Maureen Gruben is an installation, performance and textile artist from Tuktoyaktuk, NT. She works primarily with fur, hides, skins and manufactured materials. Her rich knowledge of the arctic environment can be felt through her work. Gruben’s new solo exhibition Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019) opens today at Fazakas Gallery in Vancouver and runs until December 15, 2019. Additionally, Gruben’s works, including Message (2017) and Seal in Our Blood (2018), will be included in the National Gallery’s exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel which runs from November 8, 2019 – April 5, 2020.
Contributing Editor Napatsi Folger spoke with Gruben about her large-scale art installations, combining traditional and industrial materials in her work and the joy of springtime.
Napatsi Folger: Can you tell me about your new solo exhibition Moving with joy across the ice as my face turns brown from the sun (2019)?
Maureen Gruben: Moving with joy across the ice as my face turns brown from the sun was an idea I had many years ago. Even before [my first large scale work of land art] Stitching My Landscape (2017). Kyra Kordoski, my assistant, and I submitted a proposal for the project to the BC Arts Council and it got approved. I was living in Victoria at the time, so any chance to come home [to Tuktoyaktuk, NT] is always fantastic, especially in the springtime.
NF: Is there a specific reason you chose the exhibition’s title?
MG: It kind of says it all in the title because in the spring the land becomes so joyful. The geese and all the water fowl come back to the North to nest, so it becomes a symphony of song. That was actually an alternative title I had considered. It’s a bright lovely time but the only part of you that gets sun is your face.
NF: Yes, I loved the title right away when I saw it. The feeling really resonated with me.
MG: It’s so true! People become so alive and happy and giving. All those good feelings, and the excitement of going out onto the land and ice and fishing and hunting geese. Those are such joyful times and moments. That proposal allowed us to come here [to Tuktoyaktuk] during the annual Beluga Jamboree. There were a lot of races and events happening in the harbour and my installation took place on the Arctic Ocean.
NF: You’re living in Tuktoyaktuk now, but you said you had been living in Victoria, BC. When did this installation take place?
MG: We moved back home in August of this year and the installation happened on the 29th of April this year, just before I moved back. Because it was during the Jamboree, it allowed us to do the installation on the ocean but it was kind of a dangerous installation. We didn’t want people around because of the weight of the sleds, so it was a short duration for the art installation.
NF: How big are the actual sleds? I saw the pictures, but did you scale them up or down from regular working sleds?
MG: They are full scale mud-sleds, but they’re all different—some are for day trips, some are for month-long trips. They’re made for different purposes so they’re different sizes, but they’re all hand-made. They’re all from different families. For me, they represent community.
NF: I love the large scale of your work. Is it tough to do that work on the ice, with the weather and the wind?
MG: Both times I’ve been blessed with beautiful weather. It was so warm that I had to take my jacket off! For Stitching my Landscape, I was all bundled up, and because it was such a big project, it took about three hours, but I got pretty warm so I had to take off layers. The same happened with Moving with Joy; it was calm, there was no wind and it was sunny. We’ve been really lucky.
NF: I loved the piece Assemblages (2019) from this show. Can you tell me about that piece?
MG: I wanted to incorporate the Ski-Doo somehow, because you can’t pull the sleds without Ski-Doos or dog teams. I went to the dump and there was a big heap of Ski-Doos. I had wanted to use a part of a Ski-Doo but I wasn’t sure what yet, but when we got there, those flaps just jumped out at me. They were so vibrant and colourful. I do a lot of beach combing along the coast, so I have a collection of whale bone vertebrae. I cut the wings off of those and sanded them. They’re incorporated at the top of the Ski-Doo flaps and it ends up kind of looking like sleds. I also collect garbage when I’m combing the beach, and some of the ropes in the piece are pieces of old fishing nets and other garbage that I picked up.
NF: I also loved the piece Delta Trim (2018) from the show you did at Emily Carr University. I noticed that you use seemingly opposing materials: bubble wrap and reflective tape are sewn together with moose-hide.
MG: I love mixing traditional and industrial materials, because that’s the world that we live in today. There’s so much man-made material, but it’s also an aesthetic thing for me. I like combining different things together so whatever I think works, I put together. My husband has also been renovating, so I go to Home Depot with him and, of course, look at their materials from an artist’s perspective. Even foam-core board that you use in basements, I have a piece in the Winnipeg Art Gallery that combines that foam core with seal skin.
NF: It really makes sense with modern Inuit using combinations of traditional and industrial material in hunting and daily life.
MG: Yes! The other reason that I wanted to do the traditional mud sleds is because so many people are using the fiberglass toboggans now. And I just love the handmade traditional sleds because they’re such an integral part of Inuit life. They are what transport us to the land, and bring us to that same feeling of getting out on the ice and on the land. That way I’m just honouring that mode of transportation.
NF: Are there other aspects of how you approach your work as an artist that you want to discuss?
MG: I try to bring up environmental healing into my work. When I did Consumed (2017), I wanted to learn how to harvest beluga intestines. It’s not something that’s practiced in the Western Arctic anymore. I know they do a lot of that in Alaska, but the Inuvialuit don’t really do it anymore, so I practiced on my own. Then the idea of using found objects together just happened.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.