By Season Osborne
It started with a cowboy. When he was little, Andrew Qappik’s uncle drew a cowboy wearing a Stetson, vest, chaps, and toting a pistol, then asked if he could draw the same thing. Qappik did. And so began his life as an artist.
Andrew Qappik was born in 1964 in a camp outside the east Baffin community of Pangnirtung. His family moved into Pangnirtung a few years later. They didn’t have a TV, but Qappik had comic books, stacks of them. He started sketching comics.
“Paper was quite hard to come by,” says Qappik. “It was only in school. But at home I’d use anything — cardboard — and start drawing. I drew pretty much from Marvel comic books: Batman, Superman, Shazam… all the comic book heroes.”
Qappik drew everywhere and everything. Even students in his class became his models.
“While everyone was studying or doing their schoolwork, I would be making portraits of them,” he says. “One teacher would let us try to see who could do math the fastest. I got pretty fast, so I could finish math and have time to do my drawing.”
John Houston was technical arts advisor to the Uqqurmiut Inuit Artists Association in Pangnirtung in the mid 1970s. He recalls Andrew as a young 11-year-old who’d come to the print shop to watch his printmaker uncles Solomon and Imoona Karpik work.
“Andrew would get off school and come straight to the print shop,” says Houston. “He was just observing. He was the perfect fellow to have around — friendly, easygoing, and quiet.”
When he was in elementary school, there was a drawing contest for all the schools in the Baffin region. Qappik entered and his drawing won first place. The prize was a huge trampoline for the school, which introduced gymnastics to the students.
A few years later, the Pangnirtung print shop had an art contest. Thirteen-year-old Qappik entered the contest and came in second. Five of his drawings were made into prints and included in the 1978 collection. His prints sold out.
One person who bought all five prints was Dr. H.G. Jones, a history professor at Duke University in North Carolina. He was interested in Inuit art and visited Pangnirtung. The young art prodigy intrigued Jones. Qappik recalls the school principal telling him he had the afternoon off to go to the Auyuittuq lodge to meet Dr. Jones. Over the next 31 years, Jones came almost every year to Pangnirtung. He became Qappik’s patron, purchasing every one of his prints, created using etchings, stone cuts, lithographs, and linocuts.
By the time he was 16, Qappik had completed 11 prints. He had no formal artistic training but he had talent in spades. At 17, Qappik knew he wanted to be a printmaker and approached the print shop about working there. He had one more year of high school, and the printmakers suggested he come work there after he graduated. His parents agreed, but Qappik’s argument was irrefutable. “What’s the point? I’m going to be an artist. I’m going to be a printmaker. Why don’t I start now?”
In the end, there was no reasoning him out of it, so Qappik became apprenticed to the Pangnirtung print shop, sweeping the floor and cleaning the printmakers’ brushes. Eventually, he was allowed to do the sky or the water part of the stencil, while the experienced printmakers did the rest of the print. Then, he was allowed to cut stencils.
In time, he started doing his own drawings, all the while keeping up his work, making prints for other artists. Qappik’s own images proved very popular, and gradually he earned respect not only as a printer but as an artist.
When Nunavut was being created, a Canada-wide contest was held for design submissions for the new territory’s flag and coat of arms. Qappik started thinking about designs, and prayed for a vision: a flag vision. In July 1998, he went to the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik. On his way back, he stayed in Yellowknife and drew sketches in his hotel room.
“I kept drawing the inukshuk. All I could draw was that,” says Qappik. “I tried something else, it didn’t work out. I kept going back. I used four or five of the different aspects of inukshuk.”
Finally satisfied with his design, on his way home to Pangnirtung, he went to the Nunavut commissioner’s in Iqaluit and handed in his entry.
Representatives from the Governor General’s Heraldry flew to Pangnirtung and told Qappik that his art had been chosen out of 800 entries. He was invited to be the chief designer of the Nunavut flag and coat of arms at Heraldry in Ottawa. The final version of these was officially accepted by the Governor General and Queen Elizabeth II. The flag was officially raised when Nunavut became a territory on April 1, 1999.
Designing a flag where every colour has significance is not something every artist can do.
“There is a technical aspect to it that is not necessarily creative,” says Houston. “It combines artistry in abundance, but requires a designer mind, which is quite a bit more pragmatic than the strictly artistic mind.”
Weavers in Pangnirtung have also used Qappik’s drawings in tapestries. In 2011, he designed a coin, featuring a woman with a baby in her amauti. Qappik’s art has taken him many places. He visited Jones in North Carolina and spoke to students at the Inuit studies program at Duke University. He has also travelled across the Arctic as an invaluable staff member on Arctic cruise ships with Adventure Canada and Students on Ice. As artist and culturalist, Qappik quietly shares his artistic talents and gives passengers insights into Inuit life in the Arctic.
In 2006, Dr. H.G. Jones wanted his collection of 140 of Qappik’s catalogued and uncatalogued prints to have a permanent home in Canada. The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), which has the largest collection of Inuit art in the world with 13,000 pieces, was the logical choice for Jones’ collection. In 2010, the WAG had an exhibit showcasing 32 of Qappik’s prints. It was Qappik’s first solo art show.
Darlene Wight, curator of Inuit art at the WAG, says, “Andrew’s use of perspective is unique. He started off with action figures from comics, so he puts action into his figures. They are not static.”
Qappik’s depiction of wildlife is unique too. His work is filled with caribou, fish, whales, and polar bears. He has great respect for animals and captures the quality of the animals, masterfully giving them personality.
When Qappik first started making art, he was criticized. It didn’t look Inuit because he was so adept at using three point perspective and techniques attributed to western art. For instance, his paintings of ice fishing show the person on top of the ice and the fish below it.
“He loves to play around with perspective,” says Wight. “Andrew is a master printer because he is able to get these wonderfully, transparent veils of colour that almost shimmer. They’re translucent.”
Andrew Qappik is a role model for younger artists. But he is also a widely respected member of the Pangnirtung community. He and his wife, Annie, have three daughters, a son, and 11 grandchildren. His faith is very important to him. Qappik was a deacon at Pangnirtung’s Anglican Church for 12 years. For the last three, he has been co-pastor, leading the congregation, at Full Gospel Church. He offers spiritual leadership and lends encouragement and support to families going through difficult times.
Qappik’s positive influence is felt in his community. But his optimism, so apparent in his art, has a far-reaching influence with art lovers.
As Wight says, “He is a virtuoso.”