tuckatuck or to see his latest sculptures, visit Alec’s website at www.inuitstonecarving.com.
**Reprinted by permission from Bread ‘n Molasses print edition Oct/Nov 2006 Volume 1 No. 1.
Kellie Underhill is the Editor of Bread ‘n Molasses magazine in print and online. Her writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines and radio programs. She currently resides in Newcastle, Miramichi.