Kenojuak Ashevak, the world's most famous Inuk, sits puffing on a cigarette aboard the cruise ship Akademik Ioffe, as it sails across Hudson Bay. Her chiselled face is impassive and she seems as oblivious to the cold as to the throngs of passengers nearby, who are shivering but clearly enthralled to be in the presence of this renowned artist and carver from Cape Dorset, Nunavut.
She is a guest on this Arctic expedition led by Adventure Canada, the first travel company to invite an Inuit celebrity on board, and passengers are thrilled for the opportunity to eat breakfast with her, and learn about her art and her life. Adventure Canada has also invited Doris McCarthy, the 93-year-old landscape painter, on board as the great Canadian artist of the south.
At the moment, however, fans of both artists are jockeying to photograph several walruses basking in the late afternoon sun, on an ice floe that glitters turquoise in the frigid Arctic waters.
Kenojuak surveys the scene from her deck chair. Her faint smile seems to say: What's the big deal? It's only a walrus.
In her youth, Kenojuak was an avid hunter, who shot caribou and fished: "I remember camping out on the land once when three polar bears attacked our camp at midnight. I had a rifle on hand to help scare them away," she says through her Inuktitut interpreter.
At 76, her hunting days are mostly behind her. A tiny, plump woman with a chortling laugh, Kenojuak is a much jollier figure than the stoic, idealized Inuk of the popular imagination. In her uniform of black stretch pants, sensible shoes and a fleece vest, with her long salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a flowery plastic barrette, she looks more like an energetic grandmother than a grand matriarch of the arts.
Nothing she does on the cruise, in fact, broadcasts her profession. She does not carry around a sketch book or palette of watercolours, but keeps her pencils crammed in an old Tiffany box. She does not sit drawing at the water's edge. Nor does she attempt to deconstruct the meaning of her bold and beautiful drawings, which hang in London's Tate Gallery as well as Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada.
Instead, she sketches quietly in her room, plays Ping-Pong on the ship with art historian Carol Heppenstall, dances to oceanic troubadour Tom Kovac's version of Twist and Shout, and poses with all the patience of a Hollywood celebrity. .
"Art is my job and my love. I would be very much in need without my art," she says.
Six of Kenojuak's prints are currently on display at Feheley Fine Arts, a gallery in Toronto's Yorkville district that specializes in Inuit art.
"For years Kenojuak has not only been one of the top sellers but one of the most sought after," said Pat Feheley, gallery owner and friend of the artist.
"She has spent a lifetime making beautiful things and always has fresh ways of presenting her images."
The day the ship pulls into Cape Dorset, the South Baffin community where she was raised, it is as though the Queen herself has arrived. The sun hangs low in a radiant blue sky as Kenojuak steps ashore in her rubber boots and life jacket. Relatives, well-wishers and fishermen crowd the rocky shore. Artists stop to shake Kenojuak's hand.
There are six recipients of the Order of Canada living in this tiny community of 1,200, and Kenojuak is at the centre of it all. She has been with the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative for 50 years.
The prints and carvings sold here have become a means of survival for the Inuit, many of whom rely on the steady source of income in a society marked by unemployment, social problems and an unforgiving climate.
Kenojuak is no different. The walls of her house, a humble bungalow with a carving tent out front, are utterly devoid of art. Instead, they are crammed with photos of her children, grandchildren and great-granddaughter. Kenojuak tells me she has kept only two of the hundreds of prints that have been made from her drawings: one of The Enchanted Owl, which was printed on a six-cent postage stamp in 1970 (a copy of the print recently sold at auction for $58,000); as well as the owl and raven image that has been reproduced on the back of the Canadian quarter.
"I support an extended family with my art," she says. "My son Adamie is a hunter and he needs money for things like a canoe or a motorboat or gas. Two of my grandkids live with me and they need money for swim class and dance class. The Inuit tradition is to help each other."
And yet, the very medium that she has helped to make so famous is undergoing growing pains today, as the Co-operative struggles to promote new artists and convince the Nunavut government to support its enterprise.
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