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Canada Artist Itee Pootoogook illustrated the truths of Inuit life

In this file photo Itee Pootoogook works on a drawing of a woman wearing a traditional caribou hide amauti.

William Ritchie

Itee Pootoogook was a man of few words. He was hard of hearing but never bothered to replace the expired batteries in his hearing aids. And he was so quiet that, as one friend observes, "It was damned near impossible to get him to talk." Even when he did, he kept his words to a minimum: "I like yellow;" "See you at 1;" "Not really."

Yet for all this laconism, Mr. Pootoogook never lacked for expression, blessed as he was with an artistic talent louder and more eloquent, finally, than any soft-spoken words. It was a talent, honed by habits strictly observed, that in the past five years saw Mr. Pootoogook's name referenced in sentences that also included the names Christopher Pratt and Alex Colville, Milton Avery and David Thauberger.

Drawing with coloured pencils and graphite on pieces of paper big and small, this former carpenter and construction worker earned both a living and a measure of fame. Indeed, many felt even greater work and more recognition – public, critical, monetary – lay ahead. On March 18, however, that cocktail of anticipation and expectation was dashed when the cancers (neck, sinus, throat, lung) plaguing Mr. Pootoogook for the past three years claimed him at 63 in an Iqaluit hospital.

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Though he was born in Lake Harbour, NWT (now Kimmirut, Nunavut), on Feb. 7, 1951, Mr. Pootoogook was a Cape Dorset man. His father, Paulassie, a carver, moved the family to that community on the southern tip of Baffin Island when Itee was six or seven.

In 1959, shortly after the family's arrival, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative founded the famed Kinngait Studios, a print-making centre that has nurtured hundreds of Inuit artists, including such legends as Kananginak Pootoogook, Itee Pootoogook's uncle, and his cousin Annie Pootoogook.

When Mr. Pootoogook was alive, you could pretty much set your watch by his schedule. At 8:50 a.m., he'd leave the small house where he lived alone to make the 10-minute downhill trudge to the drawing and lithography studios.

Removing his coat, Mr. Pootoogook would take a seat at his work table and begin to arrange his tools – pencil crayons from the Derwent factory in England, sheets of textured paper, graphite pencils, photographs. Then he would get to work, drawing with great intensity and focus, always stopping to take his coffee breaks and lunch at precisely the same times, until day's end at 5.

If his drawing was still in progress, the studio manager would give him a chit for $100. Once it was finished or near completion (a drawing could take five days, sometimes more depending on its difficulty and size – a 2012 drawing, Working on his Canoe, is an impressive 130 centimetres by 86 centimetres), Mr. Pootoogook would negotiate for his final payment (usually $2,000 to $3,000, minus the total advance chits).

Whatever the amount, Mr. Pootoogook would almost invariably do two things before walking home: send a money order to his estranged wife living in Ottawa (with whom he had two sons and a daughter) and buy a bag of groceries.

Other artists might have buckled under this regime, which he adhered to five days a week, month after month, but Mr. Pootoogook seemed to thrive on the self-imposed discipline.

His renderings – of architecture, panoramic landscapes, Arctic activities, the human figure – became progressively more refined, the compositions more ambitious, with dramatic croppings, interior framing devices and unusual perspectives, often "radiating," in the words of curator Ingo Hessel, "timeless calm and contentment."

Notes William Ritchie, manager of Kinngait Studios since 2009, currently a primary drawing buyer and long-time champion of Mr. Pootoogook: "In the last five years in particular, he really ratcheted up his game."

Mr. Ritchie first met Mr. Pootoogook in 1988 when he arrived at Cape Dorset from Newfoundland to serve as an art adviser at the co-op. True to the artistic background of his family, Mr. Pootoogook had tried his hand at carving in the 1970s and in 1973 even provided a stop-frame sequence of his colour snapshots as part of Animation from Cape Dorset, a National Film Board project.

By the end of the decade, however, Mr. Pootoogook had largely forsaken art to concentrate on carpentry. Then, in 1985, facing what he called "no work, no job, no nothing," he returned to making art, this time drawings.

It wasn't a particularly happy time. Then, just as in the successful years just before his death, Mr. Pootoogook was keen to depict Inuit life as it was, a world as much about power tools, rifles and Ski-Doos as walrus meat, harpoons and igloos.

Moreover, he was keen to use photographs – his own initially, then later others' (most notably those taken by fellow artist Tim Pitsiulak) – as source material. Photo-based art is, of course, a staple of Western modernity: Edgar Degas, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Mary Pratt, Robert Longo and Chuck Close – they've all done it.

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But it was frowned upon at the then-authenticity-conscious Kinngait Studios, as was Mr. Pootoogook's passion for rendering the here and now. Best to follow the footsteps of the legendary Kenojuak Ashevak, he was told, and her myth-inflected presentations of birds, fish, whales and foxes. That was what collectors in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and New York wanted.

"Itee didn't care about any of that," Mr. Ritchie says. "He just did his own thing." Occasionally a drawing would strike a buyer's fancy "so he'd get $15, or $20 and live on that" but mostly "he had a rough time." Wanting to sharpen his skills, he enrolled in the drawing and print-making program at Nunavut Arctic College in 2000 to 2001.

Mr. Pootoogook wasn't alone in his determination to buck orthodoxy: Another Cape Dorseter, Peter Pitseolak (born 1902), had traced from his own photographs; Pudlo Pudlat (born 1916) put cars, buses, steamers, helicopters and planes in several drawings; Mr. Pootoogook's aunt Napachie Pootoogook (born 1938) did a series of drawings of Inuit life "in the raw" in the mid-1990s.

But it took the example of his cousin Annie, with her groundbreaking 2006 solo show of drawings at Canada's leading contemporary art gallery, The Power Plant, in Toronto, and a first-place, $50,000 finish that year at the Sobey Art Awards, to truly let loose the winds of contemporaneity.

For veteran Toronto-based Inuit art dealer Pat Feheley, "the message" Annie Pootoogook's portrayals of "abuse issues, drug issues, alcohol issues" sent to southern Canadian art lovers wary (and weary) of walrus soapstone carvings "was, 'Wow, there really is contemporary art in the North.'

Even more important was the message that went back to the drawing studio in Cape Dorset: namely, 'You can draw what you want and it will still sell and the co-op will bless you for it, as it were, and not try to stop it.'"

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Even at that, it took a while for Mr. Pootoogook to make his mark. His first appearance in the famous Cape Dorset print collection only happened in spring, 2008, with the release of a lithograph, Pratt-like in its meticulousness and the frontality of its presentation, of a pair of kamiks (Inuit boots), titled Looking South. Ms. Feheley first exhibited his work along with other Inuit artists at the 2007 Toronto International Art Fair, followed by other group showcases that steadily built his appeal.

A solo exhibition at Feheley Fine Arts in November, 2010, prompted what she called "a serious feeding frenzy." Of 50 drawings hung, 49 were sold by the end of opening day. "People were literally begging to get in to see his work." Another smaller solo show in Vancouver the next year, organized by Robert Kardosh, director/curator of the Marion Scott Gallery, proved similarly successful, prompting follow-up solo excursions in 2012 and 2013.

From there, Mr. Pootoogook seemed to move from strength to strength, triumph to triumph: three works in the acclaimed Inuit Modern exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2011; a dual show with Newfoundland's Tim Zuck at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie in 2012; a solo exhibition, the first for an Inuit artist, at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery in 2013; inclusion that same year in Sakahàn, the National Gallery of Canada's acclaimed exhibition of international indigenous art; entry into the permanent collections of the AGO, the NGC, Bank of Montreal and Toronto Dominion Bank.

And all the while the art "just got better and better and better," Mr. Kardosh says. Back in Cape Dorset, Mr. Ritchie would throw new challenges at Mr. Pootoogook: Let's go large format! How about working on a long, skinny piece of paper? Want to use blue paper? Black? Green?

"In the old days, a lot of people in Dorset thought of art as welfare: Do a drawing; get paid," Mr. Ritchie observes. Luckily, Mr. Pootoogook came of age when Ms. Ashevak and Kananginak Pootoogook were deemed to be artists, "really big people in the local community" with clout in southern art circles. As a result, "he took it seriously. He really liked to push himself, to force himself, to try to get really involved in the images. Look at his work, it shows."

Curator Candice Hopkins, one of the organizers of last year's Sakahàn exhibition, says what "immediately struck" her about her initial encounter with Mr. Pootoogook's drawings "was their stillness, as though paradoxically, through the studied and meticulous process of pencil-drawing, he had managed to capture an instant. What Itee introduces to the rich history of Inuit art is something of the truth of photography, of the documentary image, and what it reveals of Northern life now."

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"What really gets me," a sombre Mr. Ritchie says, "is how just in the last few years of Itee's life, after being ignored, he knew he was on to something. These lifelong skills were finally paying off and now they were being taken away from him."

Much of what those skills produced, though, seems likely to endure. This summer the AGO is hosting an Alex Colville retrospective and, to illustrate Mr. Colville's continuing resonance, the show's curator, Andrew Hunter, intends to pair selected Colville works with those of other artists. An as-yet unselected Itee Pootoogook drawing will be part of the exercise.

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