Only three years after Kenojuak Ashevak drew her famous sketch The Enchanted Owl in 1960, she was enough of a celebrity to be the focus of a National Film Board documentary.
Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, written, edited and directed by John Feeney, begins in shadows with the sounds of snow crunching, dogs panting, and a whip cracking through the frigid air. Ashevak, her husband Johnniebo and their children are travelling by dog sled from their winter camp to the settlement at Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. As the family waits out a storm in an igloo, we see Ashevak feeding her children and entertaining them with animal shapes that her nimble fingers project on the ice walls. Later, she makes a drawing in the flickering light of an oil lamp, drawing with an uncanny concentration, confidence and fluidity, almost as though she has projected her imagination like a shadow onto the paper and is merely tracing the image with her pencil. There is no hesitation, no second-guessing, no erasing.
By film’s end, that sketch, The Return of the Sun, had been cut into stone and made into an edition of 50 prints at the Kinngait Studio at the Inuit-owned-and-operated West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. (Canada Post used the image on a 17-cent stamp in 1980.) Ashevak’s payment for the drawing and her earnings from the documentary provided the money for her husband to buy his own canoe – a big step in the family’s financial independence and a measure of her emerging importance in the traditionally male role of provider.
In the half-century since Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak was made, the world of the Inuit became dramatically different, from the creation of Nunavut to the proliferation of the Internet and the soaring commercial value of Inuit art – a print of The Enchanted Owl sold for more than $50,000 at auction in 2007.
Art changed everything for Ashevak. Among many other honours, she was among the original inductees into the Order of Canada in 1967 (and promoted to Companion in 1982), The Enchanted Owl was put on a postage stamp in 1970, and she was awarded a Governor-General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2008. “She was the star of the Dorset artists, but she was also a national icon transcending Inuit art,” said her long-time dealer and friend, Pat Feheley of Feheley Fine Arts.
“What mattered to her most was to make the picture beautiful,” Feheley said in an interview this week. “It was all a desire to create what was in her head, but to do it in a beautiful way.” Although Ashevak’s imagery was very personal to her beliefs, her childhood and her spirituality, she also was an “extraordinary” role model for younger artists, said Feheley, because of her dedication to her art and her work ethic.
Ashevak’s death at 85 on Tuesday of complications from lung cancer signals the end of a generation of Inuit artists who grew up on the land. Born into nomadic camps, they made the transition from igloos and sod huts to manufactured houses in permanent communities. From drawing, carving and embroidering images to commune with the natural and spiritual world around them, they learned how to make art – a concept unknown to the ancient Inuit – to reflect their memories, their changing world, and the effects of southern materials, processes and influences.
She is the last of the founding artists in the printmaking studio established by James Houston, then a government-appointed administrator, in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s. Houston gave her paper, but she made it her own, in drawings that combine the shadows and memories of the past with the luminosity of her imagination. At the core of the annual Cape Dorset release from the beginnings of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in 1959, she had eight prints in last year’s collection, including Bird Fanfare, which had a suggested retail price of $1,200. She never stopped working, never stopped experimenting with new materials and forms, from copper etching in the 1960s to sugar-lift paintings, a process in which paint is squished directly onto an etching plate, in the past decade. She also created an owl design for a stained glass window in a chapel at Appleby College in Ontario in 2004.
And yet, what comes across in the NFB documentary is how fully formed she was 50 years ago as an artist and a human being. She never went to school, she never studied art, she never learned English. The charisma that snags a viewer’s eye continued to radiate on a rare visit to Toronto in November, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of new work by her nephew Tim Pitsiulak. She drew a bevy of reverent collectors, seeking a touch of her hand or merely a flicker of recognition. Adulation didn’t faze her. She smiled beatifically, but she retained her inner distance even while calmly smoking a cigarette surrounded by shivering admirers outside the gallery.