Warming Up to Arctic Art of the Eskimos

Davie Atchealak of a Canadian resurgence may be compared to Michelangelo Buonarroti of the Italian Renaissance.

"Or Rodin," said Roger Perez, director of the Gallery of Eskimo Art in Santa Monica. "For Davie Atchealak and other Eskimo sculptors have the same concept, the same philosophy as Michelangelo.

"They search for the soul of the stone. Their artistry, all the feelings are inside. They just chip away at a piece of soapstone or serpentine until the shape comes out."

And such shapes. A polar bear with front and rear paws lifting in mid-lumber. A seal, sliding and twisting on ice and examining his back flippers. A hunter, harpoon poised, with full tension in his throwing arm. Mother and child figures. Drum dancers. Shamanistic transformations.

And such deals. Eskimo art--from carvings through totems and tapestries to watercolor prints--is only a 40-year-old commerce. It remains relatively undiscovered because Eskimos themselves are largely overlooked. Limited production, inaccessibility and limited promotion of its craftsmen, cultural protectionism by the Canadian government . . . all have conspired, Perez said, to keep Eskimo art "very, very affordable.

"For $3,000 you can have a fine piece by Atchealak or Henry Evaluarjuk or Saila Kipanek--and one of a kind. For $10,000 you've got a good collection--and one that makes for great, great dinner conversation."

Yet the bargains may not last.

Rock Hudson was a player. Dudley Moore has pieces of Eskimo art and so does Paul Newman. Robin Williams has become a collector.

"In the past 30 years, the value of Eskimo art has appreciated 1,000%," explained Perez, adding that his Main Street gallery remains the only Eskimo art outlet in town and this side of San Francisco. "But investment is not really the issue . . . it's the beauty of the art and the sensitivity of the pieces and their diversity."

To Perez, a former Montreal resident, the charm of Eskimo art is clearer and cleaner than a Hudson Bay morning.

"I consider it to be the purest of primitive arts," he said. "What you see is the naivete of the people coming through in their carvings . . . a ferocious animal put into a whimsical posture, a bear dancing on one leg, a hunter changing into a bear as an interpretation of a mythical story.

"It is art based on a traditional life style, and it is art of recollection . . . of animals around them, of what they know."

There are barely 22,000 Eskimos living in the Canadian Arctic and less than 500 artists working in 45 communities scattered from Mackenzie Bay to Great Whale River.

They carve walrus ivory, elk antler or whalebone scavenged from remains. They dig for gray soapstone and green serpentine to be worked by file and polished by stone dust or Comet.

Handling improves the sheen of an Eskimo carving. With eyes closed and fingertips forming the lone sense, a handler will feel and appreciate the snout and stub tail and power haunches of a polar bear.

All of which adds another panache to the form.

"What an Eskimo does is give you his native craft and fine art in one object," the dealer said.

The life of Perez ("born in Casablanca where everybody thought I was from the North . . . now living where everybody presumes I'm from the South") is like a regular buying shuttle between his Southern California gallery and a cadre of artists north of the Arctic Circle.

He also spends much time chewing a dilemma.

"We're a closet case," he said. "We don't advertise and when people discover us, they want to keep Eskimo art, their special find, to themselves.

"But, by the same token, I'd like to handle new portfolios for people who really know and appreciate what they're seeing.

"It's a real fine line to walk . . . between offering fine art or being part of a fad."

Gallery of Eskimo Art, 2665 Main St., Santa Monica. (213) 392-8741.

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