Arctic Museum Presents Inuit Art from Rabbi Harry Sky Collection

Story posted February 23, 2012


Few people expect that a rabbi in Maine might be a thoughtful collector of Canadian Inuit art. Rabbi Harry Sky, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth El in Portland, is such a man.

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Standing figure with fur, Rankin Inlet.

After he was given a piece of Inuit art as a gift, he discovered that many Inuit carvings and prints depicting transformations resonate with his belief that all people are “in a state of becoming.”

In 2011, he donated his collection of 36 carvings and two prints to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. The Rabbi Harry Z. and Ruth L. Sky Collection includes pieces by well-known artists, including Kenojuak Ashevak and George Arluk. This winter, Arctic Museum staff members traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Rabbi Sky now resides, to interview him about his collecting activities and get his perspective on the significance of individual pieces.

The result is a new exhibition, In a State of Becoming: Inuit Art from the Collection of Rabbi Harry Sky, currently on view at the Arctic Museum. The exhibit combines Rabbi Sky’s commentary on what individual pieces have meant to him with the Museum’s explanations of ways in which individual works reflect Inuit world views.

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Shaman, transformation in green, Turatura Ragee, 1997.

Rabbi Sky collected pieces that resonate with his belief that humans are always growing and learning. The carvings and prints he collected are like snapshots — catching a person, creature, or spirit in the process of transforming and exhibiting physical attributes of what it was and what it will be. While many collectors are drawn to beautiful works, Rabbi Sky selected artistically strong works that depict the joys, stresses, and sometimes horrors of life.

The pieces that combine human and animal traits are based on Inuit beliefs that in the distant past humans and animals easily assumed one another’s forms. Shamans took on the physical attributes of their animal-like spirit helpers as well. Also, dangerous spirits could assume animal forms. The close link between humans and animals continues to be reflected in contemporary Inuit perspectives.

“Over the last year three years the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum has received several important donations of Alaskan and Canadian Inuit art, including a large gift from Robert and Judith Toll,” said Susan Kaplan, director of the Arctic Museum. “A handful of artists’ works are represented in both the Toll and Sky gifts, but otherwise the collections are quite distinct, reflecting the individual tastes of the collectors. We are thrilled to have both collections, for they offer a diversity of exhibition opportunities and are wonderful teaching resources.”

Plans to have Rabbi Sky tour the exhibition and give a gallery talk will be announced at a later date.

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