by Madeleine Kane

Floyd Kuptana-Urban Hunter:
Celebrating the life of an Indigenous Artist

6.7

TORONTO

“Against injustice, he lived. He carved his culture into indestructible stone. He covered canvases with colour and light. Kuptana made art that reflected the hope of childhood that he spent his life searching for within himself.”

Floyd Kuptana
by Bailey MacIver 

The story, the inner life, and the inspiration behind an artist and their work is never simple nor linear. Our most revered artists are made of a complex mosaic of memories, shattered and reassembled into tangible creations of their greatest experiences. Artists carry with them the unique gift of sharing the most vulnerable and hidden depths of the human experience—one such artist was Floyd Kuptana.

In May of 2021, Kuptana, an Indigenous artist, died in Toronto. His life was spent riding the waves of success and despair. Despite a strong personality, and intense magnetism, he often projected the feeling that he was undeserving of his mountain of artistic achievements, and had a roaming sense of belonging. Kuptana’s social worker remembers, “He was never given an opportunity to be loved or show affection to himself.” In a tribute to the artist, friend and colleague Richard D. Mohr remarks, “Kuptana would often go begging outside five-star hotels in Toronto, even when he didn’t need the money. Eron Boyd, Gallery Arcturus’ manager, says that Kuptana called it ‘urban hunting.”


Floyd Kuptana was born in Cape Parry, Northwest Territories in 1964. Moving to Toronto in the 90s, his Inuit carvings and inspired paintings have been received at local, national, and international galleries. A permanent collection of his works is displayed at Gallery Arcturus in downtown Toronto. Mohr remarks, “Though many people were repulsed by him and his work, others loved him, but he found that difficult to register.”

 

Kuptana’s work depicts vibrancy in Northern life. His paintings—spotted with animals, skies, nature, and colour—are unapologetically playful. His sculptures were, as Mohr describes, “an unsettling mix of whimsy and horror”. Reflecting on his style, Mohr writes, “Many of the two-dimensional works move into the realm of the uncanny and the grotesque, a realm made all the more disconcerting with brash colors and allusions to pop culture and art history… Kuptana’s own graphic work seamlessly fused traditional Inuit themes of shamanistic transform with graphic techniques of the cubists. Both his life and work bear strong family resemblances to Outsider art and artists.” A stark difference from the daily inner war that Floyd fought on the frontlines, his collective works—detailed and full of life—are a call back to his Inuk upbringing.

 

Mohr goes on to write, “Van Gogh was his favorite artist, as much for that artist’s life as his works.” Delving into visual sound poetry, Kuptana explores variations of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in his own untamed, bright, punctuated style. However, with admiration comes life in parallel – both Van Gogh and Kuptana created breathtaking works while inwardly tormented.

 

The following is a testament by Inessa Tercan, as she reflects on Floyd, as an artist and a friend, and her understanding of the complexities and layers of the man that she knew.
 

“I met Floyd for the first time in St. Lawrence Market. I recognized him as I had seen his art before in the AGO. I was surprised to see he was going up to people and asking them for $20. I figured he was a successful and celebrated artist as I had heard he was the only living Inuit artist to have his work showing in the AGO. I felt compelled to talk to him. I gave him $20 and then asked him if he would like to join me for a coffee. He agreed and seemed to be quite happy to talk with someone. We had a nice conversation and I suggested that we go for lunch the next day. 


He gave me his address and I picked him up for lunch. He suggested that we go to Kensington Market, so I took him there. Even though I bought him food, he didn’t eat anything, so I took it for him to go. As we were leaving, he asked me to buy him some wine from the LCBO. I didn’t like the idea of that, but he insisted in a way that had a frightening sense of urgency to it, so I agreed, and he brought 3 bottles of wine to the cash register. I reluctantly paid and then dropped him off at home.

 After that I was conflicted regarding my interactions with him. I really appreciated him as an artist, but his drinking was difficult for me to deal with. He would frequently call me after he had been drinking and I had a hard time understanding what he was saying because he was slurring his words. Sometimes I would be in a patient mood and would talk with him, other times when I was stressed, I felt I could not pick up his call. 

One time I decided I wanted to see his art in action, so I brought a portrait that I had of myself and asked him to do whatever he would like with it, to create some collage art. He was very happy to do it and when he was making art, I felt he was at his best, putting lots of thought and energy into his work. 


I introduced him to someone I knew who was running another art gallery and they began to work together right away. I thought that things were going to go well for him, though it didn’t work out that way in the end. 

 

One time I came over and brought him some food and he told me later that he had given it to one of his friends. To this day I have never seen him eat. One of my friends kept asking me to bring her to meet him and I kept putting it off, but one day we arranged to visit him. Shortly before we could do that, I received word from my friend in the art gallery who was working with him that he had passed away the previous day. 
His passing left me with a lot of questions about him. Why would someone so talented, who was already a respected artist go down the path that he did? Why was he begging on the street when close by, his paintings were selling for over $1000?

I realized that he had a hard life and many things happened to him. I am originally from Russia and didn’t know about the residential schools and the experience of First Nations children in Canada until it came up in the news. When the 215 children were found in a residential school in Kamloops it was a big shock for me. It went against my impression of Canada as a country. Floyd went to a residential school when he was younger, and he had also confided in me that he had suffered abuse in the correctional system as well. 

 "when he was making art, I felt he was at his best, putting lots of thought and energy into his work."

"Why would someone so talented, who was already a respected artist go down the path that he did? Why was he begging on the street when close by, his paintings were selling for over $1000?"

Within this context I understood the contradictions that made up his personality. He was a brilliant artist, with a bright innocent looking face who never tried to capitalize on his gifts as an artist and created the art for the sake of it alone. On the other hand, he was wrestling with some deep trauma that had been inflicted on him, which had shaped his self-destructive behavior and prevented him from reaching his full potential as an artist. 


It was really sad to see that he wasn’t able to overcome his struggles, but he left behind some of the most genuine and original works of art I’ve seen, in all my years in the art world. I think that his work should stand as a testament of his resistance to the forces that tried to erase his spirit and as a record of the existence of that spirit in the world during his lifetime.”

L:  Kuptana with a portrait he painted of Inessa Tercan
R: Kuptana with his artwork

Childhood is not always a safe place to return to. In his formative years, he endured every form of abuse. The continuing searches of former residential school sites have unearthed the graves of children whose childhoods were ripped from them as part of an ongoing genocidal regime. Kuptana was born into a society and government that advocated for systems curated to kill the child within him. Against injustice, he lived. He carved his culture into indestructible stone. He covered canvases with colour and light. Kuptana made art that reflected the hope of childhood that he spent his life searching for within himself. 

While any amount of suffering and trauma does not make someone an artist, it can, however, fuel the need to create. But when it all becomes too much to bear, and art as an outlet isn’t sufficiently numbing, how does one quell the fire within? As it is, and as it has been, addiction overwhelms the artistic community. While we can turn to art to transform our hurt into something beautiful, the reality remains that artists are often clouded by pain that is too enveloping to conceptualize into form.

Floyd Kuptana’s work lives on. When visitors and spectators walk through his respective galleries, they won’t see his decades-long battle with himself. They’ll see what was made from the hands of someone who faced the worst side of humanity and came out on the other side. Fraught, and perhaps looking for relief in all the wrong places, he created something beautiful in spite of it all. The urban hunter lives on— in his canvas, carved into stone, forever telling the story of a ferocious and relentless spirit.