Dropping in on one of Nunavut’s top artists

A chance meeting at a cafe in Iqaluit leads to a tour of an artist’s studio.

The official mace for Nunavut Legislature is displayed on the shoulders of small sculptures of husband, wife, child and elder.

I walked every street in the neighborhood looking for Mathew Nuqingaq: no luck. I was on an unexpected layover in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, with no plan and no contacts. I’d heard about Mathew’s art, but in the quiet streets with nothing but a first name to guide me, I hit a dead end. I headed to the Baffin Deli to drink tea and regroup.

In the shop, I noticed a man with a kind face and a polar bear claw in a silver setting hanging around his neck. I decided to talk to him instead of continuing my search.

If you can't find Mathew in his studio, try the Baffin Deli. (
If you can’t find Mathew in his studio, try the Baffin Deli. (Jennifer Kingsley)

“I hope you don’t mind, but I noticed your necklace and wanted to ask you about it.”

“I made it,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. “Do you make other jewelry too?”

He laughed. “Yes. I’m headed back to my studio right now; do you want to join me? My name is Mathew.”

Lindbland Expeditions, National Geographic

The studio turned out to be a brown house I had walked by twice. It doesn’t need a sign because everybody knows where it is, except new visitors like me. The little house was cluttered with marks of creativity posted by several artists who share his space: photographs and design ideas taped to the walls, workstations jammed with tools and tiny drawers, guitars and a music collection, plus the equipment and chemicals Mathew needed to turn his ideas into objects. It’s all functional but not fancy; Mathew made the fume hood himself from the nose cone of an old airplane.

Mathew is a well-known jeweler. He calls himself The Metal Guy, and his creations range from rings and earrings to elaborate works of metal and stone. He buys some materials, like the bear claws, from hunters (claws average $30 a piece).

Mathew Nuqingaq in his Iqaluit studio.
Mathew Nuqingaq in his Iqaluit studio. (Jennifer Kingsley)

“As a kid, I thought I was an artist,” he told me. As an adult, he started taking fine arts classes at Arctic College. “And then I took another one, and another one, and another one … I started teaching kindergarten so I could go to college half time.”

Once he had a diploma in hand, he quit teaching in favor of jewelry and art. “I was in love with it so much, I didn’t see myself doing anything else.”

Early in Mathew’s career, when he says he “wasn’t really an artist yet,” Mathew worked with five other Nunavut artists on the territory’s ceremonial mace. The central staff is made from narwhal tusk, and the carvings and jewels that decorate the mace are a collaboration representing the territory’s three regions.

Some of Mathew’s work on the Mace of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut.
Some of Mathew’s work on the Mace of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut. (Jennifer Kingsley)

In the studio, Mathew walked over to his work station and pulled out one of a dozen small drawers. “And now I make these,” he said. The drawer was full of finely worked silver pins in the shape of mini-maces. To this day, each newly elected member of the legislative assembly gets one as a gift, 17 years after the original mace was completed.

Mathew’s full-time career as a jeweler and artist is about as old as the territory of Nunavut, and as his work gets more widely distribute,d so do symbols of Inuit land and culture. Snow goggles, antlers, ulus, foxes, igloos, whale tails and human figures make up his portfolio. When Mathew is not traveling with his work to southern Canada, the United States, Iceland, Greenland and beyond, he stays rooted in his neighborhood.

If you can’t find him at the little brown house, try the Grumpy Old Men’s Coffee Club at the Baffin Deli.

This article was first published at Arctic Deeply on May 26, 2016