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

Artist Itee Pootoogook illustrated the truths of Inuit life Add to ...

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.

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.’”

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.

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