Kenojuak worries about the next generation of Inuit graphic artists who need help to develop their talent, if they are to fill the shoes of the "greats" from the 1950s and 1960s. There are now many more carvers than graphic artists. Printmaking is a much more collaborative and time-consuming medium and many do not have the patience. Kenojuak hopes that the form won't die with her.
In some ways her life story reflects the history of the Inuit, as they moved from a nomadic existence in outpost camps to permanent settlements, turned to art as a means of survival and finally, won the right to self-government and became Nunavut in 1999. Her success, though, is all her own, the unique product of vision, drive and talent.
Born in an igloo in Camp Ikirasak on the southern coast of Baffin Island, Kenojuak lost her father at a young age, after he was murdered by rival hunters. Her mother, pregnant with her fourth child, was forced to leave the camp and return to her own family in Cape Dorset. There Kenojuak's grandmother taught her traditional handicrafts. She learned to sew waterproof seams with caribou sinews and repair skins that were being sold to the Hudson's Bay Company.
She made sealskin bags with beautiful appliqué images that would eventually catch the eye of James Houston, an artist sent to the north as a government administrator, who is credited with introducing printmaking to the Inuit.
In her early 20s, Kenojuak married a hunter named Johnniebo Ashevak, who was also an artist. Their married life was quickly interrupted after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951. She was sent to a hospital in Quebec City to recover and did not see her husband for three years. During her long convalescence, all three of her children died. (Altogether, she bore 10 children, six of whom died as infants. She adopted another four.)
In the 1950s, she met up with Houston, the visionary who would become her champion. Captivated by an image of a rabbit eating seaweed on Kenojuak's sealskin bag, he encouraged her to give drawing a try. At first she refused, but finally took the sheets of paper and drawing pencils he gave her and began to draw. She was the first Inuit woman artist whose drawings were selected by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative to be made into prints.
"James Houston was really the first person to help the Inuit and help them make art," she says.
Sailing with her today across the Arctic on this expedition is Houston's son, John, a filmmaker and gallery owner who grew up with her in Cape Dorset. She has known him since he was a baby and remains close to his family. "Kenojuak has blended a great sense of humour, a virtuosic artistic ability with a deep caring for her family and community," says John Houston, who is completing the last in a trilogy of award-winning films about Inuit art and culture. He is on board this journey as an Adventure Canada resource person.
"Kenojuak found an outlet for her expression and has pursued that with a singular vision," Houston says. "She came of age just as Inuit art was becoming fashionable.
"Watching her draw is like watching a high-wire act," he continues. She makes no preliminary sketches, he adds, but puts her pencil to paper and does not lift it until she has completed the outline of her exquisite images -- fish, birds, sled dogs, igloos, faces. Her style is instantly recognizable: clean, strong lines and fantastic colours. She has described her work as "explorations of design and form and colour, rather than illustrations of events or stories."
On the second-last day of the voyage, there's an auction. The long tables in the dining room are filled with Doris McCarthy's beautifully turned out watercolour sketches of icebergs and Arctic scenes. Among the prints that Kenojuak unfurls are: Tulugaq, a raven with a blue feather in its mouth; Timmiaruqsimajuq, a girl's face with raven hair and an owl body; and Primal Exchange, a raven and seagull surrounded by stylized feathers.
"When I see people are very interested in one drawing, I will recall it and think about it and it will motivate me to keep exploring that theme," Kenojuak says. "I try to present my ideas in the strongest possible way. I try to show an animal's great strength. I used the enchanted feathers on the raven, for example, to show its glory."
She beams when all her work is purchased -- and bristles at the question about when she will stop drawing: "People often treat art as though it is very different from any other profession and ask, why would you want to keep doing this? This is my job and my love. I cannot imagine life without art."