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It's a sunny spring day in Cape Dorset, and Nunavut's top artists are sending up "smoke signals" of dust from diamond-blade saws. The message: From this back yard, or carving shack, comes Canada's most recognizable art form.

I've come north in search of carvings and prints created in one of the most popular Inuit art destinations. Like most communities in Nunavut, Cape Dorset is a small grid of alternately dusty, muddy or icy roads lined with no-frills bungalows, churches, a couple of government buildings and windowless shops. Canoes, snowmobiles and caribou antlers litter yards and the beachfront. Sled dogs howl. Esthetically, it's not anyone's idea of Canada's most artistic community.

But among the 1,200 residents lies a remarkable statistic: According to a federally funded study released this February, Cape Dorset has more artists per capita than any other Canadian municipality -- about 110 carvers and printmakers, or 23 per cent of the work force.

Today, Inuit art says "Canada" around the world, as demonstrated by the inukshuk -- a human-shaped trail marker -- that will appear on everything from toques to coffee mugs as Vancouver's Winter Olympic symbol in 2010. Blocks of serpentine transformed into hunters and sleek Arctic animals have been presented as official gifts to visiting presidents, royals and popes. And, in the grip of former prime minister Jean Chrétien when an intruder broke into 24 Sussex Dr. in 1995, they've even been used for national defence.

Connecticut artist James Houston brought international attention to Eastern Arctic artists in the 1950s, nurturing an industry that now generates $20-million a year in a territory where every third person makes some income from arts and crafts. Throughout Nunavut's 28 communities, as well as in northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories, there's a wide variety of Inuit art to be bought from co-operatives or individuals: intricate reed baskets from Sanikiluaq on the Belcher Islands; igloo carvings from Coppermine, the roofs of which pop off to reveal a tiny family inside; and mitts made from downy musk-ox fur, to name just a few of the options.

In Cape Dorset, I set off with a pencil-drawn map marking the homes of well-known carvers Nuna Parr, Axangayu Shaa and Pauta Saila. Walking the muddy streets, I'm surrounded by crowds of exuberant kids who shout "What's your name?" and direct me toward carvers crouched on overturned milk crates. Indeed, there's no escape from the chink of axe on stone or the rasp of files.

Because co-ops and galleries set the cost of Inuit prints, prices don't vary much from Cape Dorset to Toronto. Carvings, however, are another matter.

"How much, and when will it be finished?" I ask one dust-covered artist when a polar bear emerges from a chunk of marble.

My first lesson in Inuit art shopping: Carvers won't set a price before a work is completed.

But when I came back a few hours later, I found the carving had been sold to the co-op. My second lesson in Inuit art shopping: To land a bargain, you have to be on the spot with cash in hand when the final polish is completed. After all, why would carvers wait for fickle tourists when a ready market awaits them down the road?

Within the simple dark-green buildings of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, huge boxes of carvings await a First Air flight south to take them to the co-op's exclusive distributor, Toronto-based Dorset Fine Arts. But that doesn't mean the best carvings are siphoned off. I could have nabbed them on the street if my timing was right, or from the storeroom in the co-op where a small cluster of tourists browses simple wooden shelves crowded with stone eagles, masks, and Inuit mothers in amoutiq parkas braiding their daughters' hair.

Meanwhile, a group of carvers waits outside Chris Pudlat's office to have their latest works appraised. Pudlat is the co-op's buyer and he's busy -- it is spring, the time to stockpile, because many carvers will soon head to outpost camps to hunt for the summer. "The prices we charge here are double what we pay the carver," Pudlat says. "Then the price is at least doubled again before it hits Southern gallery shelves."

He nods at an exquisite gull, a delicate carving with long graceful wings priced at $500. "The artist got $250 for that, and it would put you out at least $1,000 in Toronto. But if you had caught Napachie Sharky before he walked in my door, he probably would have let you have it for $300."

The co-op funnels profits back into the community and into obtaining rock -- 27 tonnes a year -- from the treacherous, hard-to-reach quarries in the rolling tundra northwest of Cape Dorset.

When I can't find print-shop manager Jimmy Manning for a tour of his facilities, I ask an elderly woman smoking a cigarette outside the door if she has seen him. Leaning against a garbage bin, she smiles a near-toothless smile and shrugs.

Manning soon arrives, and shows me how stone-cut prints are created. The artist's design is etched into stone, which is then coated with many layers of paint using a small roller. In this way, each Japanese rice-paper print is an original. After a run of between 30 to 50 prints, the design is sanded off the stone surface and the slate reused.

"We experimented with many different kinds of stone, until we finally settled on slate from old pool tables," Manning explains, adding that the superstar of Inuit print-making had left the co-op minutes earlier after signing her completed works for her highly anticipated October collection release.

Kenojuak Ashevak, 79, used to bring her art in the 1950s from outpost camps to Cape Dorset by dog team. She has received the Order of Canada, and holds the honour of having produced a 1960 print called The Enchanted Owl that recently sold for $58,000, the most ever paid for an Inuit print, at a Toronto auction. It also appeared on a six-cent stamp.

"Oh," Manning says, looking out the window, "there she is," and points at the cigarette-smoking woman leaning against the trash bin. Like all things Inuit, there is no pretension about the artists here.

I spend my last day in Cape Dorset watching a harpoon-wielding hunter take shape. I check back on the carver's progress every few hours -- just to make sure this one doesn't get away.

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Regular twice-weekly flights on First Air ( ) and Kenn Borek Air ( ) connect Cape Dorset with Iqaluit. WHERE TO SHOP FOR ART

West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative: Cape Dorset; 867-897-8827 .

Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association: Iqaluit; 867-979-7808; . The seventh annual Nunavut Arts Festival (www.nacaarts.org/craftfest.html), which features all types of artwork from across the territory, usually takes place in June.

Iqaluit Fine Arts Studio: 867-979-5578; . Close enough to the airport for a quick dash over between flights.

Northern Country Arts: Iqaluit (near the North Mart supermarket); 867-979-0067; northerncountryarts.ca.

Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts: 867-473-8669; .

WHERE TO STAY

Huit Huit Tours: Cape Dorset; 867-897-8806; capedorsettours.com. B&B-style accommodations from $185 a person per night.

MORE INFORMATION

Nunavut Tourism: 1-800-491-7910; .