All I really want to do is express what I see. If it comes out as being Inuit, then I think that is fine; if it comes out as being contemporary, that is also fine. I think that a lot of times I have a tendency to put the two of them together to see what happens.1
– Michael Massie
Born in 1962 in Happy Valley – Goose Bay, Labrador, Michael Massie is known for his fantastical silver teapots whose playful forms and intricate motifs integrate references to his personal mythology with elements of traditional Inuit culture and European art history. In his work, Massie explores the multifaceted nature of his own Inuit (Nunatsiavut), Métis and Scottish heritage, and a closer look at Bakeapples, Partridgeberries and Tea reveals a complex intermingling of references.
The shape of the work is strongly reminiscent of the crescent shape of the ulu – a cutting tool central to traditional Inuit life used for domestic tasks such as cutting meat, filleting fish or cleaning skins. This is a form Massie returns to time and again in his teapot creation, not only because of the importance of this tool in Inuit culture, but also because he wishes to emphasize the social role played by both the ulu knife and the teapot as functional objects of material culture that serve to bring people together in different communities.
Interestingly, in the conception of this work Massie also drew inspiration from the vase seen in Still Life (1891) a painting in the style of Paul Gauguin held in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As the artist explains, “It caught my attention because of the shape of the vase. I could play around with the lines, and the shape also resemble[d] an ulu… I extended the ends of the vase to include the spout and the lid handle… This way the teapot appears as a figure, especially once the legs are added.”2 Massie strives to give new and unexpected life to the forms of his teapots, which often include zoomorphic characteristics. The feet are a particularly important feature of many of his creations, and the artist has said that he “learned early on that a good pot looked as if it could walk off the tabletop.”3
The exploration Massie applies to form he equally applies to decoration, as evidenced in the piece’s dynamic silver surfaces. Disliking the reflective effect produced by polished silver – he has noted that mirror-polished teapots “take on their surroundings and negate their silhouettes”4 – Massie creates complex acid-etched motifs on the surfaces of his pieces as a means of recording personal and cultural histories. In Bakeapples, Partridgeberries and Tea, the exuberant floral motifs are inspired by his childhood memories of berry picking in Labrador with his family in the 1960s. Massie recalls:
I can remember my parents, brother, sister, my aunt and uncles as well as my cousins spent many weekends on Northwest Point picking berries while the time was right for the picking… I choose two different berries for this teapot, the bakeapple and the partridgeberry. When I think of those two berries, I think of Mom and Dad. They loved berry picking, and picking berries at Northwest Point was where we picked partridgeberries. For the bakeapples, Mom and Dad usually made a trip to the south coast of Labrador to get their stash… Now, all of this didn’t happen yesterday, but the memory feels like it was only yesterday.5
A poetic fusion of childhood memories, traditional Inuit culture and European art history, Bakeapples, Partridgeberries and Tea is a beautiful example of the way in which Massie intertwines multiple facets of his personal identity to create exceptional works that speak to the extraordinary breadth and variety of the Canadian experience.
Shortlisted twice for the coveted Saidye Bronfman Award, Michael Massie was elected a fellow of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2011 and inducted into the Order of Canada in 2017.
1 Michael Massie, 1996. Website of the National Gallery of Canada: www.gallery.ca/collection/artist/michael-massie.
2 Michael Massie, cited in documentation provided by the Feheley Fine Arts Gallery on the work Bakeapples, Partridgeberries and Tea, 2021.
3 Gloria Hickey, Silver and Stone: The Art of Michael Massie, exh. cat. (St. Johns, Newfoundland: The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, 2006).
5 Michael Massie, cited in documentation provided by the Feheley Fine Arts Gallery on the work Bakeapples, Partridgeberries and Tea, 2021.