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 Gabriel Gely  (1924 - )

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Lived/Active: Alaska/Nova Scotia / Canada/France      Known for: abstract skyscape and landscape painting

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from Auction House Records.
Mother and Child
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following titled "Gabriel Gely: The People of Lake Ennadai" is an interview of the artist by Rod MacIver/Heron Dance Art Studio

Gabriel Gely is one of the few remaining white men who has lived for extended periods with Inuit (Eskimos) when they were still living a traditional lifestyle. When he moved to the North in the early 1950s, most of the coastal Inuit had been exposed to white men for some time, but the inland peoples were still isolated from western cultures. He lived with them for most of four decades, during which these people made the transition to settlement lifestyles. He played a role in that transition where he could, with his art. He describes his times with the Inuit as years of learning from a people who shared their food and their laughter, their homes and their philosophy — a philosophy that evolved out of an extremely adverse environment. Now the old ways are gone. Mortality is high but not as high, probably, as it was in the old days. People die now more of suicide and alcohol than of starvation.

For eighteen years one of Gabe's works (inset) has hung above my desk. I purchased it at the age of twenty-one. It reminded me of Jim Winniandi, a half white/half Dene Indian from the Great Slave Lake region. I met Jim when I was sixteen and fighting forest fires in the bush with Dogrib Indians. The other Dene we were with spoke little or no English. Jim's kindness and dignity made a difference to me then, and I have often thought of him.

It took several months to track Gabriel down. He lives in Canada's Maritimes — near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three days of driving in September 1995 brought me to the home of this profoundly interesting and strangely contradictory man. Physically, he is thin and of medium height with large muscular hands. One minute he looks his seventy-one years, the next he brims with youthful energy. He possesses great emotional power. His conversation alternates back and forth between English, Inuit and French. He often talks of his limited formal education, but has a wisdom accumulated from extreme experiences: war, travel, and survival in the Barrens with nomadic peoples. He impressed me as a misanthrope who found kindred spirits among traditional Inuit living on the edge.

Gabriel's father had been disabled by gas attacks in the trenches of World War I. His family struggled financially. At the age of nineteen Gabe joined the French Resistance, first in an anti-tank unit and later as a partisan in Italy. He was captured twice by the Germans and managed to escape both times, once during heavy Allied bombing. After the war, he found the transition to civilian life difficult, "The contrast of running for your life, and working in a hotel on a switchboard — which was my first job — was too much. Our psyche had been completely geared to danger. I could not believe that clocks moved so slow."

A few years after the war, Gabe saw an exhibit in a library of Inuit clothing and tools. He saved the $400 airfare and a short while later was applying for a job in Canada's arctic as a cook. Somehow, out of sixteen applicants, he was selected. That job took him to a remote weather station on the shores of Lake Ennadai — home to one of the few Inuit peoples still living a traditional lifestyle. He spent most of the next thirty-eight years with them and with other Inuit communities.

He says that his attraction to the Inuit was based on his war experience: "I was drawn to these people. They lived much as we did in the underground — semi-nomadic. They travelled light. They had a beautiful, carefree outlook on life. They believed `next year' did not belong to them. It was wonderful to find a whole culture like this. They were my teachers par excellence. I grew up with them. I spent thirty-eight years with a people who don't plan. They have this wonderful gift of remaining detached from all of the ferocity of the world they found themselves in. Nothing seems to bother them. A wave of the hand and all of the problems we might go to a psychiatrist for are dismissed. They don't need advisers or counselors or confessors. They refuse to focus on the negative. They have nothing that is really permanent. They taught me to be ready for change when circumstances indicate. There is a force to which you must be open. Man proposes, God disposes. This way of life has been very good to me."

The Inuit of Ennadai lived a perilous existence. Their food consisted mostly of caribou, as compared to the coastal Inuit who could access many more sea resources. Caribou migrations change year to year — sometimes by great distances. Years of plenty were followed by years of starvation. The diseases of the white man also played a role — particularly tuberculosis. White traders seeking arctic fox pelts encouraged the Inuit to abandon spears and bows for rifles. Decades later, when the demand for fox fur diminished, the trading posts were abandoned. The Inuit, no longer knowing how to hunt without rifles, starved. (For more on this, see Farley Mowat's book People of the Deer.)

Gabe talks of seeing the tent rings of huge ancient encampments in the Ennadai region that indicate populations of two or three thousand. At the time they moved away from Ennadai, only 156 were left. When Gabe got there, twelve and fourteen year old children were eating from garbage drums. He began to feed the people out of the weather station food stocks. Gabe described those early days in a 1988 Edmonton Journal interview: "It's 50 below, there's gale-force winds and people might have nothing in their stomachs for a week at a time….We had masses of food. Anybody else would have done the same thing."

In the late 1950s, the survivors were moved to Eskimo Point, 200 miles away. It meant a transition from igloos and caribou tents to houses. Instead of hunting, the people came to depend on government relief. In 1966 the same Indian Affairs official that had organized the move found an unused $19,000 in the Department budget and offered it to Gabe to start an arts workshop. That was the beginning of a new career for Gabe, whose paintings of traditional Inuit life had achieved wide acclaim. He then spent several years, first with the people of Lake Ennadai, then with other communities, setting up carving workshops, from which the people could achieve a degree of financial independence.

He talked about that work in a 1973 Edmonton Journal interview: "I found I had to reach the Inuit on a common level — convince them that carving was an honorable way to make a living. Some were ashamed of it. They were nomadic hunters, carving was a pastime — done mostly to break the boredom when the weather kept them inside. As times changed, art was the only way they could make a living. To reach them I had to first live their life. When there was food, I ate with them. When there was none, we all starved."

Gabriel would work in a village until they could operate the workshops on their own, then he would leave for the next community. The entire village got involved — those not carving kept records or constructed the craft centers. The government, which financed the workshops, required that the people incorporate as cooperatives. Gabe would help with everything from scouting out soapstone sites to marketing, pricing and presentation. The only thing he wouldn't do was teach art, "Being an artist, a sculptor, involves more than getting incorporation papers. It's a matter of the mind and the spirit. There has to be a psychological readiness for art. Because of the way these people lived, many possess amazing manual deftness, but as with all peoples, there are many copiers of likeness but few true artists. My job was to encourage their creativity; not influence it."

I asked Gabe what distinguishes art that lasts the test of time. "Art that survives is distinguished by great sincerity. A product of the spirit, a work of love. Only after a hundred or two hundred years does the good stuff emerge. All of the jokers disappear. Great art is timeless. Great art is something very substantial and very humanistic and nourishing. The real source of artistry is the deep experience of life. Many great paintings come out of the spirit of friends gathered in a bistro."

Gabe tells many interesting stories of his early years establishing workshops, which space does not permit me to repeat. One illustrates a little of the life: "I was fit when I was forty-five, but an Inuit half my size could carry twice the weight I could, and not pant. They have an incredible reservoir of energy.

"I remember traveling to get soapstone with an Inuit who was seventy-five pounds. Because the breakup was ahead of us, we had a ski-do with a sleigh, and on the sleigh was a canoe. We also had drilling bits, four thousand pounds of dynamite, white gas, food and other supplies. We jumped from flow to flow. It is light twenty-four hours a day that time of year and we traveled late. We were to camp on top of a slope that was not quite snow free. We emptied our dynamite and supplies and carried them up. At one in the morning we set up the tent. I was hungry but so exhausted I had no thoughts of dinner. My Inuit companion went out and shot a rabbit. And then, after we ate the rabbit and I went to bed, he went fishing, and caught a number of fish."

Thirty years after moving from Lake Ennadai to Eskimo Point, Gabe organized a trip back for the elders who had lived there. For years the elders had been "consumed by nostalgia for the ancestral grounds." A film was made of the trip which appeared on national television. The $21,000 cost was raised by Gabe. The people loaded into planes — for many the only plane they had been in since leaving Ennadai. They landed. It was as if a spell was cast over the people. They stood quietly, absorbing the land of their ancestors — where they and many of their children had been born, where their parents and some of their children were buried. Men went hunting and shot caribou. Tents went up. The people feasted and told stories. Two weeks later they returned to Eskimo Point. Many of the elders are now dead.

Gabe talked often of the briefness of the gift of life. "I am seventy-one, and I am thirty-five percent of what I used to be, and I used to be nothing. I will leave this planet puzzled by the fact that we humans behave, in our short lives, as if we were going to live ten thousand years. In the context of time, our lives are not even a speck in a beam of light. We were not here for billions of years and we will not be here for billions more. And yet, instead of focusing on the time we have, people concentrate on amassing and holding on to things like money and possessions, often at the expense of others, as if they are to live forever. This keeps puzzling me. It gets me into tantrums sometimes. We pass cemeteries all of the time. You passed by two on your way to see me this morning.

"Most of the people I know who have a lot of money say to me, `Gabe, you have nothing, but I envy you.' You see, they have built their own jail. I have built my jail too, but the walls are only six inches high. My rich friends have built walls so high that they can't do anything anymore. They have to protect what they have accumulated. I have nothing to defend. I just enjoy life. It is wonderful to have nothing.

"The Inuit sometimes used to think I was rich. They have no understanding of money. I would tell them I am rich, but not in money — rich in my experiences with them. Knowing them as friends. I would tell them, `I am so rich from your love and acceptance and fun.' I have been touched by these people. I told them that I would only want to be a millionaire when everyone in the world is a millionaire. It is an embarrassment to have a big steak and lobster next to people who have not eaten in days. It wouldn't be right. I can be greedy for more as long as everyone else gets more too, but I don't have any time for that because I am warm and have enough food. I don't want to own the highway, I want to use it.

"I had a little art show once, and a Canadian Indian stopped by and asked for some money. I didn't have much, but when you don't have much it is easy to give because what the hell is the difference anyway? Someone came up to me and said, `You know, I think he is going to get drunk with it.'

"`Well,' I said, `That is a better use than I would have. If he is miserable enough to have a little glass of something for that kind of money, I am not the judge.' Once you question giving or not giving, you are nothing in this world, but to truly help another is very difficult. When you help you often destroy someone's ability to deal with the problem….When anyone says to me I helped the Inuit, I say, `NO! Don't use this word with me. I don't want to help them. I want that they help themselves.' Those are two different things. The world is full of nice guys. They smile — they want to screw you. That is all they want. They sock it to you.

"I am not going to help a person by hoeing his garden. If that person is worth the gift of life they will find the necessary resources inside themselves. It is amazing how much resilience you have when you have no choice. Inspiration is different. Help people look inside, take an inventory of what they can or cannot do. Find ways to make people feel good about themselves. That is the best help."

Then the curmudgeon came out. "People expect me, at the age of 71, to bake cookies for the Brownies. They are in the wrong place. I don't bake cookies for the Brownies. I don't even care about the Brownies, to tell you the truth. Why? Because I just don't care about the Brownies. We have to be honest and sincere….But no, my love for the Inuit people was not a pretense. It was not an act. They have been so good to me … extremely good in so many small ways that embarrass me because I often felt I was undeserving. They touch you — it is easy to love them. Their open heart. During my last years there, I was considered an elder, and they would have their children carry my bags, they would cook my food — so much respect for me, and for all elders. Lovely people.

"Acceptance is the only word I can think of to explain the special affection they showed me and I returned to them. Their acceptance is not based on race. You can have long hair, no hair, be pink, black. It doesn't matter. Acceptance stems from what is in your heart. What kind of person you are. For the many years since I left my blood relatives in France, the Inuit of Ennadai were my family. I learned so much from them. I learned to stop and appreciate life."

During our conversation, Gabe repeatedly referred to the role Providence has played in his life. I asked him about his spirituality. His response centered mostly around adverse experiences with the church in his youth and in the North. "For as long as I remember, I have believed in God, but not the institutional God that is used to pry money from people or to hurt people. God is incomprehensible. We can't put Spirituality in a little capsule for consumption. The only quote I can give you is, "And Jesus wept." The way the world works doesn't change. The big guy crushes the little guy. For two thousand years it hasn't changed.

"The Church often has been the spearhead of bad things. Before the white man, the Inuit were true Christians. If you disappeared under the ice, someone would become parent to your child — automatically — without a second thought. To conquer the Indian and the Inuit, we first sent the church who told the people that their beliefs were wrong. Then we sent the trader to bleed them to death. That has been the history of civilization. You can't read five pages. It makes you vomit. There is no humanity in so-called civilization. Taken wholesale, from the Inquisition to today, Christ has been used, not served.

"The important things in life are so few. Our Maker, whatever we conceive that Spirit to be, and the little slice of humanity of which we are part — our friends, children, wife, mother, father — tiny out of six billion people. Minute. And what else? Nothing else really. Everything else is peripheral and the less you think of it, the better off you are. We think we control things, but we really don't and I don't worry about things that I can't control.

"For a fellow who was destined to be a mail carrier in Paris, the path that took me to the remote latitudes of these wonderful people was unbelievable. Providence I think. It was Providence too that brought me there in the fifties and sixties. They were a proud people — just being able to feed your family in such an unforgiving environment is cause for pride. But now, for many, life consists of sitting in front of a television. The human spirit cannot stand this. When I was in the Arctic there were 11,000 Inuit. I knew at least half of them. Now there are 29,000 and I don't know anyone any more except the oldies."

The eight workshops Gabe helped set up are still operating. Four have become significant businesses. Gabriel Gely is now a full-time artist working in oil.

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