March 15, 2010

The hardest part

Roberta Memogana slides a heavy sheet of blank paper across the table toward me.

"First, we need to draw something."

Easy for her to say. And do. Roberta Memogana is a well-known NWT artist, originally from Ulukhaktok (formerly called Holman), famous for her stencil prints of traditional Northern life (see some of her work here.)

For 16 years, she's been printmaking – a craft she learned from her father, Jimmy Memorana, one of the founders of the Ulukhaktok Art Co-op, through which artists in the community of about 400 have been producing prints for nearly 50 years.

And that's why I'm here, at Inuvik's Northern Images art gallery on a bright Saturday morning alongside two other eager students – to learn from her, and (if all goes well) to make a stencil print of my own. Because it sounds like fun. But, drawing? Freehand? Uh-oh.

I look to my left and then to my right, trying to gauge the reactions of my fellow workshop participants, making no effort not to look like I've just been told I must throw a puppy out a third-storey window. There's something sacred about looking into a stranger's eyes and knowing you're both silently having a panic attack. "I can't draw!"

Artistic ability is subjective, I suppose. So here's a fact: I don't draw. I don't paint or sculpt or sketch or create anything anybody would want to hang on the refrigerator, much less put in a picture frame and display above the couch. I don't even doodle in my notebook during long-winded phone interviews. Despite having quite a lot of appreciation for fine art, I haven't actually done any artsy stuff since those mandatory elementary school art classes I couldn't wait to leave behind. My Grade 8 teacher, Mrs. Bouchard, upon finding out I hadn't signed up for a single high school art course, showed hyperbolic shock and appall.

"You'll regret that someday," she told 13-year-old me, who knew everything anyway and didn't care.

So now, maybe today is that regretful day. Mind as blank as the paper in front of me, I turn again to Roberta, who smiles patiently. No sign of a "why are you even here?" eye-rolling smirk, although I wouldn't blame her.

"It can be anything you want," she says. "Then we'll make a stencil out of it."

She gestures to a pile of transparent overhead projector sheets (known by the pros as mylar) and pen-like X-Acto knives. Beside them on the table are a scattering of barbershop-style shaving brushes, their bristle-ends coloured blue, yellow, red, green, orange, brown, black, and there's a placemat covered in matching ink splotches. The oil-based inks are solid in individual packs ordered from down south, "probably Toronto," and she keeps them all in a plastic bag. If it gets too hot, they will melt. It's better in the cold. But the colour comes later, Roberta says. She's already finishing up a pencil sketch of a "simple" igloo. Her word, "simple." My word: "mind-blowing."

I decide to try my hand at an owl stencil. Paintings of snowy owls feature prominently on the gallery walls – convenient inspiration. In Inuvialuit culture, Roberta tells me, the owl is a symbol of good luck. I've never seen one in real life, I say, so that explains a lot.

Roberta can't draw any wildlife she's never seen. She draws them the way she sees them. And she draws them fast. I take a break from erasing my wacky-looking owl eyeballs for the fourth time to watch her work.

"My father used to tell me to take my time. I'd say, 'what do you mean?' And he would say, 'you're drawing too fast!' I said, 'but, I am taking my time,'" she laughs. Of course, traditional stencil printing is much easier now than it was in her father's day. He used to cut his stencils out of sealskin.

Her older sister, Mary K. Okheena, a talented artist herself, motivated Roberta to start making prints of her drawings. Now, her work is in galleries all over Canada. Tourists visiting the Beaufort-Delta region can quickly pick out her prints on framed canvas, greeting cards, and even T-shirts commemorating the Inuvik Community Greenhouse.

She still has piles of drawings at home that she's never made into prints, she says, simultaneously cutting out her igloo stencil, twirling the knife expertly around its curves. Circular shapes are the most difficult for first-timers, but she makes it look deceptively easy.

She's generous with her secrets, though, and amazingly I manage not to maim myself or my little owl – much, since I'm really more interested in listening to her stories than creating a masterpiece. And it shows. By the time I'm ready for the printing part of the exercise – the colour! – Roberta has already completed two prints and is working on yet another sketch, of two polar bears, that a gallery customer has just come in and requested.

Roberta distributes ink onto the brush by thump, thump, thumping it onto the appropriate-coloured splotch until there's just the right amount. She knows when. She makes her own beat.

I watch as the brush moves leisurely over the paper with a scratchy-soft drum beat sound, giving a light, almost airbrushed, blue glint to the snow beneath the bears' feet. The sound is repetitive, relaxing. Soon a chorus of four different brush-beats fill the room. It's therapeutic. That's why Roberta likes it. This is what I am beginning to like about it, too.

Stencil print artist Roberta Memogana with one of her finished prints.

"The hardest part," she says, surveying her finished print, "is coming up with a title."

As for my foray into artistry, it didn't work out nearly as well compared to Roberta's talent and experience, but, all things considered, I don't think my owls turned out too horribly.

Stencil print artists generally make three proofs before they settle on a final piece, and I only finished two. So that pretty much sums up my career as an artist. But Roberta said they were cute!

And, like I said, I'm interested in the story more than the pictures.

1 comment:

  1. I met Roberta during a trip to Ulukhaktok eight years ago. She made quite an impression on me. I'm glad to hear that she's doing well.