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Jutai Toonoo.

Feheley Fine Arts

In his early years as an artist, Jutai Toonoo didn't pay much attention to the drawing progam at the famed Kinngait Studios in his hometown of Cape Dorset, Nunavut. He saw himself primarily as a carver. After all, that's what his father, Toonoo, had done until his death by gunshot at the age of 49, in 1969, "and I just carried on with what he did." Mr. Toonoo, in fact, would claim he made his first stone carving at the age of 7 while learning how to sand and polish his father's work.

Drawing – or at least the kind of drawing that Cape Dorset's West Baffin Eskimo Co-op seemed to think southern audiences preferred – was of no interest to him. Yes, he told an interviewer in 2011, he had an enduring fascination with the human face, including his own, which he regularly incorporated, albeit obliquely, in his stone sculpture. But "the animals, things from the past, the igloos" that seemed the staple subjects of so many Inuit pictures were pretty much a turn-off.

Then came what Toronto-based art dealer Patricia Feheley calls "the explosion," ignited circa 2005-06 by the drawings of a fellow Cape Dorset artist 10 years Mr. Toonoo's junior, Annie Pootoogook. Images of resourceful harpoon hunters, mythological sea creatures and fat walruses were not for Ms. Pootoogook; she drew her themes from her personal experiences of contemporary Northern life – a life of family, caring and sharing, certainly, but one also informed by domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, pornography, alcoholism.

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In short order, Mr. Toonoo grasped the possibilities of freedom presented by Ms. Pootoogook (who went on to win one of Canada's most prestigious arts honours, the $50,000 Sobey Art Award), her cousin Shuvinai Ashoona and others. He continued to sculpt, but it was drawing that became his métier, his obsession, as he worked first with coloured pencil, then oil stick and other media. Ms. Feheley recently said: "He could not not be drawing." And, in fact, when family members found him dead at his Cape Dorset home in late December, he was slumped over his drafting table. According to the coroner's report, he'd been claimed Dec. 28 by atherosclerotic hypertensive heart disease a little more than three weeks after his 56th birthday, reportedly as he worked on a portrait of his wife of almost 40 years and the mother of their eight children, the translator Nina Manning-Toonoo. Mr. Toonoo leaves three of his children, two sons and a daughter. He and his wife also adopted a son.

Today, Ms. Feheley, who hosted two Toonoo solo exhibitions, in 2012 and 2014, calls the artist's demise "a major, major, major loss. He was the most experimental, the most unusual, the most iconoclastic [of his peers] … with the most inquiring mind I've ever run into."

"His work was sort of the yin to the yang of everyone else's work," William Ritchie, an advisor to the West Baffin Co-op, told the Nunatsiaq News. It was Mr. Ritchie, along with printmaker Paul Machnik, who introduced Mr. Toonoo to the oil stick at Kinngait Studios in 2006.

Everything and anything, exterior and interior, it seems, was grist for Mr. Toonoo: the halogen lamp in his home, an ear, a perturbing thought, a scrunched Coke can, a mood, a bird soaring above the Arctic's granitic grandeur, a face, a visit to the former tuberculosis sanatorium in Hamilton with Art Gallery of Ontario Canadian art curator Andrew Hunter to see where Inuit patients were treated in the late 1950s. Ms. Feheley recalled the time in 2012 she and Mr. Toonoo were sitting in her Toronto gallery during his solo show, talking about cancer – the cancer her sister had, the cancer that would soon claim Mr. Toonoo's mother, the cancer diagnosis that had just been given their artist friend Itee Pootoogook. After, Mr. Toonoo asked the dealer if he could use her computer for a couple of hours. The conversation, he explained later, had made him "mad at the cancer" and he wanted to research it on the Internet. Working on the floor of the Feheley gallery over the next two weeks, he produced three stunning large oil-stick cancer-themed drawings, the largest, The Arsenal, almost five metres wide, the smallest, a canvas called Attacking a Lung Cancer Cell, almost two metres. In 2013, the National Gallery of Canada purchased The Arsenal; it's now one of 10 Toonoos in the gallery's permanent collection, seven of them drawings.

A dedicated reader with a deep familiarity with the Bible and the Koran, Mr. Toonoo often would mark his drawings and sculptures with text, as if to say the three-dimensional art object or the two-dimensional image was insufficient for his purposes. Hierarchy, a 2002 stone carving of three faces, for instance, is incised with these words: "Hierarchy, it is something I don't understand. How can a human being look up to another human being?" Something I Cannot Say, a coloured pencil drawing from 2013, features Mr. Toonoo's mouth clamped tight by his left hand, a skull ring on his third finger, with the words "I am powerless" running down the picture's left side.

Robert Kardosh, director of Vancouver's Marion Scott Gallery, another significant showcase of the Toonoo oeuvre remarked: "I have trouble thinking of him as an Inuit artist. That's his background, of course, and you can think of his work in relation to that tradition. But, really, he was a modern contemporary Canadian artist, working in a particular community, informed by his unique background."

It's a characterization Mr. Toonoo himself seemed to subscribe to, telling Christine Lalonde, the National Gallery's associate curator of indigenous art, in 2004 that he didn't think "there is such a thing as Inuit art. I think it's all a construct."

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He was named Jutai Felix Toonoo shortly after his birth on Dec. 5, 1959, the third of what would be 11 children born to (or adopted by) Toonoo and his wife, Sheojuke. Jutai was born on the land, in an outpost camp near Cape Dorset.

His parents were living the traditional quasi-nomadic, family-centred life at this time, but plentiful construction work and the fledgling art program in Cape Dorset eventually would bring them into the community. Jutai was surrounded by artists as he grew up – not only his father and the other artists of Cape Dorset but his mother, too, who got into drawing and print-making in the mid-1960s (only to abandon the activity for almost 35 years before resuming it in 2000) as well as his youngest brother, Samonie (a talented sculptor), and an older sister, Oviloo, who in 1997 would be given a solo showcase for her carving at the AGO.

When Radio Canada International produced a documentary on Mr. Toonoo in 2010, it was called The Rebel – an entirely accurate characterization, according to Ms. Lalonde. "He knew he was going against the grain of what was most popular in Inuit art," she said. "He wasn't doing it necessarily deliberately; he was just expressing himself but he had the courage to actually do that, to not try to fit into a mould that didn't suit him either personally or artistically."

Sometimes that rebelliousness, fuelled by a bi-polar disorder which Mr. Toonoo occasionally left untreated (he was also diagnosed with diabetes in 2011), made the artist difficult to deal with, even to the point of having what one friend called "enemies." Ms. Feheley recalled phoning him up once, greeting him with an enthusiastic "Hey, Jutai, how are you?" only to have him say: "Oh, I was down that long, dark tunnel again but I'm back. I'm back!" Added Joemie Takpaungai, studio manager at the West Baffin Co-op: "Jutai, he could be very kind, gentle and calm, and then volatile, depending, it seemed, on the day."

For Ms. Lalonde, Mr. Toonoo "was larger-than-life, and that meant sometimes that he could be quite abrasive when he was being honest about situations in his own life but also in general about the problems people face in the North. He didn't shy away from expressing in his art both his personal experiences and those reactions of what he was observing happening in the community. But he did it in a beautifully expressive, stylistically innovative way. He was always experimenting with his techniques and trying new media. He never hesitated to see how far he could push."

Indeed, the artist in The Rebel comes across as every inch the modern creator, his complaints the stuff you'd hear from a painter in Brooklyn or an installation artist in Vancouver. He grouses about not being paid enough, about being "stuck" in his studio and getting frustrated with his work, about gallerists being "the greediest bunch of people on the planet," about the impotence of art in effecting social change and how he "can't be a politician because nobody would vote for me even though I know I could make some positive changes."

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Though very close to his wife and children, Mr. Toonoo also maintained a separate residence/studio in Cape Dorset where it wasn't uncommon for him to draw without interruption for days at a time. Other times he would just stop altogether. Brad van der Zanden, office manager for Feheley Fine Arts, visited there in June 2014 with Kevin Hearn, keyboardist for the Barenaked Ladies and an avid Toonoo collector. "It was just as I imagined," he recalled – a seemingly chaotic space strewn with DVDs, books, CDs, musical instruments, "drawings everywhere – and not a clean dish in the place."

These days Ms. Manning-Toonoo is remembering her husband as "a very funny man, very intelligent, at times someone who was very strong in getting his thoughts across." Yes, she acknowledged, his health issues were "at times very challenging but we learned to cope with them." Theirs was a life and love, she said, of "constant contact."

Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto is hosting a memorial event to honour Jutai Toonoo on Feb. 27. The memorial marks the start of a solo exhibition of his work running through late March. An exhibition of his work is also opening in May at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver.

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