The early days of 2013 marked, in her 85th year, the passing of one of the most highly revered print artists of Canada’s North: Kenojuak Ashevak. Her kind loving nature and genuine humility in life and the creative genius of her art touched the lives of many around the world and represented a great, great gift to us all.
In 2001, above&beyond contributor Pascale Dion had the privilege of visiting this gifted artist in her home in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. To acknowledge and honour Ashevak’s iconic contribution to the Inuit art world, we are again sharing Dion’s story, first published little over a decade ago, with our readers. From our July/August 2002 files:
In November 2001, I was extremely fortunate to meet with the legendary Inuit artist, Kenojuak Ashevak, while she was completing a special commission for blankets at the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative print shop in Cape Dorset. She had created six drawings for illustrated blankets to be produced in collaboration with the Pendleton Woolen Mills, renowned blanket manufacturer of the West American Coast. The new designs feature rich motifs and exuberant colours.
The owl — one of the most recurring figures in Kenojuak’s art — is well represented in these designs. Two of them — “Tapestry of Owls” and “Owls Treasure” — have been transferred onto aluminum plates to produce two limited editions of 50 print lithographs. A team of highly skilled printmakers collaborates with Kenojuak at the Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset to print the drawings in the best possible way. Kenojuak is highly satisfied with the results.
Although Kenojuak Ashevak is well known for her graphic and sculpted stylized depictions of birds and other animals, she is, above all, a sensitive woman who is dedicated to her family. She discovered the extent of her artistic talents by accident. “When I was younger, I didn’t do art,” she explains. “But when someone showed me how to and encouraged me, I started to do it.” In the late 50s, James Houston, a Toronto artist who was then the federal government’s administrator for the area, introduced Kenojuak and her husband, Jonniebo, to drawing, printing and carving stones. At that time, Kenojuak was in her early 30s and was still living in the traditional Inuit way, travelling from camp to camp in the South Baffin area and in Arctic Quebec depending on hunting resources.
It didn’t take long for her talents to be recognized. Kenojuak’s representations of Arctic life demonstrate a highly individualistic style. There is something haunting and intriguing about Kenojuak’s imagery. Her subjects seem to be coming out of another world, displaying some of her signature elements — the radiating extensions, interwoven elements and motifs. The designs are often symmetrically organized, like the appliqué designs seen on Inuit clothing. The source of her inspiration? She tells me she simply looks into her mind and lets the subject take form on paper. She rarely makes preliminary sketches; rather she follows her own sense of composition and aesthetic inspiration to create images that are pleasing to the eye. Her earlier lifestyle sheltered her from the aesthetic influences of the south. The end result is a compelling blend of realism and imagination, which is both direct and vivacious.
Kenojuak Ashevak’s mythical images are eagerly sought by art collectors across Canada and around the globe. In the past 40 years her prints have been shown in over 100 exhibitions and have been included in numerous special commissions and projects. Three of her images have been released as Canadian postage stamps and one is featured on a Canadian coin. Her truly impressive body of work has gained her worldwide recognition. She is the recipient of numerous honours, including the highest honours a Canadian artist can receive: membership in the Order of Canada (1967), election to the Royal Canadian Academy (1974) and, recently, induction into Canada’s “Walk of Fame” (2001).
The most famous of her creations, “The Enchanted Owl,” was used on a 1970 Canadian postage stamp. On November 5, 2001, the stone-cut print broke auction-sale records for a Canadian print, reaching $58,650. Kenojuak was quite astonished by the news. “She knows her art is appreciated but that really took her by surprise,” explained Jimmy Manning, the print shop manager in Cape Dorset. In 1960, the first issues of that print sold for $24.
Kenojuak is a woman of heart, whose authenticity and simplicity can be seen in her artistic creations. At 75, she is still working hard on her art so that she can support her family and her cherished grandchildren. During the past year, this extraordinary artist has continued to demonstrate high energy and creativity, expressing her limitless imagination in the creation of numerous remarkable new images.
Over the years, Kenojuak has visited many countries in Europe, Asia and North America. She greatly enjoyed her travels but doesn’t wish to spend much time away from her home now. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay home and do my art, sew and spend time with my family,” she says. On a recent trip to Ottawa in April, where she went to oversee her latest art exhibit, she was looking forward to the warm weather and the delicacies of Japanese sushi and seafood.
Kenojuak retains fond memories of her time spent living on the Arctic land. “Thinking is good out on the land,” she says. However, she admits that nowadays she tires more easily and prefers the comforts of her home. Spring is her favourite time of year. She tells me that she still enjoys fishing and boat rides on the open sea. She pauses for a moment and then returns to the sealskin mitts she is sewing. This grandmother and artist is as keenly focused on her sewing as she is at work in the print shop.