When does a labour of love turn into a life’s work? Perhaps when you have been at it for some forty years, as Paul Machnik has, devoting his skill and talent as an artist-printmaker to the promotion of Indigenous art. He is the founder of Montreal’s Studio PM, well known for its many professional and creative workshops throughout the world. He has printed for such artists as Alfred Pellan, Betty Goodwin, Jack Shadbolt and Jean McEwan, in addition to the renowned Inuit artists Kenojuak Ashevak and Elisapee Ishulutaq.
In 2012, Paul Machnik was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his outstanding contribution to artistic life in Canada, and rightly so. After dozens of excursions throughout the north to work with Inuit artists in both Cape Dorset and Pangnirtung, as well as other numerous communities in Nunavut and Nunavik, Machnik can claim to have played a decisive role in Canadian art and culture.
One of Machnik’s latest endeavours has been to foster an inter-cultural exchange between Aboriginal Australian and Canadian Inuit artists. In April 2012 Napoleon Oui from Queensland, Australia and Jutai Toonoo from Cape Dorset, Nunavut undertook a two-week workshop with Machnik in his Montreal studio that had the artists producing work in oil stick, etching and dry point. During their stay they took in several shows at art venues throughout the city and were invited to visit the studios of artists John Heward and Harold Klunder. The four artists found themselves collaborating both visually and musically, culminating in an impromptu performance by Napoleon Oui at the Papier 13 site next to Place des Arts. The ripple effect has been stunning. Upon returning home, Napolean created a flurry of work in his newfound method of oil stick, which along with the works produced during the Montreal workshop were acquired by numerous institutions including the National Gallery of Australia. Jutai Toonoo, on the other hand was invited to do a ‘live workshop’ at the new Feheley Fine Arts location in Toronto, where he produced a whole body of work on the human cancer cell.
Together with his partner Bess Muhlstock, Machnik recently completed a second trip «down under», where they conducted week-long workshops in the communities of Cairns, Yirrkala and Yarrabah. While setting up the workshops, they had to come up with an alternative method of etching the metal plates with acid. Having previously dealt with a similar dilemma in Siberia among other places, Machnik, in true MacGyver style, used aluminum and plexiglass in place of steel and copper and substituted the gardening product of copper sulphate for nitric acid.
Stressing his presence as that of facilitator rather than teacher, Paul and Bess both immersed themselves in the activity. “We had the artists working in dry point and white ground that closely related to their painting work on the eucalyptus bark that is so prevalent to the region,” he said. Machnik expressed surprise at the number of craft workshops in every corner of the Northern Territories. “In many cases they are not playing to the art market”, he explained. “They work steadily and receive compensation which in turn sustains their families, but more importantly they are enhancing their culture in the process. It’s great that the young people see their parents and grandparents expressing themselves and being who they are.” Even simple things, such as the drift nets that come ashore, are woven into beautiful tapestries that are sold and exhibited in major institutions throughout the world.
Machnik and Muhlstock returned to Montreal with hundreds of images on film and on paper, hours of interviews and encounters and a renewed sense of mission. What is most striking in the series of images from this latest endeavour is the simplicity and elegance of the prints produced by the Aboriginal artists. There is an almost instinctive sophistication with stylized objects (for example, baskets) or unusual compositions of dots or feet imprints. Looking at the images of the artists at work, there is no denying their total engagement and concentration on the task. Papers strewn on the floor, brows furrowed, hands busy. And then there are the smiles of accomplishment and finished works pinned on the wall. Both Machnik and Muhlstock’s bridge-building should be commended and supported. This is a win-win situation for the artists in both communities and in both countries. Art can serve as a bridge, giving rise to a sense of esteem and accomplishment. The benefit of the cultural exchange is clear, but when seen from a human perspective, takes on a much more urgent aspect. Time is running out for these cultures.
Although apolitical, Machnik worries about the lasting effects of recent cuts to art subsidies in Canada and as well, it would seem, in Australia. “It’s as though we’re ‘cutting off our nose to spite our face’ ”, he says. “There’s a wealth of creativity in these isolated communities, and without assistance, it will not survive. It really matters that both these cultures express themselves in ‘an honest-to-goodness fashion’. Not just a soap stone carving that is quickly made for market, but for the more challenging stuff that is not simply token art.” These are the pieces that will stand the test of time and show future generations what the artists truly had to say.