Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

'Art is my job and my love' Add to ...

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.

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."

Single page
 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories