Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Inuit art adviser Terry Ryan had a passion for the Arctic

obituary

The godfather of Inuit art

For nearly 50 years, he nurtured Cape Dorset's artists and introduced their creations to the world

Terry Ryan, right, with artist Kenojuak Ashevak, one of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative’s most celebrated artists.

There is no word for art in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. Yet, largely owing to the vision of Terry Ryan, who was for almost 50 years the art adviser and general manager of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (WBEC), art has become the economic engine of Cape Dorset, a community on the southern tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut.

Its population came together from scattered groups of Inuit, who faced starvation when the fur trade collapsed, before they found an alternative income stream.

Mr. Ryan, who died on Aug. 31 in Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, had a passion for the Arctic from the time he was student at Ontario College of Art – its deep cold, its intense summer light, its smell, the generosity and earthy humour of its people.

Story continues below advertisement

Kenojuak Ashevak’s iconic stonecut The Enchanted Owl, part of the 1960 Cape Dorset release, was featured on a postage stamp in 1970.

As general manager of WBEC, he was able to use both his artist's eye and his astute business sense to assure the co-op's solvency. Of the half dozen Inuit communities that made prints in the 1970s, only Cape Dorset remains active, in part because of income generated by auxiliary commercial activities.

Norman Vorano, art historian at Queen's University and curator of Indigenous art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, called Mr. Ryan a savvy negotiator who was "quietly formidable." The artists of Cape Dorset "rose to the highest echelons of Canada's art world with many, like Kenojuak Ashevak, Pudlo Pudlat, Pitseolak Ashoona becoming household names."

In an e-mail, Prof. Vorano wrote: "Cape Dorset has an overabundance of talent. But talent alone doesn't feed families. It was Terry Ryan who brought the talent of Cape Dorset to the world."

"The co-op was never supported by government," explained John Westren, manager of Dorset Fine Arts, the marketing and sales arm of WBEC that Mr. Ryan had set up in Toronto. "We had to come up with our own methods of making money. Terry dedicated himself to it – it was his whole life. He was one of those old-fashioned men of integrity.

Mr. Ryan had a passion for the Arctic, its deep cold, its intense summer light, its smell, the generosity and earthy humour of its people.

"He loved the land, he loved the people and he spoke their language. He was the right man for the job for a long long time."

"Terry was such a retiring man; he ran away from publicity unlike James Houston, who ran toward it," recalled Pat Feheley, a Toronto gallery owner dealing in Inuit art. "He was a man of impeccable taste. He had style in the way he dressed, in the way he hung his art."

Terrence Peter Ryan was born in Toronto on Dec. 18, 1933, the quiet middle child of seven – six boys and a girl. His mother, Isabel Ryan (née Tamphilon), was a homemaker and his father, Albert Ryan, a veteran of the First World War who opened a hardware store in the Beaches area of the city, later a part of the Home Hardware chain.

Story continues below advertisement

While a student at the Ontario College of Art, Terry had a summer job taking soil samples in northern Ontario, and it was there, in Cochrane, that he saw his first Inuit sculpture, in a hardware store. At OCA, he was influenced by his teacher George Pepper, who had studied with Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald and had served as a war artist. Mr. Pepper had sketched along the coast of Greenland and advised his young student to paint northern landscapes.

In the late 1950s, before commercial flights to the far north began, only nurses, teachers, RCMP and government functionaries, Hudson Bay Co. traders and missionaries found passage on the supply ships that operated during the brief summer months.

Mr. Ryan, shown here working on a stone for a print, studied at the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto. Aside from printmaking, he exposed the Inuit artists to techniques such as etching, serigraphy, oil stick and acrylics Feheley Fine Arts

The determined young OCA grad took a radiosonde course, learning to measure air pressure at different atmospheric levels. At the age of 23, he boarded an icebreaker from Montreal with paints and brushes in his luggage to his new job at the weather station at Clyde River on Baffin Island.

After his two-year contract was up and he had to leave the north, he immediately set about looking for a way to go back. He was in Victoria visiting a friend when he received a letter from George Pepper: James Houston, a government northern service officer who had introduced the Inuit to printmaking, was looking for an assistant to help with the burgeoning co-op, which was first incorporated as a general store.

Mr. Ryan wasted no time in securing the job and headed back to Cape Dorset in 1960 on the C.D. Howe , the same icebreaker he had travelled on previously. For a time he worked with Mr. Houston, even lived in his house until he was hired in 1962 by the fledgling West Baffin Eskimo Co-op, an Inuit-owned business, as art adviser and manager.

Mr. Houston, an artist himself but burdened by bureaucratic paperwork and ill-informed bosses in Ottawa, was planning his escape and soon left to work for Steuben Glass in the United States.

Story continues below advertisement

At the co-op, Mr. Ryan was faced with a tiny print studio so badly insulated that the artists who came to work there found the inks and paints frozen on winter mornings. This gifted first group included Parr, Pitsolak Ashoona, Kenojuak Ashevak, Pudlo Pudlat and Napachie Pootoogook.

In 1964, Mr. Ryan travelled by dog team with two guides to remote hunting camps in North Baffin to hand out paper and pencils and urge people to draw whatever they wanted. He promised to return to buy the resulting pictures. "Our desire was to engage as many artists as possible," he later wrote in an essay in Cape Dorset Prints: A Retrospective (2007).

Mr. Ryan’s closest associate was Jimmy Manning, left, his devoted right-hand man at the co-op.

The resulting 1,840 drawings, recording traditional animist beliefs and a now-vanished way of life, have entered the collection of the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, and are the basis of a current travelling exhibition curated by Prof. Vorano.

Mr. Ryan, who himself gave up painting in the sixties, was determined to build a bigger, better studio and to expose the Inuit artists to techniques that permit fuller self-expression. To the stonecut and stencil options were added etching, serigraphy, oil stick, acrylics. Copper engraving was tried, abandoned, then reintroduced a decade later.

The co-op bought up sculptures, which the carvers produced in their homes, and drawings from any Inuit who offered them, creating an image bank. Consulting with the printers, Mr. Ryan decided which drawings would make the best prints. The most striking were issued in editions of 50 and included in the annual release of Cape Dorset prints that began in 1959. Each release occasioned excitement among collectors down south.

The late art dealer Av Isaacs recalled that in the 1970s and 80s, lineups of collectors formed outside his Inuit Gallery the night before the new prints went on sale.

Through Mr. Ryan's initiatives, Inuit art evolved. He invited artists from the south to give workshops and training sessions including Toni Onley who worked in watercolour, K.M. Graham who demonstrated acrylics, and Les Levine with his pop-art sensibility.

Not all his guests could tolerate the -40 C temperature of Dorset in winter. In 1971, Mr. Ryan purchased the lithography press of Toronto artist Charles Pachter and had it shipped north. Mr. Pachter followed in December of that year to set up the equipment and demonstrate its use. Unprepared for the cold, with only a leather jacket for warmth, he lasted only two weeks before he succumbed to pleurisy and pneumonia and had to be flown out.

The full possibilities of lithography – a sophisticated medium used by Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso – unfolded to the artists of the co-op three years later when master lithographer Wallace Brannen was brought in by Mr. Ryan from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He stayed for a decade. Inuit artists could participate directly in the lithographic process and their work became more colourful.

Mr. Ryan, left, and Eegyvudluk Pootoogook in the Cape Dorset stone cutting studio in 1975.

"I stepped into a place somewhere between a de facto college of art and a kibbutz for art making," Mr. Brannen wrote of his experience at Dorset.

In 1978, Mr. Ryan saw that the co-op needed to control its own marketing, which till then been handled by Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP), a giant wholesaler that assembled carvings, prints and craft products of varied quality from across the Arctic.

"CAP wasn't happy but it was exactly the right move for the artists at the time," Ms. Feheley said. Dorset Fine Arts, the marketing arm, now has a client list of a hundred art dealers in Europe (mainly England and Scandinavia), the United States and across Canada.

The energetic Mr. Ryan was instrumental in setting up a separate consumer division that could earn enough to support creative activities.

WBEC expanded to include a Home Hardware franchise and a Yamaha snowmobile store. Mr. Ryan negotiated a fuel delivery contract. He was also for 30 years a Justice of the Peace for the community.

After a whirlwind courtship, in 1966, Mr. Ryan married Patricia Tymchuk, a young nurse working at the nursing station on Cape Dorset who shared his love of region. They adopted two boys and a girl from southern Canada, but the marriage ended in divorce after Patricia moved to Toronto in 1978 for the sake of the children's education, and to refresh her nursing skills.

In 1980, Mr. Ryan hired Leslie Boyd as his assistant and she became his second wife in 1992.

Mr. Ryan, shown here at a community dance in Cape Dorset. Feheley Fine Arts

Their daughter, Kate, was born not long after. "All through our marriage, we were colleagues as well as husband and wife," Leslie Boyd Ryan recalled. "Eventually we co-managed the marketing office as well as the studio."

They later decided to split their time equally between north and south so that Kate could get an education. That marriage, too, ended in divorce after 20 years.

Mr. Ryan was named to the Order of Canada in 1983 and received a Governor-General's Award in 2010, for his contribution to Canadian art.

In July, 2009, to mark the 50th anniversary of the co-op and Mr. Ryan's official retirement, the whole community turned out for an exuberant weeklong celebration involving many heartfelt speeches from the elders, giving of gifts, feasting on wild geese, and throat singing. "The entire week had been arranged to honour the contributions of Terry Ryan," reported Ms. Feheley, the art dealer, who was there. "Hundreds lined up to write a message in the tribute book, a leather-bound journal in which Itee Pootoogook had drawn a portrait of Terry."

It was his last trip to Cape Dorset. In 2002, Mr. Ryan had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which began to take its toll. He spent his final years at Parkland on the Glen, an assisted-living facility in Mississauga.

Predeceased by brothers Basil and George, Terry Ryan leaves four siblings: Jack, Lawrence, Steve and Maureen; and his children, Michael, Peter, Patricia and Kate. He also leaves four grandchildren, Amanda, Sarah, Siobhan and Matthew.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨