Unlike many Inuit artists who work in solitude and in isolation from artists in other disciplines, Arnaqu Ashevak always considered himself part of a much longer and broader artistic tradition. He chose to live in the North, but he embraced influences and images from Western art and Western culture in his lithography, printmaking, drawings on paper and carvings, often combining materials to create modern works that are as much about collage as sculpture.
His work ranges from the whimsical ( The Cooking Pot, illustrated here, and The Artist's Hand, a carving of his own hand holding a delicate tree-like sculpture) to the mythical ( Birdman, which was inspired by watching a movie about the Inuit goddess Sedna and the creature who took human form to become her husband) and the haunting ( Daymare, a drawing with ink and pencil that he made after watching a documentary about the Holocaust).
"The way I see art, it has no limits," he said in an interview in 2004. "You can do anything you want with materials, any kind of media." And so he did. "He was magic," said his long-time dealer Pat Feheley.
Arnaqu Ashevak, who was born in an outpost camp near Cape Dorset on Baffin Island in what is now Nunavut, was a transitional Inuit artist. The son of Aggfeak and Sheouack Petaulassie, he was adopted by graphic artists Kenojuak Ashevak (she made the iconic print The Enchanted Owl in 1960) and her husband Johnniebo Ashevak ( Taleeyayo with Seabird, 1965).
Instead of watching his elders carve in an igloo, he was part of the first generation of Inuit to go away to school and to learn to make art, not by observation, but in formal classes. "I was not influenced to be an artist by my family," he once said. "I didn't know exactly what my mother was doing. She was making a living; that's all I knew." He studied linocut carving under Bill Barney and the carving techniques and handling of stone from sculptor from Henry Evaluardjuk as part of his high-school curriculum in Iqaluit, now the capital of Nunavut.
After high school, he returned to Cape Dorset. In 1990, he found work in the printing shops of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative,where he eventually became the master printer in the stone-cutting shop. His "day" job acquainted him with the artistic styles and subjects of the older generation of printmakers and carvers from the North and gave him access to art books, catalogues and magazines showcasing the work of historic and contemporary artists from around the world, from M. C. Esher to Alexander Calder.
At the same time, working as a printer gave him the aesthetic room to absorb, contemplate and reflect on the news bulletins and cultural images bombarding the North from the South. This bifurcated experience was strengthened when he was awarded a grant by the Inuit Art Foundation for a five-week residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta in 1991. The following year, he won a second IAF scholarship to attend a three-week workshop at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Centre in West Rutland, Vt.
His prints have been included in the annual Cape Dorset release since the early 1990s and his sculptures and other media are represented in museums including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Arnaqu Ashevak was born Nov. 24, 1956, in Keatuk, Nunavut. He died Jan. 13, 2009, of kidney failure, as a complication of cancer, in hospital in Iqaluit. He was 52. He is survived by his mother, Kenojuak Ashevak, and his siblings. Funeral arrangements in Dorset are pending.