From his earliest work, captured in the initial 1959 release of Cape Dorset prints, to the mural-sized coloured drawings of caribou that he made in the last few years of his life, Kananginak was inspired by both the world around him and the one he carried inside his head.
He was born on Jan. 1, 1935 in Ikirasak, a camp located about 85 km. east of Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. He was the ninth son of more than a dozen children born to Josephie Pootoogook and his wife Sarah Ningeokuluk.
In winter the Pootoogooks lived in an igloo, but as soon as the snow started to melt they moved into a canvas tent or a sod house while they trapped foxes to sell the pelts to the Hudson's Bay Company. At its height, Pootoogook's trap line had close to 400 traps and extended over a long stretch of land from one side of Baffin Island to the other.
When Kananginak was seven, his family moved into its first wooden house, but they still went out on the land every summer. That is the way he imagined his life would be. "... all I thought about was growing up to be a man, having a team of fast dogs and being able to get all the game I needed," he recounted in a biographical essay published by the Museum of Inuit Art in 2010. He was still living on the land when he married his wife Shooyoo in 1957, but he soon moved his family into Cape Dorset to help care for his father who by then was old and ill.
That is when Kananginak, age 22, began working for James Houston, the Northern Service Officer for the federal government, doing odd jobs and some carving in the art studio and helping to establish printmaking. "The whole question of printmaking hung in limbo, no one knowing whether the idea would be accepted by West Baffin Islanders," Houston wrote in Confessions of an Igloo Dweller.
"We worked to gain the support of Pootoogook and Kiaksuk, those two important elders of the Kingaimiut. I got up my nerve and went and asked Pootoogook to make me an illustration of something he had been trying to explain to me. He did this and sent the results next morning. I asked his son, Kananginak, to help print his father's drawing of two caribou. ... Pootoogook greatly admired the result, and after that the whole stone block and stencil printing project was off to a powerful start."
At first Kananginak was nervous about drawing and spent more time making prints and then lithographs of the work of other artists and helping to establish the Co-op store with Ryan and local Inuit artists after Houston returned south in the early 1960s.
Ryan had arrived in Cape Dorset aboard the icebreaker C.D. Howe in 1960 to take up a summer job working for Houston. Kananginak and his wife Shooyoo provided his accommodation - their own house - while they joined a group of hunters on the land for the season.
Living in a foil bag
Before leaving Cape Dorset, Kananginak had painted the walls, floor and ceiling of his tiny cabin with the only paint he could find in the small community - iridescent silver. The effect in the summer sunlight was blinding and Ryan later said he was like living in an aluminum foil bag. Nevertheless the two men, who worked together for the next 40 years, became great and good friends.
It wasn't until the early 1970s, when Kananginak was in his mid-30s, that he felt confident enough to give up his job in the studio and become a full time artist. Although he had been represented in almost every print release from Cape Dorset since 1959, he became much more prolific, making carvings, drawings and prints, and showing his work in museums and commercial galleries. In 1977, the World Wildlife Commission released a limited edition portfolio of works, including four of his images, and in 1980 he was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.