Sophia Lebessis is the creative genius behind the transformative experience offered at Transformation Fine Art located in Calgary, Alberta’s downtown core, and the first Inuk-owned art gallery in Canada. Inuit on her mother’s side and Greek on her father’s, she was raised in Arviat, Nunavut on the coast of the Hudson’s Bay where her family promoted Inuit art from an Arctic-based Inuit art cooperative for over 30 years.
A second-generation Inuit art dealer, Lebessis’ family lineage traces back to master Inuit artists linked to renowned artist Kenojuak Ashevak. Her unique mixed heritage and cultural upbringing influenced her love and appreciation of art, and her understanding of the procurement of Inuit art, from creation to distribution. In addition to being an entrepreneur and an expert in Master Works of Inuit art, Lebessis has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and a Master of Adult
Education. She is also the first Inuk to speak in TEDx history where she spoke at TEDxYYC on The Art of Survival: A Modern-Day Inuit Odyssey Through the Arts in 2018. She has curated numerous high-profile public art initiatives and is an often sought-after opinion on contemporary Indigenous issues. SAY Magazine caught up with Lebessis recently to talk about business, family and of course art. Here is more from that conversation.
SAY: Please tell us more about your family and where you grew up.
Lebessis: My whole life was spent amongst Inuit art so I have a very deep understanding of the procurement of Inuit art when it comes from the hands of an artist, and eventually to a collector’s home. Growing up in my family-run galleries in Banff and Lake Louise, I spent all my adolescent years working alongside my father who was a raconteur of Inuit art with great verve.
Everything I learned about Inuit art was from the perspective of my Greek-born father who moved to Canada when he was 16 years old and eventually found himself in the Arctic. He was adopted into the Inuit culture, and leading up to his passing he considered himself Inuk as much as he did Greek. Even though I left the Arctic to move to Alberta at quite a young age, still having a connection to my culture with art helped keep my culture alive. Connection through art is an interesting perspective when we unpack urban Indigenous people’s experiences and how you maintain a strong connection to your culture when you’re so far away. I had the benefit of being amongst Canada’s greatest Inuit artists my whole life.
SAY: I read that Transformation Fine Art is Canada’s first Inuk-owned Inuit art gallery. Congratulations! Tell us more about your gallery and the experience you offer.
Lebessis: It is, but I didn’t know it at the time. It was one of my art suppliers—who had been in the industry for 30 years—who pointed it out. There are staff who work in Inuit art cooperatives, and there are Inuit art researchers and academics who work in publicly owned galleries or museums, but in terms of a retail gallery I just so happen to have been the first. My gallery is curated in a way to be a boutique gallery that operates by appointment only in downtown Calgary, Alberta. I did this because my whole life I grew up servicing tourists who were visiting Banff National Park who had all kinds of questions about Indigenous Canada. Having learned so much about the business of Inuit art, I knew I wanted to do something different and more tailored—a one-on-one experience for collectors to enjoy their time in a space that was dedicated to them and their collection needs.
Generally, for people who have an interest in Inuit art, it’s very much appreciated when you have the undivided attention of an Inuit art expert. You can go through your collection, the direction that you want to take your collection and the artists that you should be focusing on to grow your collection. On top of that, I also service corporate art gifting as well.
SAY: Can you explain why corporate gifting is an important service?
Inuit art has been a long-standing tradition for those who are retiring. They receive a piece of Inuit art which is one of the beautiful aspects of the collectability of Inuit art. It’s a gift that shows sentimental value in a person through the gift of Inuit art, which is our national art form.
SAY: On top of running your own business, you wear many other hats as a curator, an educator, and a producer, correct?
Lebessis: Yes, I hold a Master’s in Adult Education, so I create my curation to not only have a different way of looking at something artistically but also have educational components of Canadian and Inuit art history. I also recently started producing educational videos around Indigenous cultural learning through the eyes and lived experiences of Indigenous Elders. So, I’m morphing my business because I knew retail wasn’t going to be the beginning and the end, but a continuation of a family legacy. Producing has come very naturally to me. I enjoy the art of filmmaking and contracting my friend’s expertise. I have a wonderful group of filmmaker friends, videographers and photographers in Calgary who I’ve teamed up with to produce some interesting content that’s going to update our Indigenous education.
SAY: Having been immersed in this industry and given your family history, do you have an artistic medium?
Lebessis: I did become an artist and my medium is painting, mostly acrylic on canvas. I also took up the art of printmaking, which has really taken off. My very first print was a cultural self-portrait. When I was thinking about what imagery to use to demonstrate that I’m Greek and Inuit from an artistic perspective, I wanted to delve a little bit deeper and contextualize what it means to be from two cultures that have nothing to do with each other historically. The image I created is an Ulu, which is an Inuit woman’s knife, and embedded in the blade of the Ulu is an evil eye. Evil eye imagery is used in many cultures. It’s a symbol we use to ward off evil and it’s quite popular in Greece, so I embedded that eye within the blade. I’ve done a few iterations of that print where the evil eye is a different colour. The Inuit Art Society out of the United States, a group of Inuit art collectors and Inuit cultural enthusiasts, commissioned me to make a limited edition print series of Ulu Eye to use as a fundraiser for their society.
SAY: Can you talk about the transformative power that art plays in learning and reconciliation?
Lebessis: Art is disarming. No matter what art form it is, it’s disarming. And when we think about a statement like that, think of how you walk in an art gallery. If you’re walking with children, you’re holding their hands and telling them not to touch anything. Your pace slows down, you’re taking everything in, and you’re enjoying what you’re looking at. You might not understand what you’re looking at and you might not be able to even afford what you’re looking at, but there’s an effect on you and your conscience, you’re starting to open up facets of your knowledge and imagination. And then that’s where transformative learning happens.
SAY: How do artists who have multifaceted approaches, understandings and talent in art live their daily lives and be authentic?
Lebessis: I find that it’s an interesting time to be Indigenous. Not that it hasn’t been throughout history, but we’re coming into a very interesting era where the collective messaging on Inuit culture is starting to understand that we have some very old and outdated perspectives on who we are, and I’m especially finding this in the field of education. Now is the time to open up spaces to a generation of Indigenous people who have dedicated their talent, their education, and their innovation to wanting to be a part of that field. It’s going to take interesting ways of shifting through how we open up these spaces to engage with these people, who are professionals in their crafts, because gone are the days where you get a phone call and you tell an Indigenous person ‘I want to pick your brain’ to access our culture and our knowledge. This is a livelihood and this livelihood needs to be respected monetarily. And it needs to shift from ‘picking your brain’ to creating contracts for example. I think it’s imperative to create roles for Indigenous people in organizations, to position someone strategically in ways that create longevity in this movement of elevating our perspective on Indigenous Canada.
SAY: Where do you hope to shift some of your focus in the near future?
Lebessis: I would love to have a diplomatic position somewhere in Europe or the United States where I’m promoting Indigenous art to an international market because that’s what keeps our art on the main stage. It’s a wider audience and wider audiences mean more collectors.
In general, we’re encouraged to promote Indigenous art within these fictitious borders that we have, only focusing on artists in our area. While that’s great in some circumstances, it closes the door for other artists to sell their works to other communities, to other treaty areas where we can start breaking down these borders that are not allowing for trade. We have an amazing trade history where we, our lives, and our aesthetics were enriched by the trade of art forms. Whether it was beads, or fabrics that made our lives aesthetically enriched, and finding that the drive to only promote art from the artists in your area is starting to kind of close opportunities for artists to start reaching all across Canada and abroad. Promoting works from Indigenous artists all across Canada in your community is essential because that’s how you start building collectability, that’s how you start building an artistic community while supporting artists who need a larger Canadian market to sustain their livelihood. It’s a perspective of celebration.