The artist and collector bond

In July 2018, my husband and I joined a 12-person fly-around to art-producing communities on Baffin Island. When First Air landed the Adventure Canada group in Cape Dorset for a four-day stay, our local hosts asked us which artists we would be interested in meeting — if possible. Carving enthusiasts named Nuna Parr. Hoping against hope, I mentioned Shuvinai Ashoona.

During 2016, I had purchased an early pen-and-ink drawing by her, one depicting an abstract rocky shore, a subject that launched her career in the late nineties. She now has work on permanent display in the National Gallery, and her Spring 2019 retrospective at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery (until May 2019) has solidified her reputation as Canada’s greatest living Inuit artist.

The next day, the group got a sneak peek into the Kenojuak Cultural Centre, where the exhibition for its soft opening was almost entirely devoted to Ashoona’s work, including both serene pen-and-inks of baleen and drawings of monsters and beheadings.

On the third day, we met rising print artist star Saimaiyu Akesuk. And, just as we were sitting down to dine, who should stroll in from out of the blue but Shuvinai Ashoona. Smiles all around.

A serene, nearly life-size pen-and-ink drawing of a plate of baleen by Shuvinai Ashoona on display in July 2018 during the pre-dedication exhibition at Cape Dorset’s new kenojuak Cultural Centre. © Louis Jungheim

I had with me a catalogue of her work, and by the time she agreed to sign and be photographed with it, the North-South ice had been broken. Chatting all around.

I knew that asking pointed questions of Inuit was impolite and that direct questions asked of Inuit artists were nearly always deflected. So, over a char lunch, I simply asked her how her day was going. She said, “This morning, I got up before the other people in my house and saw polar bears as big as mountains walking over the mountains and then they turned into snakes.” She was present, attentive, and engaged. Sparkling eyes all around.

From reading ethnographical literature, I knew that traditionally Inuit viewed monsters, ghosts, and spirits in general as having the same degree of substance as you and I. They are not illusions, phantoms, hallucinations, mere projections of the mind. Rather they are free-standing and can knock you off your feet. Ashoona was simply being traditional.

On my iPhone, I showed her a photo of her drawing that I owned. She greeted it as an old, lost friend. Inuit artists rarely learn what becomes of their work once it is “sent South.”

In Cape Dorset’s Aupalutuk Park last July, Shuvinai Ashoona unfurls and presents to the author a pen-and-ink that she had unsolicitedly drawn for him the night before. Shuvinai Ashoona, “Untitled [Baleen on a Rocky Shore]” (2018), pen-and-ink, 30” x 11”, 76cm x 28cm. © Richard Mohr

On our last day, the group drove out to visit archeological sites in the town’s Aupalutuk Park, whose coastal rocks were clearly the source of those in my Ashoona drawing. Just as the group was about to move on, who should unexpectedly drive up in a pick-up but Shuvinai Ashoona with two friends in the cab and a jamboree of young boys in the back. She hops out, strides across 80 metres of rock directly toward me holding out a scroll, as though I were receiving a highschool diploma. At this point, jaws of my fellow adventurers are starting to drop. Unsolicitedly, she had, overnight, drawn for me a pen-and-ink that fuses her current interest in baleen with the rocky scene from the drawing I already owned.

Was it a gift? No. But what she asked for it was the merest token of what it would be stickered for in a Vancouver gallery, not even enough to buy dinner for her and her friends at the local restaurant.

The drawing now hangs on the header of our staircase, so its joy can greet us every morning as we descend to take on the world. Thanks, Shuvinai.

Richard Mohr, who lives in Urbana, Illinois, holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. He and his husband, Robert Switzer, frequently travel with Adventure Canada: “We came for Nature but stayed for Culture.”