The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum celebrated the opening of its new exhibit, “Spirits of Land, Air, and Water: Antler Carvings from the Robert and Judith Toll Collection,” Wednesday night with a lecture by Norman Vorano, curator of contemporary Inuit art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Quebec.

The Tolls, Inuit art enthusiasts from California, are in the process of donating their entire collection to the Arctic Museum.

“[The Tolls] made one donation in 2009, about a third of their holdings, and they will continue over the coming years to donate the remainder of their collection to us,” said Arctic Museum Curator Genevieve LeMoine. “This has been a really big and important development that enables us to do a lot of exhibits of contemporary art.”

Vorano stressed that now is a particularly crucial time to be examining works from the far north.

“Inuit artists are breaking with restrictive conventions of the past and entering into an increasingly globalized, modern world,” he said.

Vorano’s Wednesday lecture was more or less a survey of 20th-century Inuit art, focusing on how material creates meaning in a work.  He discussed how Canadian artists sculpt with types of stone unique to their regions as part of both an aesthetic competition and a quest for individual expression. 

“Artists invest a great deal of symbolism in the types of stone used in carving,” he said.

While Vorano spoke mainly about works made from stone, the new exhibit celebrates another material: caribou antler.

While sifting through the contents of the Tolls’ latest donation, LeMoine said she was amazed by how many pieces were made from antler.

“Because of my own archaeological research I have an attachment to antler,” she said.  “I was just struck by the really diverse, imaginative, sometimes whimsical, sometimes scary ways in which artists have used it.”

One of the reasons that stone sculpture is more common in the north is because it is widely considered to yield more possibilities in shape and form. Antlers, in contrast, appear somewhat restrictive at first glance; all are a somewhat similar shape and size, with little material to work with. However, LeMoine said she sees them as limitless templates for creative expression.

“The actual shape and material is a source of so much inspiration,” she said. “Some of [the antlers] are hardly modified at all; [the artists] are just using a little bit of carving to make out what they see in the antler already and make it real. Others are using it as a raw material the same way they use stone and carving it extensively.”

For LeMoine, one of the most striking aspects of the sculptures on view is their duality of expression.  

One such work, made from a pair of antlers joined by a partial skull, smiles at visitors as they enter the exhibit; however, the other side of the sculpture depicts a frightening face with a gaping mouth.

“He’s a complex guy,” said LeMoine with a chuckle.

The exhibit also features various prints—primarily stonecut—that illustrate the importance of caribou in traditional and contemporary Inuit culture as both a source of food and as a useful material.

LeMoine said she is confident that the exhibit will be a success.

“I think people will be surprised and delighted by some of these pieces,” she said. “With this exhibit, we’re combining anthropology and science and contemporary issues all in one—art becomes a vehicle for a lot of things.”