Itee Pootoogook was a man of few words. He was hard of hearing but never bothered to replace the expired batteries in his hearing aids. And he was so quiet that, as one friend observes, “It was damned near impossible to get him to talk.” Even when he did, he kept his words to a minimum: “I like yellow;” “See you at 1;” “Not really.”
Yet for all this laconism, Mr. Pootoogook never lacked for expression, blessed as he was with an artistic talent louder and more eloquent, finally, than any soft-spoken words. It was a talent, honed by habits strictly observed, that in the past five years saw Mr. Pootoogook’s name referenced in sentences that also included the names Christopher Pratt and Alex Colville, Milton Avery and David Thauberger.
Drawing with coloured pencils and graphite on pieces of paper big and small, this former carpenter and construction worker earned both a living and a measure of fame. Indeed, many felt even greater work and more recognition – public, critical, monetary – lay ahead. On March 18, however, that cocktail of anticipation and expectation was dashed when the cancers (neck, sinus, throat, lung) plaguing Mr. Pootoogook for the past three years claimed him at 63 in an Iqaluit hospital.
Though he was born in Lake Harbour, NWT (now Kimmirut, Nunavut), on Feb. 7, 1951, Mr. Pootoogook was a Cape Dorset man. His father, Paulassie, a carver, moved the family to that community on the southern tip of Baffin Island when Itee was six or seven.
In 1959, shortly after the family’s arrival, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative founded the famed Kinngait Studios, a print-making centre that has nurtured hundreds of Inuit artists, including such legends as Kananginak Pootoogook, Itee Pootoogook’s uncle, and his cousin Annie Pootoogook.
When Mr. Pootoogook was alive, you could pretty much set your watch by his schedule. At 8:50 a.m., he’d leave the small house where he lived alone to make the 10-minute downhill trudge to the drawing and lithography studios.
Removing his coat, Mr. Pootoogook would take a seat at his work table and begin to arrange his tools – pencil crayons from the Derwent factory in England, sheets of textured paper, graphite pencils, photographs. Then he would get to work, drawing with great intensity and focus, always stopping to take his coffee breaks and lunch at precisely the same times, until day’s end at 5.
If his drawing was still in progress, the studio manager would give him a chit for $100. Once it was finished or near completion (a drawing could take five days, sometimes more depending on its difficulty and size – a 2012 drawing, Working on his Canoe, is an impressive 130 centimetres by 86 centimetres), Mr. Pootoogook would negotiate for his final payment (usually $2,000 to $3,000, minus the total advance chits).
Whatever the amount, Mr. Pootoogook would almost invariably do two things before walking home: send a money order to his estranged wife living in Ottawa (with whom he had two sons and a daughter) and buy a bag of groceries.
Other artists might have buckled under this regime, which he adhered to five days a week, month after month, but Mr. Pootoogook seemed to thrive on the self-imposed discipline.
His renderings – of architecture, panoramic landscapes, Arctic activities, the human figure – became progressively more refined, the compositions more ambitious, with dramatic croppings, interior framing devices and unusual perspectives, often “radiating,” in the words of curator Ingo Hessel, “timeless calm and contentment.”
Notes William Ritchie, manager of Kinngait Studios since 2009, currently a primary drawing buyer and long-time champion of Mr. Pootoogook: “In the last five years in particular, he really ratcheted up his game.”
Mr. Ritchie first met Mr. Pootoogook in 1988 when he arrived at Cape Dorset from Newfoundland to serve as an art adviser at the co-op. True to the artistic background of his family, Mr. Pootoogook had tried his hand at carving in the 1970s and in 1973 even provided a stop-frame sequence of his colour snapshots as part of Animation from Cape Dorset, a National Film Board project.