For lovers of Inuit art, this was a week of poignant change. The passing of Kenojuak Ashevak in the early hours of Tuesday, at the age of 85, marked the end of an era. She was one of the first of the Inuit artists, born and reared on the land, to enter into the experiment in art making at Cape Dorset, and one of the most talented. Her famous work The Enchanted Owl was replicated on postage stamps in 1970. In 1982, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Two years ago, she played the role of visiting dignitary at the Art Gallery of Ontario, when the exhibition Inuit Modern opened. Touring the display in her wheelchair in the company of her nephew Tim Pitsiulak (also a celebrated artist), she smiled as she took in the scope of the creativity unleashed in those early days. As was so often the case, her countenance that day was radiant with astonishment and a kind of elfin glee. While she never expected such success, she enjoyed every bit of it.
Her death led me to think about that encounter at the AGO, and my two subsequent visits to her home in Cape Dorset (a small, cozy space heated to a tropical clime), where she could be found lying on her stomach on a queen-size mattress in her living room, drawing and drawing, making the images that would then be turned into prints over at Kinngait Studios. Her absorption was obvious, as was her industriousness, and the assuredness with which she made a line taut with energy, purpose and vitality. It was this gift that first drew the attention of northern wanderer James Houston more than 50 years ago. Travelling in the Arctic for the Canadian government, he noticed the appliquéd bags and clothing that Kenojuak and other women in the community were making, recognizing in these objects an extraordinary liveliness of design. He had the idea to transfer that to paper, and Kenojuak, a visionary, turned out to be a natural.
Thinking about all this, I made my way Tuesday afternoon through the Toronto traffic to Feheley Fine Arts, where Kenojuak’s work has long been shown. I wanted to pay my respects and to share a midwinter whisky in the artist’s honour with proprietor Pat Feheley. Together, we looked at her prints again, and rifled through catalogues, remembering. The special treat came, though, when we opened a box of treasures from back in the storage room, a group of objects (not for sale) owned by Seattle collector John Price, an avid acquirer of all things Kenojuak. Here were two early, gamey-smelling sealskin bags designed and stitched and beaded by Kenojuak in her young days, before her career with the white art world had begun.
Already, you can see her rapturous grasp of the natural world, that predisposition toward symmetry in design, and that sense of graphic buoyancy that would never leave her. On the back of one of the bags, she had used contrasting sealskin to create cutout images of women going about their traditional work, and the various accoutrements of camp life, a life she had known at firsthand until middle age. These decorative arrangements, so deftly made, mark the start of something: a woman’s handiwork, intended for the intimate pleasure of her family, that engendered a new tradition.
Kenojuak’s life was certainly a hard one: birthing seven children; adopting (more or less) seven more; being taken as a young mother against her will to a hospital in Quebec to be treated for tuberculosis for several years, forced to leave her children and husband behind. (Some of her children died in her absence.) It was a series of events that would have defeated all but the most resilient human spirits.
Yet her line kept dancing. This joy is her great legacy, this and her passionate affirmation of the land we are honoured to share, where a cluster of berries, a scrap of lichen or a breathing hole discovered in the ice would once have meant the difference between sustenance and starvation. Her art became emblematic of our hardy modern nation, with ancient roots to be proud of. She helped us to know Canada better.