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Kenojuak AshevakDella Rollins for The Globe and Mail

Kenojuak Ashevak, the immutable beacon of Inuit art, has weathered a tsunami of change in her 84 years. She has been the public face, the guiding hand and the aesthetic inspiration of Cape Dorset for more than 60 years. But even she can't safeguard her community or her artistic heirs from the many social upheavals her people have faced.

When Ms. Ashevak was born in the 1920s, her family lived a nomadic life of hunting and fishing, with its cycles of starvation and plenty – the sort of existence romanticized in films such as Nanook of the North. This lasted until the other Inuit in her family's camp murdered her father when she was a small child, and she subsequently went to live with her grandmother. She survived the transition to settlement life in permanent communities and the separation from her own children while she was treated for tuberculosis in a Quebec hospital in the early 1950s.

In more recent years, her adopted home of Cape Dorset, the epicentre of Inuit carving and printmaking since the late 1950s, has experienced the same kind of substance abuse and domestic violence that has plagued other communities in the North. Nunavut's homicide rate is about 10 times the Canadian average. Suicide figures for young males and child-abuse statistics are equally shocking. Reconciling the two Cape Dorsets – a place of artistic excellence but devastating social problems – has been a hard task for many southerners who want to celebrate the art and the artists, while averting their gaze from the vicious undercurrents of despair and poverty.

Modernity's footprint

As the community has evolved in reaction to southern influences, so has the art. The availability of new materials and techniques, as well as the changing art market, have affected the art and the artists both aesthetically and commercially. Originally, Inuit art dealer Pat Feheley says, "drawings were made to create an image bank for prints; now they are an end in themselves." In the past decade, the availability of large and different-coloured papers, pencil crayons and oil stick have enabled younger artists such as Tim Pitsiulak, Shuvinai Ashoona, Itee Pootoogook and Jutai Toonoo to make cutting-edge art that is large-scale, in-your-face and modern.

The person who has pushed social and documentary realism the hardest is Annie Pootoogook, the granddaughter of renowned artist Pitseolak Ashoona. She won the coveted $50,000 Sobey Art Award in 2006 for coloured drawings depicting the good and the bad of contemporary life in the North, including spousal abuse, children playing Nintendo and family groups collecting supplies from the store, where once they would have gone hunting or fishing.

You have to wonder what James Houston, the artist and government administrator who started it all, would think. He arrived in Baffin Island in the late 1940s, lived on the land with the Inuit, hunting by dogsled and sleeping in igloos. He found a southern market for Inuit carvings and introduced printmaking in the late 1950s. He wanted to celebrate the timeless and elemental quality of Inuit carving and help the Inuit find a way to sustain themselves as their traditional way of life disappeared in a transitional era. That is why he organized a rudimentary printmaking studio.

One of the original printmakers in Houston's studio, Kananginak Pootoogook was also a key figure in establishing the West Baffin Co-op. The Inuit-run business includes the graphic arts and stonecutting centre known as Kinngait Studios and a community store originally for hunters and trappers, and now a multimillion-dollar community business. A skilled draftsman, Mr. Pootoogook sketched the material culture of the past in detailed drawings of weapons, clothing and tools. He also chronicled the effect of southern communications, travel modes and social influences on the traditional Inuit way of life in narrative drawings including watching television, surfing the Internet, riding snowmobiles and consuming drugs and alcohol.

For Ms. Ashevak, Mr. Pootoogook's death late last year meant the loss of a friend and an artistic colleague who had been there with her from the earliest days. Today, she is the only remaining artist who worked with Houston and his first wife, Alma. Unlike her friend Mr. Pootoogook, she doesn't make art from what she sees around her, and instead adheres to an imaginative and spiritual aesthetic that is infused with an innate decorative sense. Her first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, was produced from a design she had embroidered on a sealskin bag. Drawing was something she learned to do as a way of making precisely executed but spiritual, rather than factual, graphic images for the printmakers to reproduce. The Enchanted Owl, an iconic work of hers from 1960, became one of the best-known pieces of Inuit art when it was later printed on a six-cent stamp.

"While her work is rarely overtly about Inuit life or culture, her individual style and imagery have become synonymous with Inuit art," said Christine Lalonde, associate curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada. The same government that once derisively referred to Ms. Ashevak by number – E7-1035 – has since used her images on coins and stamps and showered her with awards and honours, naming her a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982 and giving her a Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2008.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Ashevak made the long trip south from Cape Dorset to join a celebration of "Women Who Shape the North" in Ottawa with Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and other notables. That trip prompted a side excursion to Toronto to attend the opening of an art exhibition by her nephew, Tim Pitsiulak.

"She is my inspiration," the self-taught artist said in his low guttural voice, after embracing his aunt. "She started art back home with some people and those people who were drawing with her aren't around any more."

Remembrance of things past

Speaking through her daughter, Silaqqie, her travelling companion and translator, Ms. Ashevak says she still misses some things about life on the land, especially hunting and fishing through the ice in the fall and the spring. Back then, living in an igloo, she learned to sew and make embroidery from her grandmother. The urge to make the ordinary beautiful was always a primary force and continues to drive her art today.

As an artist himself, Mr. Pitsiulak admires his aunt's style and technique – the way that "her birds have action and movement." In that sense, he is no different from the gallery hoppers who gather round as she sits on a chair in her simple black pants and quilted jacket or goes outside on a beautiful late fall day for a cigarette or three.

Ms. Ashevak speaks only Inuktitut, so most of the fans who approach reverently can only stand and smile at this living, breathing symbol of endurance and creativity. She is not a documentarian, but she is aware of life – its hardships and tragedies, having suffered many herself.

She is still grieving for her adopted son, acclaimed carver Arnaqu Ashevak, who died of cancer in 2009 at only 52. But sorrow and pain are not what she wants her art to be: Her gift is making beautiful images that penetrate a viewer's imagination.

Even though Kenojuak Ashevak doesn't want to create documentary work that she thinks looks "too much like photographs," she "is incredibly willing to try something new," says her dealer, Pat Feheley. She created the design for a stained glass window in the chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., in 2004, a first for an Inuit artist. In the past few years, she has been making sugar-lift paintings, a technique that involves pouring paint from a squeegee bottle directly onto the etching plate.

Her endurance and her dedication make her a touchstone for her nephew. He respects her work ethic and her ability to generate income from her art. That duality has been a gender-neutral factor in Cape Dorset art from the beginning. Artists, both male and female, who can make a living making art, are widely respected, and none more so than Ms. Ashevak, who supports several generations of her family.

Even now in her mid-80s, she sits day by day hunched over her drawing board, her nose almost pressed into the paper because of her failing eyesight, as she executes her precise and delicate drawings while children, television and the chaos of family and domestic life swirl around her. Nobody wants to speculate on life – artistic or otherwise – in Cape Dorset, when the inevitable happens and Ms. Ashevak dies. For now all anybody wants to do is relish her presence and her art.

Not all artists have her stamina. Winning the Sobey Prize made it possible for Annie Pootoogook to leave the insularity and the familiarity of Cape Dorset, for example. But that dislocation, along with the hubbub of international shows of her work at galleries in Germany, Australia and New York, carried its own cost. Overwhelmed by acclaim and the cash that came with it, Ms. Pootoogook, who is now living in Ottawa and struggling with alcoholism, has stopped making art. Nobody knows if she will pick up her drawing crayons again. That is the other side of art and life in Cape Dorset.

Sandra Martin is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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