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Annie Pootoogook: A life too short, built on creativity but marred by despair

Dr. Phil, by Annie Pootoogook.

Dr. Phil, by Annie Pootoogook.

A remarkable life

Annie Pootoogook's detailed, colourful work helped lead to a profound shift in what Inuit art could be

In a 2006 documentary, Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook looks calm and confident. "I am a third-generation artist," she says, proudly displaying a drawing she made of herself drawing with her mother and grandmother, who were both acclaimed figures in Inuit art. "I draw every day," she says. "To me, it's a job, my job."

That footage was shot in and around Ms. Pootoogook's home in Cape Dorset, before the solo exhibition at Toronto's Power Plant that vaulted her to prominence in Canada and abroad. Within a few months of that show in the summer of 2006, she had won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award, and had been invited to display her work at the Montreal Biennale and Documenta 12, a major European exhibition. Her works were purchased by major museums, and by collectors who till then had regarded the work coming out of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op in Cape Dorset as more craft than art. People began talking about a profound shift in what Inuit art could be, led by younger artists such as Ms. Pootoogook and her cousin, Shuvinai Ashoona.

Ten years later, the innovative, hard-working artist at the centre of that revolution was living rough in Ottawa, selling her drawings on the street and begging for beer money near a downtown liquor store. On Sept. 19, her body was found in the Rideau River. She was 47 years old.

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The story of Ms. Pootoogook's life was marked by despair and tragedy, but also by extraordinary resilience and creativity. The troubles that overwhelmed her in her last years did not begin after the Sobey Award, yet for a long time she was able to manage them, and even to make art from them. She channelled her experiences, whether joyful or difficult, into a body of work that changed Canadian art.

Annie Pootoogook with her work.

Annie Pootoogook with her work.

"I thought she would be back, she had always pulled out of problems before," said Pat Feheley, the Toronto art dealer who gave Ms. Pootoogook her first solo exhibition in 2003. The same thought was expressed by several people interviewed for this story, who had several times seen the artist face difficulties that would impede but not stop the daily effort of giving her experiences a truthful shape on paper.

She always said she could only draw what she had lived, which included scenes of cozy domesticity, of watching Dr. Phil on TV, and of cutting up raw seal on a piece of cardboard on the floor. It also included images of domestic violence, which startled those who looked to Inuit art only for timeless views of wholesome Northern traditions.

"She was drawing out of personal experience, but also out of shared cultural experience," said Heather Igloliorte, Concordia University Research Chair in Indigenous Art History. That had been a feature of her mother and grandmother's art too, said Ms. Igloliorte, but Inuit life had changed, and Ms. Pootoogook had been born into a new reality.

"I didn't see any igloos in my life," the artist says in the documentary. "Only Skidoo, Honda, the house, things inside the house."

Annie Pootoogook

Bill Ritchie met Ms. Pootoogook in the mid-1990s, when he became manager of what is now Kinngait Studios, the co-op division that supports and buys work from most of the artists working in Cape Dorset. "She was saucy and engaging, and kind of hip and cool," Mr. Ritchie said. "She was smart as a whip."

He recalled visiting her at her house, which turned out to be exactly like the sparse, tidy interiors she pictured in her drawings. "It was a very cared-for situation," he said. "Annie was always put together, always clean, her clothes well-considered. She knew she had to keep her shit together, and she really valued her independence."

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Initially there was little interest in her work at the co-op. "Her aesthetic was totally alien to anything else we were doing at the time," Mr. Ritchie said. "Everybody else was kind of stuck in the past." After shipping some of her early portraits to Dorset Fine Arts, the co-op's sales arm in Toronto, Mr. Ritchie got a stern note back. "'This stuff's never going to sell,' they said. 'Stop doing it.'" Her detailed, colourful work was also hard to translate to stone-cut printing, which was the main form of work the co-op shipped to the south.

That Ms. Pootoogook carried on with her "alien" aesthetic says a lot about her determination and faith in her vision, given that she depended on her art to live, and that the co-op and Dorset Fine Arts were her only outlets at the time. But she was also concerned about finding her proper place, in the context of her highly artistic family. "She was mindful of the changes her generation was facing, always wondering, 'Where do I stand?'" said Paul Machnik, a fine-art printer from Montreal who met her during his periodic workshop tours of the North.

"Annie was always drawing when I visited her at home," said her brother Cee Pootoogook, a stone-cutter at the co-op. "She learned from my mother [Napachie Pootoogook], and even helped her sometimes with colouring."

“Family Gathering Whale Meat.”

Annie Pootoogook

Ms. Feheley met Ms. Pootoogook in Dorset only after she had exhibited some of her drawings in Toronto, at Mr. Ritchie's suggestion. She found the artist very direct, like her work. "Part of the appeal of her drawings is that they're so honest," she said.

"There was an openness to her," said Ms. Feheley. "If she had something, she would so happily share it with you. She wanted to think the best of people."

That generous spirit also made her vulnerable, said her brother Goo Pootoogook, also an artist living in Cape Dorset. "She had a lot of cousins and friends who didn't have much money, and she would sell her artwork and take care of them," he said. People began following her on her weekly trips to the co-op, he said, because they knew she was about to be paid. "She would say, 'It's only money,'" he said.

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Ms. Feheley spoke about Ms. Pootoogook's work with Power Plant curator Nancy Campbell, who gradually got to know the artist during several visits to Cape Dorset after her first solo show at Feheley Fine Art in 2003. "I knew her very well for a short period of time," said Ms. Campbell. "At first she was very closed, and very rehearsed. She knew what people wanted her to say. She wanted to be well-known, and she wanted people to like her. She was also very fragile, which is why the work is the way it is. She had a lot of demons."

Although Ms. Pootoogook was highly independent in her artistic outlook, Ms. Feheley noticed that "she very much always needed to have a man in her life," and that her choices often caused her harm. The man she pictured in one drawing threatening her in her bedroom with a raised stick would not be the last abusive figure in her intimate life.

“Man Abusing His Partner.”

Annie Pootoogook

Prior to the Power Plant show, Ms. Campbell encouraged Ms. Pootoogook to try a very large format drawing, over a metre high and nearly two and a half metres wide. The result was Cape Dorset Freezer, a good-humoured image of Northerners browsing in front of a supermarket freezer, some of them in traditional parkas. She turned a major technical challenge into one of the highlights of the exhibition; the drawing was later purchased by the National Gallery of Canada.

The documentary film shows Ms. Pootoogook at the Power Plant opening, looking excited at the sight of strangers perusing a wall of her artworks. "I was nothing, but today I am something," she says, while grappling with the South's exalted ideas of what an artist is, so different from the workaday notion current in Cape Dorset.

"She had no ego," Ms. Feheley said. "She never believed that she was as good as anybody else. Her mother or grandmother might be great artists, but she wasn't necessarily."

In November, 2006, two months after the Power Plant show closed, Ms. Pootoogook won the Sobey Award, and the cash and renown that went with it. Southern artists and their dealers dream and scheme about gathering that plum, but it was something totally outside the experience or range of ambition of anyone in Cape Dorset, said Mr. Ritchie. "Nobody here aspires to the Sobey Award," he said. "Nobody knows what that is."

Ms. Pootoogook travelled to Montreal to receive the prize. Ms. Feheley said she tried several times to persuade the artist to tuck the money away somewhere, with no success. Back in Cape Dorset, Ms. Pootoogook shared it with her siblings, said her brother Goo, who got $2,000.

In the summer of 2007, Nancy Campbell travelled with Ms. Pootoogook to Germany, where her work was showcased at the prestigious Documenta 12. "That was a big deal," said Ms. Campbell, "but it was like dropping somebody onto another planet. She thought it was great to be there, but she didn't care about what Documenta was, and didn't understand the importance of the exhibition." The mere idea of an art show where nothing was for sale was foreign to her, said Ms. Campbell.

After another stint in Cape Dorset, Ms. Pootoogook returned to Montreal to live. Paul Machnik soon saw changes in the sober self-starter he had met in Dorset, where there were no liquor stores and no liquor imports without permission from a community council. "It was evident that she was in a dangerous environment," he said, and equally clear that it didn't help to have booze available at every corner dépanneur.

“Breaking Bottles.”

Annie Pootoogook

"It would take us an hour just to get her up and going, and then bring to the shop and get her in a good mood to work," he said, referring to visits he and his wife made to Ms. Pootoogook's place near the Cartier Bridge. But she was still open to new challenges. She began working with oil stick, "a more painterly medium than the pencils she was used to," Mr. Machnik said. One of her Montreal works was a large-format oil drawing called Drawing my Grandmother's Glasses, which was shown by Feheley Fine Arts at the Toronto Art Fair in 2007, and purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In the fall of 2007, after several months in Montreal, Ms. Feheley said, Ms. Pootoogook's boyfriend went to jail. One of her sisters, who was also in Montreal, was in rough shape, and Mr. Machnik managed to convince the artist that the two should return to Cape Dorset. There wasn't enough of the Sobey money left to get them there, so Ms. Feheley paid the air fare. "They didn't have their papers," said Mr. Machnik, who took them to the airport. "I had to beg the RCMP to let them on the plane."

Less than a month later, between Christmas and New Year's, Ms. Pootoogook was recruited as a translator for a patient being flown to Ottawa on a Medevac flight. Mr. Machnik was dumbfounded. "We put so much energy into trying to get her up there and settled in her home, and without thinking, Social Services gave her a ticket right back again. It was a shortcoming, on their part, not to review her situation first, because she was already in difficulties in the South."

Ottawa offered a kind of freedom she couldn't find in Dorset, and there were many Inuit living there, many of them in impoverished circumstances. Ms. Feheley connected Ms. Pootoogook with Greg Kangas, an auto-body specialist who ran an informal studio for Inuit artists, with a strict no-alcohol rule. The artist began showing her work at the Saw Gallery in Ottawa, and found a boyfriend who seemed to be helping her, according to Ms. Feheley, till he too went to jail. In 2010, Ms. Pootoogook met William Watt, a panhandler with whom she had a fraught on-and-off relationship for the remaining years of her life.

"She was doing a lot of drawing when she first went down to Ottawa," said her brother Goo, who had nothing good to say about her Southern boyfriends. "She wasn't calling us a lot, maybe once every three or four months. She'd say, 'I'm fine, I can take care of myself.' We were constantly worried about her."

Her life with Mr. Watt was rough. They camped in parks and under bridges or stayed in missions. She began to complain to friends and family about the way he treated her.

"One morning she came up to me," recalled her friend Ookik Nakashook, and said 'I am tired of being kicked out. Last night he kicked me out without boots so I had to go look for boots,'" said Ms. Nakashook. "That was during the winter. And I told her, 'Don't put up with that.'"

Holding Boots, from 2003/2004.

Holding Boots, from 2003/2004.

Annie Pootoogook

Goo Pootoogook said, "Annie told me and my wife, 'I'm sick of this guy. He's beating me up and taking all my money.'" He offered to bring her back to Cape Dorset, but she ultimately refused.

In 2012, Ms. Pootoogook became pregnant, and the Ottawa Citizen ran a series of reports about the acclaimed artist living on the street, drawing pictures for beer money, pleading with social agencies for proper shelter, and ultimately losing her newborn to the Children's Aid Society. Jason St-Laurent, curator at the Saw Gallery, told the CBC recently that she felt shamed by the invasive scope of those articles, which said nothing about the character she was.

"She was just a ray of sunshine, really. It was always exciting when she came by," said Mr. St-Laurent in a Globe interview. "No matter how stressed people were, all of a sudden, the mood would shift in this entire place and everyone would stop working and we would all go outside with her. She was just one of those personalities that brought you in."

She could still show flashes of the confident, self-possessed person she had been at the start of her career. Bill Ritchie saw her at the opening of Dorset Seen, an exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery in the spring of 2013, and thought "she looked like a million bucks." At the same event, however, she told Ms. Feheley she had to get away from Mr. Watt.

Her brother Goo last saw her before Christmas, he said. "She told me she didn't want to do any more drawings, because her boyfriend would take the money. She would start drinking as soon as the beer store opened, and she'd be in a stupor all day."

Oleekie Etuangat, a close friend of Ms. Pootoogook, said that she last saw her a few days before her body was found in the river, and that her friend said that she had left Mr. Watt, and was living in a downtown mission.

Ms. Pootoogook was always a religious person who, in 2003, drew a picture of a woman kneeling in prayer, with a giant divine hand reaching down to help. Her last known drawing was of a woman in a peaceful, contemplative attitude. It's not known what state of mind she was in when she vanished from the shore of the Rideau River. The events leading up to her death are still under investigation by police.

"In one way, she had a really blessed life, in terms of her talent and the people who loved her," said Nancy Campbell. "She was a game-changer, and a very pivotal person in terms of how Inuit art is perceived." She also opened the door for other younger Inuit artists, she said, many of whom embraced the freedom to experiment that she championed.

So even if there is a "cautionary tale," as Mr. Ritchie said, in Ms. Pootoogook's experience of overnight success and displacement, there's also much to celebrate, and a remarkable body of work to explore. As Marcia Connolly, the director of the 2006 documentary about the artist, said: "It's so important that people hear her speak about her art and life, and not just think about her death."


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