Inuvialuk artist Maureen Gruben’s parents met during the 1928 flu epidemic that ravaged parts of the Northwest Territories. Eddie and Alice – young children at the time – had the task of bringing water from the river to the tent that housed the ill elders.
Years later, they would marry. The Grubens were traditional knowledge-keepers, and Maureen, the youngest of their seven daughters, learned to sew from her mother and to trap from her father.
Today, Ms. Gruben makes contemporary art installations using organic and industrial materials that often reference traditional themes and are activist in nature – addressing themes such as the climate emergency and hunting rights for Indigenous people.
Two of her recent works were made to honour her parents: Delta Trim (2018) for her mother, is a work that is more than 6.5 metres wide and is made with moose hide, bubble wrap, Velcro, zip ties and reflective tape.
Another work, for her father, was made in 2019 from deer hide. It’s titled We all have to go someday. Do the best you can. Love one another. “That’s what my father always told us and he wrote it down. And it’s something we try to remember,” Ms. Gruben said Thursday from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, where she was born and raised and now lives.
The works were both installed at the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of its current exhibition, “Where do we go from here?”
But on Feb. 3, a visitor to the gallery took aim at Delta Trim, popping some of the bubbles with a finger. A TikTok video shows a man damaging the work.
On Thursday, the Vancouver Police Department released photos of a suspect, hoping the public can help identify him.
The work is worth about $14,000 – and repairs are estimated to cost approximately $5,500-$6,500.
“Unfortunately, the only way to get it back to pristine form would be to replace all [of the bubble wrap] because it’s all one roll; it’s not like you could take a section out,” said Ms. Gruben’s Vancouver gallerist, LaTiesha Fazakas. “That would be super labour-intensive,” Ms. Fazakas added, saying it would take days of work.
Ms. Fazakas says that when they were told about the damage, they were concerned – but thought it might have been accidental, or the result of the irresistibility of bubble wrap.
That changed when she saw the video. “He was super smug about it and thought it was really funny and saw it as an opportunity to create a social-media post,” she said, adding that there should be accountability for such actions.
The work is deeply personal for Ms. Gruben. Delta Trim takes its inspiration from a parka her mother, Alice, made for her when she was 16, a Christmas gift. Inuvialuit seamstresses develop their own personal delta-trim patterns and that’s what Alice used for the parka.
The trim’s green-blue colour was inspired by the colour of the water as the Beaufort Sea ice broke up in spring on the Mackenzie Delta where they lived. The parka was made with caribou skin.
“It was absolutely gorgeous,” Ms. Gruben said. When she wore it, the artist said, she would walk across the ice feeling warm, beautiful and loved. “[My mother] put a lot of love and care into it.”
For Delta Trim, Ms. Gruben sewed orange safety reflector bands – found in a thrift store in Victoria, where she was living when she made the work – onto a large-scale version of her mother’s delta-trim pattern, fixed onto aqua-green bubble wrap.
The found materials she worked with to create this installation – the bubble wrap, the blaze orange safety tape for hunters – also speak to the protection she received from her mother and the parka.
“It speaks about the memory of love and care from your mother,” Ms. Gruben said. “That’s what Inuit women do for their children – out of necessity but also out of love.”
Alice Gruben died in 1987. Eddie Gruben died in 2016. We all have to go is a mirrored image of his heart, created by blowing up a copy of his angiogram from heart surgery, scaling it up and embroidering it, then placing the hide in an aluminum frame. That work is owned by the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Ms. Gruben said she is trying not to focus on the vandalism. “It’s just one disrespectful individual,” she said.
A spokesperson for the VAG declined to comment, citing the police investigation.
Reached late Thursday afternoon, a VPD spokesperson was unaware of whether any tips had come in from the public.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.