James Houston. Courtesy of Houston North Gallery.
Author, illustrator, sculptor, filmmaker, and arctic naturalist, James Houston was born in Toronto, 1921. In 1948, after service in WWII, he traveled into the Canadian Eastern Arctic in search of a new people and a new land to paint. In 1949 assisted by Norman Ross, HBC post Manager in Port Harrison, he began collecting samples of Inuit carvings, which he then marketed and sold through the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal. A brand new industry was born, one that was particularly significant to a culture whose traditional way of life was passing. With the help of the Canadian government and the Hudson's Bay Company Houston was able to bring to the attention of the outside world the flourishing Inuit sculpture of stone, bone and ivory carving.
James Houston and Pouta examining a stone-cut in the Art Centre, 1961
Houston later moved to Cape Dorset, where he introduced printmaking, a technique he had learned in Japan, to the Inuit. This was the beginning of Inuit block printing and sealskin stencil printmaking, which brought Inuit art to an even wider audience. Soon afterward the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was established in Cape Dorset to price and market Inuit carvings and prints. Houston worked for the Cooperative for nine years. The flourishing market for Inuit art became a major cash business for Inuit communities in the north.
Although he eventually became fluent in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, Houston's initial struggles with the language prompted him to use his sketchbook as a means of communication. He made many drawings of the people - mainly in pen or pencil - and the Inuit often asked for these sketches to use as decorations in their homes.
James Houston, 1960
In 1953 Houston, then described as "Arctic Representative for the Canadian Handicrafts Guild", wrote Eskimo Handicrafts - A Private Guide for the Hudson's Bay Company Manager. This internal publication was directed to HBC staff involved in purchasing artworks in the Eastern arctic. It provided instruction on what to look for, how to assess quality, what sort of prices to pay and how to market Inuit art. Through its Northern Stores division, Hudson's Bay Company became a major supplier of genuine Inuit artworks to the world art market.
This tradition continues today. The North West Company - successors to the Northern Stores division, which HBC sold in 1987 - is still purchasing Inuit artwork for sale. And the Inuit art market itself has taken off. Each November Waddington's Auctioneers in Toronto holds a sale of Inuit art. At the 2002 sale a wall hanging sold for a record $140,000 and several carvings for over $60,000 - prices that Houston couldn't have imagined back in the late 1940s when he sowed the seeds of this very flourishing enterprise.
James Houston died April 17, 2005 at his home in Connecticut. He was 83. In accordance with his wishes, Houston was cremated, with half his remains to stay with his family in Stonington, Conn., and the other half to be scattered over the hills of Cape Dorset off Baffin Island.