Even as a child, Tim Pitsiulak loved to draw, learning to use a pencil and paper in school when he was nine years old. “I love drawing,” he once said. “Every drawing I make I learn from it. It’s like learning from your mistakes.” You can see that devotion in some of his last work – the monumental Iceberg series – huge, hulking, peaked forms executed on outsize sheets of black paper. Shimmering with sparkling blue lights, the icebergs are both formidable and fragile; ancient and modern; alluring as a tribute to the past and the isolated nomadic life of the Inuit; and a warning to southern consumers about the present and future effects of global warning.
He was “a really eclectic guy,” said Bill Ritchie, manager and arts adviser at Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset, explaining that Mr. Pitsiulak was “ahead of the curve when it came to technology.” He wanted to have a drone, for example, so he could capture aerial images of icebergs or walrus herds.
Everything he did with still cameras and film ended up as information in his drawings and became part of the image bank that other artists in the drawing studio used as sources for their own work. At the same time, he was really trying to push the envelope in terms of the media he used as an artist. “Over time you would have seen him exploring the idea of the iceberg more, Mr. Ritchie predicted. “He was a real contemporary artist. He was the real deal.”
An intrepid artist, hunter and community leader, Mr. Pitsiulak died on Dec. 23 of pneumonia, a raging infection that might have been cured if he had been closer to a high-tech urban hospital. A generation younger than the artists who made Inuit sculpture and printmaking an artistic and commercial force more than half a century ago, Mr. Pitsiulak travelled from north to south and back again, transporting the skills and traditions of the past, embracing the technology and tools of the contemporary art world and creating a fresh vision for collectors and artists. He was comfortable in both worlds without losing his sense of place and spiritual balance. His loss is enormous both for his community and for the future of modern Inuit art.
“His legacy goes beyond his art making,” observed art critic and curator Sarah Milroy. “He was a big inspiration for the young people in the community, someone who made it look cool to work hard, have a plan, take care of his family, stay optimistic and follow through.”
That was something about Mr. Pitsiulak that Mr. Ritchie knew full well. “I sat there every day with him since 2008. And he sat his ass in that chair and drew all day long. I give full credit to any artist who can do that.”
By the time Mr. Pitsiulak was born, in the 1960s, the traditional Inuit nomadic life of hunting and fishing and living on the land had largely given way to permanent dwellings in established settlements. He bridged the old and the new: speaking Inuktitut, but learning English in school; bombarded by televised images from the outside world, but hunting with his father to provide food for the family.
He was a friendly, outgoing man, quick to smile and laugh, easy to spot by the baseball cap he invariably wore crammed tight on his head and shading his eyes. “Tim was a great bear of a man, with a big spirit, a big smile and a great joy in life, whether he was out on a hunt, or in the studio, making his drawings,” recalled Ms. Milroy, who profiled Mr. Pitsiulak in The Walrus in 2012.
Although raised in Lake Harbour (now Kimmirut, Nunavut), on the southern tip of Baffin Island, Mr. Pitsiulak flourished in Cape Dorset, the epicentre of Inuit drawing and printmaking. Originally a carver, he trained as a jeweller at Nunavut Arctic College, before unleashing his true artistic vision in drawings that captured his own observed experience of contemporary life, and combined mythology and iconography in exquisitely rendered images. His growth as an artist was exponential – from one print in the annual Cape Dorset collection in 2005, to nine in the 2016 release, more than any other artist. He was the “backbone” of the collection, his friend and dealer Patricia (Pat) Feheley said in an interview.
“He absolutely was a transitional figure,” she said, describing how Mr. Pitsiulak spent half his time out on the land – his “office,” as he called it – hunting, fishing and taking photographs. For the rest of the time, he made art.
His most significant mentor was his late aunt, Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013), the artist who created the iconic image of The Enchanted Owl back in 1960. He watched her draw, he absorbed her work ethic, and he modelled the way she made art to sustain her creative spirit and to support her extended family. He could also trace his artistic roots to the draftsmanship and community leadership of Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010), the photographer Peter Pitseolak (1902-1973) and his own contemporary Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016), one of the first Inuit artists to experiment in large-scale drawings.
The materials – large sheets of paper, oil sticks, coloured pencils – came from the south, imported by Mr. Ritchie, as part of the infrastructure and artistic support for artists working in the Kinngait Studios, but “Annie was the catalyst,” Ms. Feheley explained. “She was the one who sent it over the edge” with pictures such as Cape Dorset Freezer, 2005, which is in the National Gallery’s collection and part of the 2006 travelling Power Plant exhibition – the same year that she won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award.
Her international success, sent a “message to contemporary art collectors that Inuit [art] was genuine contemporary art,” says Ms. Feheley. And that sent a message back to the North, “that you could be original, you could make art as you wanted to draw and still be successful.”
Stimulated to try something new and radical, Mr. Pitsiulak began drawing what interested him, said Ms. Feheley, from trucks, container ships and machinery to wildlife, icebergs and marine life under the sea, using still photography and film to document the source material to fuel his imagination. “Twenty years ago, people would have said that is not Inuit.”
Ms. Milroy agreed, describing Mr. Pitsiulak as “a critical leader in the emerging practice of large-scale drawing in the north – something that the artistic community in Cape Dorset has really pioneered.” As an artist, he had an “amazing eye for composition,” she said. “His line was always incredibly vital, whether he was drawing a whale or a walrus or a boat or a forklift truck.”
At the same time, she said that his art “really looks both ways, to the traditional way of life inherited from the past – hunting, fishing, being out on the land – but also to the experience of living and working in the contemporary community, with the machines and boats and ATVs that make life in the North work now. He took stock of it all.” And he transformed it into art.
Timootee (Tim) Pitsiulak, the son of Napachie and Timila Pitsiulak, was born on March 10, 1967, in Lake Harbour (now Kimmirut), an inlet with a rocky outcrop called the heel, located on the southern tip of Baffin Island, across the Hudson Strait from northern Quebec. Inuit have lived in the area, which is rich in soapstone, marble and gemstones and wildlife including bowhead whales, caribou, seals and foxes, for thousands of years. Norse sailors from Greenland visited the shores as early as 1000 AD, followed by European and North American whalers and trappers, especially after the Hudson Bay company established Baffin Island’s first trading post in 1911.
Mr. Pitsiulak brought these skills and an outsider’s eye with him in 2002, when he relocated to Cape Dorset about 350 kilometres farther north on Baffin Island. By then in his mid-30s, Mr. Pitsiulak, who had split from his partner and the mother of his older children, began a new family, marrying Mary Ottokie, the mother of his two younger daughters.
He showed one of his drawings to his cousin Jimmy Manning, then the manager of Kinngait Studios, and began working alongside the other artists there. He had a small print, Caribou Migration, in the Cape Dorset release in 2005, the year before he enrolled in college.
“When I first met him, he was doing jewellery,” recalled Ms. Feheley, remembering that he created Caribou Hunt in sterling silver as his graduation project in 2007. His focus quickly changed, as he became increasingly prolific as a printmaker, and the two became friends and colleagues.
His death is a personal loss because she loved him dearly, recalling that they had a “real kind of back and forth and a mutual respect” as artist and dealer. “He was the most kind and generous person,” who called her every two weeks to say hello. He pitched in to help install her gallery’s booth at Art Fair in Toronto this past year. “We did this journey together,” she said, “because I gave him his first solo show in 2009 and every two years since then I have had a major exhibition of his work at [Feheley Fine Arts].”
Mr. Pitsiulak also had a featured place in the Inuit Modern Exhibit from the Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2011. Two years later, the Royal Canadian Mint asked him to create an image of a bowhead whale and two belugas for the reverse side of the Canadian 25-cent coin, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Other commissions followed, including one from Cadillac Fairview to create a large-scale drawing for the Toronto Dominion Bank, in Toronto’s financial district.
He also participated in workshop exchanges with emerging and established artists from the south. “I think it is really neat to meet other artists whose work I have only seen in magazines and online,” he told this reporter in an interview in 2013.
One of these artists was ceramicist Shary Boyle. She wrote in a Facebook tribute to Mr. Pitsiulak on Christmas Eve: “Since I worked at the drawing studio in 2011, three amazing artists I drew beside have died: Ohotaq Mikkigak and Itee Pootoogook in 2014, Jutai Toonoo in 2015. Other artists have passed since then I did not know, including the profound loss of Annie Pootoogook this fall. Some of these artists were elderly and lived full lives like Kenojuak and Ohotaq, but Itee, Jutai, Annie and now Tim – these people died before their time.”
What “horrifies” a grieving Ms. Feheley even more than her own sorrow, is the loss to the artistic world. “He was continually growing and stretching himself” in works like his Iceberg series. “You could tell that there was so much more that would have been in his work – and it was cut off at 49.”
Who will become Mr. Pitsiulak’s successor as a leader in the Inuit art community is the haunting and unanswerable question.
Tim Pitsiulak leaves his wife, Mary, several children and extended family. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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