James Archibald Houston | The Canadian Encyclopedia


James Archibald Houston

James Archibald Houston, artist, author, filmmaker (b at Toronto 12 Jun 1921; d at New London, Conn 17 Apr 2005). Houston studied art in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art before serving in WWII.

Houston, James Archibald

James Archibald Houston, artist, author, filmmaker (b at Toronto 12 Jun 1921; d at New London, Conn 17 Apr 2005). Houston studied art in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art before serving in WWII. After studying in France (1947-48) at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière he returned to Canada but became frustrated with urban living. He flew to an Inuit village in northern Québec and subsequently spent the next 14 years living and travelling throughout the Canadian Arctic. Houston served as civil administrator at Cape Dorset, West Baffin, and taught the Inuit techniques of printmaking and popularized their art in the US and Canada. As an accomplished artist himself, he was given the name Saumik, or "left-handed one," by the Inuit. With the decline of the fur trade, he recognized the income potential of Inuit art for the people in Canada's northern communities, and in 1949 he organized one of the first major exhibitions of Inuit art. He worked with the Canadian Guild of Crafts, the federal government and the Hudson's Bay Company to bring attention to the Inuit and their art forms; to promote the work of the Inuit artists he formed the West Baffin Co-operative.

His life in the Arctic is described in Confessions of an Igloo Dweller (1995). Houston's children's stories Tikta'liktak: An Eskimo Legend (1965), The White Archer (1967) and River Runners (1979) each received the Canadian Library Association Children's Book of the Year award. He received the Canadian Authors Association Metcalf Award twice (1977, 1981), the Canada Council's Children's Literature Prize (1986), the British Columbia Book Prize (1987), and was awarded the American Library Association Notable Book Award for 4 of his books (1967, 1968, 1971, 1977). His children's book Whiteout won the Max and Greta Ebel Memorial Award (1989), and Drifting Snow was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award and the Silver Birch Award of the Ontario Library Association. (1992).

Houston's children's books are of 3 types. Some, such as Tikta'liktak, Long Claws (1981) and The Falcon Bow (1986), are expanded versions of legends he was told by the Inuit. Others portray the growth to maturity of West Coast Indigenous youths and novels such as Frozen Fire (1977), River Runners (1979), Black Diamonds (1982), Ice Swords (1985) and Drifting Snow (1992) have modern settings. Houston illustrated his books as well as books by several other authors. His adult novels such as The White Dawn (1971), Spirit Wrestler (1980), Eagle Song (1983) and Running West (1989) depict the powerful emotions involved in confrontation between traditional Indigenous cultures and Europeans. Running West received the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Fiction (1990).

Houston left the Arctic and moved to the US to work for Steuben Glass of New York as a master designer. In 1992, Houston was honoured for his 43-year career with Steuben Glass through a major retrospective exhibit of his work. His 70-foot sculpture entitled Aurora Borealis is on permanent display at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Houston was awarded the American Indian and Eskimo Cultural Foundation Award in 1966, the Queen Elizabeth Silver Anniversary Medal in 1977 and the Inuit Kuavati Award of Merit in 1979. He was active on many national and international boards promoting Indigenous art. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Art and in 1974 he became an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 1997 he was awarded the Massey Medal by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and over his career he was awarded several honorary doctorates. He designed the National Geographic Centennial Award and also won the Chicago Book Clinic design award. In 1992, Houston was included among the 125 most significant Canadians in the country's 125-year history.

His novel White Dawn, which details the story of 3 shipwrecked whalers, was made into a feature film in 1974 and was filmed almost entirely in Iqaluit.

See also Inuit Printmaking, Inuit Myth and Legend.

Selected Filmography

Drifting Snow: An Arctic Search.

Glorious Mud. 1984

Touch Wood. 1993

All That Glistens.

Fire into Ice: Adventures in Glass Making.

Fire and Sand: The Mysteries of Glass.

Ties that Bind.

So Sings the Wolf. (producer and director)

Kalvak, Legends of the Salmon People. (producer and director)

Art of the Arctic Whalemen. (producer and director)

The Living Stone and Kenojuak. (advisor)

The Legend of the Raven. (advisor)

Further Reading