Arctic Workshops


This is an account about two jewelry history workshops that I led at Nunavut Arctic College:

Imitation Coral, and The Frozen Museum. These experiences showed me how teaching history is socially relevant to a frontier community, and that jewelry making is a powerful expression of heritage and reconciliation.


Out of the Ivy and Into The Arctic

Before I became a historian, I was a jewelry designer and wax model-maker in Toronto, where I had learned my trade at the George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology (you can check out the program here).

Fast-forward to February 2015, when my former classmate from jewelry school Beata Hejnowicz called me out of the blue…

…saying that these past ten years she’s been the Senior Instructor in the Jewellery Department at Nunavut Arctic College, and that she’d love to bring me up north to hold a jewellery history workshop for her students in the Metal Arts program.

I totally wanted to do this!

At the time I was a postdoc on the Making & Knowing Project at Columbia University, and I was keen to see how our ideas about reconstruction and history of science might apply to an Arctic vocational school with different learning goals.

Three months later, I headed to Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, the capital of the province of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic.En route to Iqaluit

I ended up leading two workshops.

The first took place in May 2015, where we made imitation coral based on the 16th-century recipe from folio 3r in Ms. Fr. 640, which the Making & Knowing team had reconstructed in our lab at Columbia a year earlier.

The second occurred in January 2016, which we documented in The Frozen Museum, our online exhibition of the Arctic cylinder seals we made.


Imitation Coral

This workshop was based on directions for making imitation coral given in this recipe, folio 3r in Ms. Fr. 640, written around 1580, likely in or around Toulouse (the author has yet to be identified):

Here’s its translation:

One needs to first make the branches of wood or take a bizarre thorn branch, then melt a lb of the most beautiful clear pitch resin and put in one ounce of subtly ground vermilion with walnut oil, and if you add in a little Venice lake platte, the color will be more vivid, and stir everything in the resin melted over a charcoal fire and not of flame, for fear that the fire catches within. Next dip in your branches while turning, & if there should remain any filaments, turn the branch over the heat of the charcoal

So, you’ll notice that this recipe isn’t exactly explicit about things like time, temperature, measurements (the kind of specific directions we expect today from, say, a culinary recipe), but this is totally in keeping with how recipes were recorded in the early modern period (if you find this sort of thing interesting, definitely check out The Recipes Project).

You also may have found some things perplexing, like the suggestion to dip a “bizarre thorn branch” into the resin mixture “while turning” — as did the Making & Knowing team when we reconstructed this recipe in the lab at Columbia University.

In the M&K experiment, we just followed the recipe without having a clear idea what would result (you can watch our process here); we combined vermilion pigment and walnut oil into resin that was heated until it liquefied, we dipped in quince twigs (which were definitely thorny)…M&K imitation coral

… and we were amazed at what we produced.

Turns out the “turning” motion of the thorny branch in the liquefied resin worked to evenly coat all of its awkward angles, and the mixture hardened into a brilliant red upon cooling, which took moments.”Coral” seemed to appear in our hands.

Basically, we had created a thick red varnish that looked a lot like coral, though it didn’t feel like coral, which is cool and stone-like to touch; this had a plastic quality. .

Here’s what we produced at Nunavut Arctic College: Imitation coral at Nunavut Arctic College

Our version of imitation coral was made using caribou antler (finding any branches in the Arctic is challenging, let alone the “bizarre” thorny kind called for in the recipe from folio 3r).

I chose this recipe for the Arctic workshop because of how the process of making the “coral” ends up demystifying the recipe’s text.

Also, for me, this particular recipe is a fascinating window into a bygone world of collecting practices and ideas about natural history.

We started our Arctic Imitation Coral reconstruction with a media-rich discussion that considered early modern ideas and practices based on such extant images as objects like this 17th-century coral-handled spoon at the Victoria & Albert Museum, this stunning statuette from ca. 1570 of Daphne turning into a laurel bush, this 1599 print of Ferrante Imperato’s museum, and this 1576 print of a goldsmith’s workshop — its details, amazingly, bear a lot of similarities to tools and workshop organization still used today.

This historical contextualization was followed by our hands-on work in the studio reconstructing folio 3r.

… and here’s what making imitation coral in the Arctic looks like:

This was such a fun and thought-provoking experience in part because it didn’t occur to me going into this workshop that most of Beata’s students had never seen or heard about coral, almost all of them were from Inuit communities throughout the Arctic — this sparked a spontaneous and really lively discussion about materials and technologies used in Inuit and Western artisanal traditions, which enhanced the students’ connection to the visual prompts I used in the lecture before our coral reconstruction in the studio.

Interestingly, while the Columbia students who take the Making & Knowing laboratory-seminar are versed in theory, they don’t necessarily have hands-on experience, so much of our work is dedicated to teaching them how to work with each other, and with tools and materials. Conversely, 2589 km north of Columbia University in a classroom at Nunavut Arctic College, a seemingly simple recipe from 1580 led to unexpected questions about biodiversity. But once in the studio the Metal Arts students readily conceptualized the process, adapting their experience with other kinds of artisanal practices, and thus needing little direction in executing the reconstruction tasks (mulling the pigment with oil, melting the resin, combining the materials, and dipping the antler).

In each case, neither group knew what to expect from reconstructing the recipe for imitation coral, and both were fascinated by the swift transformation of the thick dark red mass of heated resin into brilliant red “coral” upon cooling. It appears that wonder knows no boundaries.

*Note: vermilion is made from mercuric sulphide; both reconstruction groups were instructed in the attendant health hazards in working with this material, and to the limits of this material in terms of handling; MSDS information was provided in advance of both workshops; the pigment was purchased at Kremer Pigmente.


The Frozen Museum

Eight months after the Imitation Coral session, I held a two-week jewelry history workshop at Nunavut Arctic College that we ended up calling The Frozen Museum, and our work is presented in full at (please do visit) — I am grateful to the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office (CNGO) for their support of this project, and for hosting our digital museum.

To summarize here, The Frozen Museum features stories of lived experience in the Arctic by four Inuit Metal Arts students, carved into cylinder seals from regional stones. The stories, told by Gary, Simon, Juna, and Peter, are of family histories of forced relocation, Inuit cosmology, reverence for the land and its stewardship, and joy in creating art from the stones, plants, and animals of the Arctic.

… and why the cylinder seal? Because it is an excellent medium for storytelling, which is an integral element of Inuit culture as this connects each generation to the next. The Arctic cylinder seals that Simon, Gary, Juna, and Peter carved and curated in The Frozen Museum innovate an ancient form of communication, as the cylinder seal is a pictographic message carved in reverse upon the surface of a cylinder-shaped hardstone, whose meaning emerges when the seal is rolled across a malleable surface (the ancients used clay, we used Plasticine).

The Frozen Museum presents a figurative expression of Arctic culture that is communicated in a virtual space, where the curators’ stories are unrolled to us through their cylinder seals.


© Donna Bilak and (2012-2018). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Donna Bilak and (2012-2018) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.