Polar Bear Works

Waiting for the Shaman (2017)

22" x 1”; Bones from polar bear paws, resin

The story of Mangilaluk, an elder with shamanic powers who was Tuktoyaktuk’s first chief, is central to the region’s history; he passed on to the community a story of three polar bears who came to Ibyuq Pingo looking for women to be their mothers.  “Waiting for the Shaman” consists of concentric circles of bones from polar bear paws, encased in layers of clear resin. The bones themselves have been cut lengthwise in half, cleaned out, and filled with resin in muted colors, emphasizing the distinctive shape of each and imparting an aura of ceremonial adornment. In this arrangement, the paw bones become a collective that references the traditional social organization of igloo gatherings, with elders seated around the outside and the youngest community members in center. Led by elders and shamans, such gatherings provide opportunities for teachings, initiations, drumming—ritual activities connecting communities with ancestral time. The gap in the circular bands of bones here denotes an opening, a conceptual space for the title's expected entrance.


Guardian (2017)

39" X 40”; Polar bear Guard Hairs, clear vinyl, ricrac, bias tape

In Guardian, thick braids of polar bear guard hairs encased in vinyl are bound together and ornamented with red broadcloth and long strings of ric-rac, creating a sculptural kind of fabric, or garment. Its twisting strands are a macro echo of the DNA that is encoded in the individual animal hairs. As such, there is some resonance here of the fact that all we have left of many species is preserved DNA. Guardian’s highly flexible, mobile form can easily be worn, carried, or displayed on a range bodies and surfaces, speaking to an active, transformative process of protection.  


Untitled (2017)

Glass, polar bear bone dust, polar bear guard hair, resin, wax, acrylic

These small assemblages confidently combine imagined clinical and ritual elements, both of which, in turn, bear medicinal associations. The substantial test tubes are filled with powdered polar bear bone and sealed with red wax, and have been secured to clear, sharp-edged acrylic blocks using lengths of spun and resin-dipped polar bear fur. A wax seal is, in general, expressly intended to be opened at some point.  In their gathered specimen aspect, these pieces seem equally as if they could be waiting to be used in a scientific experiment or a spell, prodding at perceived distinctions and hierarchies between systems of knowledge. 


Message (2015)

180” X 24”; Polar bear guard hair, cotton thread, black interface

"The polar bear fur used to create the large-scale linear pattern of Message (2015) was once, like the fur in Communion Thin, part of a beloved rug. In reutilizing it, Gruben upholds Inuvialuit values of using as much of a harvested animal as possible, for as long as possible. A polar bear rug might hold meaning for a particular person or family by embodying connections to a place, or to personal stories and histories. In Message, Gruben’s proficiency with materials, developed over a lifetime of sewing and working with local hides and furs, becomes a conduit for opening up communicative agency to the animal, the nanuq, itself.  The Morse code SOS, ‘written’ out in guard hairs, invokes, certainly, recent circulated images of polar bears that are dirty and desperately skinny, starving because the sea ice that was their traditional hunting ground at a specific time of year has disappeared. But Message doesn’t rely on dramatic representational footage and statistics. Rather, sitting between abstraction and syntax, it uses a restrained eloquence that admits viewers to the urgency of a real, material presence. It also admits them to a unique and beautiful manifestation of an interspecies relationship—now threatened—that had existed in a strong and stable balance for thousands of years."  (Excerpt from UNGALAQ catalog essay.)


Gestation (2016)

53” diameter; Polar bear guard hair, silicone wrap, polar bear underfur, white glue, thread


"Gestation (2016) uses the guard hairs and underfur of the polar bear each in distinct ways, creating a relational dynamic between psychologies of actively protecting, and of being protected. The careful, precise construction of the felt circle that tightly binds guard hairs into tufts that radiate outwards in defined lines contrasts technically and aesthetically with the intuitive, improvisational approach to the dense underfur, which has been bundled and coaxed into soft, nascent forms. The circle is big enough to encompass a clutch of the fuzzy nodules. It is also big enough to encircle a fully grown human, bringing gestational inferences to an adult scale, encouraging viewers engage emotionally with an embryonic state of being that is at once intensely generative and entirely passive—one in which you could have no control and yet still feel entirely safe.  Just as easily, a viewer can connect to an innate desire to protect what that is, in fundamental respects, vulnerable and utterly subject to contingent environmental conditions. Here, the material presence of fur supports recognition that infancy and parenthood, vulnerability and strength, are cross-species states of being. This can lead in turn to considerations of how as sentient beings we might on a basic level desire both the power to protect and nurture, and the security of knowing we are protected and being nurtured" (Excerpt from UNGALAQ catalog essay.)


Communion Thin (2016)

70” x  76”; Polar bear guard hair, vinyl, cotton thread

"In Communion Thin (2016), polar bear guard hairs are pressed and stitched between small rectangles of clear industrial vinyl that are connected with hand-tied red threads. They are suspended in a large array that hovers near transparent in the air, catching the light, as a sheet of ice might sit, might eventually break away and float, over water.  The title, Communion Thin, lightly drapes ecclesiastical associations over the work, making it reminiscent of veils worn to first communions or, even, the pale ritual wafers of bread that are interspersed with sips of red wine. The piece presents intersections of delicate visual beauty and immense, potentially threatening power, such as can be found within the history of Catholic Church, or—though very differently—in an ocean blanketed with rapidly thinning ice. Touching on undertones of risk, it incorporates dual modes of protection, the vinyl having been produced to serve similar aims as the fur: to guard as much as possible against the potential ferocity of the elements. " (Excerpt from UNGALAQ catalog essay.)