Her bold graphic sense and her love of the decorative and spiritual were there from the beginning. The telegenic young woman grew frail and grey over the decades as she absorbed the deaths of her beloved husband and several children. But she retained an open-eyed yet knowing wonder at the world around her, an abiding optimism, and a determination to use her art to provide for her family no matter how extended or how many generations it encompassed. As Ashevak told critic Peter Mellen in 1978 for his monumental Landmarks of Canadian Art, “I like to make people happy and everything happy. I am the light of happiness and I am a dancing owl.”
Few would say that Kenojuak Ashevak, who was born on Oct. 3, 1927, in an igloo in Ikirasaq, an Inuit camp near the southern coast of Baffin Island, had an easy life. When she was a child, her father, Ushuakjuk, a trapper and the son of a shaman, was murdered by other members of the camp, his body weighted with stones and thrown into the sea. It is not clear whether the murder was prompted by rivalry or a religious dispute between supporters of Animism and Christianity, but Ashevak never forgot her father’s agitation the night before his death and the hardship her mother, Silaqqi, endured as an outcast in the camp. Eventually, Ashevak began living with her grandmother, who taught her traditional crafts such as sewing sealskin clothes with caribou sinew for family use and to trade for goods with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
When she was 19, Ashevak’s mother and stepfather arranged a union for her with hunter Johnniebo Ashevak. At first reluctant, she grew to love and honour him for his gentleness, good humour and kindness. In 1948, two years after their pairing, an Anglican missionary officially married them. That was also the year that the federal government began issuing family allowance benefits to Inuit and keeping track of them by number, instead of name. Ashevak’s number was E7-1035.
By the early 1950s, Cape Dorset had a teacher, a nurse and regular visits by medical personnel. Ashevak was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951, and sent south to recuperate in a hospital in Quebec City, leaving behind her husband and children. Her children died during her long, lonely absence, and in her sorrow, she began doing beadwork and making dolls, encouraged by a local artist and the occasional visits of Houston and his wife, Alma.
When Ashevak returned to Cape Dorset in 1955, she became a part of Alma Houston’s crafts studio and began making sealskin appliqués on handbags. One of these designs, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, attracted the artistic eye of James Houston. He encouraged Ashevak to carve, and gave her paper on which to draw with graphite and coloured pencils.
Her Rabbit Eating Seaweed design was the only work by a woman included in the 1959 print release. The Houstons left Cape Dorset in the early 1960s – the southerner working in the print studio in the NFB film is not Houston (known as Saumik, the left-handed one), but Terry Ryan, the first southerner the Inuit hired to run their print studio. He and Ashevak worked together for 50 years and were “good” buddies. “She was always herself,” he said in a telephone interview. “She didn’t put on airs.”
Ryan thinks her art resonated with southerners because it “was bold, dramatic, colourful and appealed to a wide spectrum of people whether they were collectors or just passersby.” It was also safe, certainly when compared with the stark realism depicting drug abuse, social problems and the clash of values that inspired younger artists such as Annie Pootoogook, winner of the 2006 Sobey Prize.
As well as being prolific and industrious, Ashevak found a perfect medium for her graphic style in printmaking. Art collector and dealer John Houston, son of James and Alma, has known Ashevak since he was a baby living in Cape Dorset. “She had her own wonderful sense of design,” he said earlier this week, which became “an inextricable part of our self-image as Canadians.” Connecting The Enchanted Owl – a “beautiful, bold, red-and-black image on a white field,” from 1960 with Canada’s flag from 1965 – an audacious red maple leaf on a white field – he argues that “it is pretty uncanny how they have a lot of the same bold energy.”
Ashevak spent her last years making art and living in her own home in Cape Dorset. Thrice widowed, she had many children, both biological and adopted, including the artist Arnaqu Ashevak, who died in 2009, her son Adamie, her daughter, travelling companion and translator Silaqqie, and a multigenerational extended family.
Diagnosed last summer with inoperable lung cancer, she submitted to radiation in an Ottawa hospital briefly, but decided she would rather be at home with her family in Cape Dorset. That’s where she died in her sleep, as she wanted.