“While her work is rarely overtly about Inuit life or culture, her individual style and imagery have become synonymous with Inuit art,” said Christine Lalonde, associate curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada. The same government that once derisively referred to Ms. Ashevak by number – E7-1035 – has since used her images on coins and stamps and showered her with awards and honours, naming her a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982 and giving her a Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2008.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Ashevak made the long trip south from Cape Dorset to join a celebration of “Women Who Shape the North” in Ottawa with Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and other notables. That trip prompted a side excursion to Toronto to attend the opening of an art exhibition by her nephew, Tim Pitsiulak.
“She is my inspiration,” the self-taught artist said in his low guttural voice, after embracing his aunt. “She started art back home with some people and those people who were drawing with her aren't around any more.”
Remembrance of things past
Speaking through her daughter, Silaqqie, her travelling companion and translator, Ms. Ashevak says she still misses some things about life on the land, especially hunting and fishing through the ice in the fall and the spring. Back then, living in an igloo, she learned to sew and make embroidery from her grandmother. The urge to make the ordinary beautiful was always a primary force and continues to drive her art today.
As an artist himself, Mr. Pitsiulak admires his aunt's style and technique – the way that “her birds have action and movement.” In that sense, he is no different from the gallery hoppers who gather round as she sits on a chair in her simple black pants and quilted jacket or goes outside on a beautiful late fall day for a cigarette or three.
Ms. Ashevak speaks only Inuktitut, so most of the fans who approach reverently can only stand and smile at this living, breathing symbol of endurance and creativity. She is not a documentarian, but she is aware of life – its hardships and tragedies, having suffered many herself.
She is still grieving for her adopted son, acclaimed carver Arnaqu Ashevak, who died of cancer in 2009 at only 52. But sorrow and pain are not what she wants her art to be: Her gift is making beautiful images that penetrate a viewer's imagination.
Even though Kenojuak Ashevak doesn't want to create documentary work that she thinks looks “too much like photographs,” she “is incredibly willing to try something new,” says her dealer, Pat Feheley. She created the design for a stained glass window in the chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., in 2004, a first for an Inuit artist. In the past few years, she has been making sugar-lift paintings, a technique that involves pouring paint from a squeegee bottle directly onto the etching plate.
Her endurance and her dedication make her a touchstone for her nephew. He respects her work ethic and her ability to generate income from her art. That duality has been a gender-neutral factor in Cape Dorset art from the beginning. Artists, both male and female, who can make a living making art, are widely respected, and none more so than Ms. Ashevak, who supports several generations of her family.
Even now in her mid-80s, she sits day by day hunched over her drawing board, her nose almost pressed into the paper because of her failing eyesight, as she executes her precise and delicate drawings while children, television and the chaos of family and domestic life swirl around her. Nobody wants to speculate on life – artistic or otherwise – in Cape Dorset, when the inevitable happens and Ms. Ashevak dies. For now all anybody wants to do is relish her presence and her art.
Not all artists have her stamina. Winning the Sobey Prize made it possible for Annie Pootoogook to leave the insularity and the familiarity of Cape Dorset, for example. But that dislocation, along with the hubbub of international shows of her work at galleries in Germany, Australia and New York, carried its own cost. Overwhelmed by acclaim and the cash that came with it, Ms. Pootoogook, who is now living in Ottawa and struggling with alcoholism, has stopped making art. Nobody knows if she will pick up her drawing crayons again. That is the other side of art and life in Cape Dorset.
Sandra Martin is a Globe and Mail feature writer.