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kenojuak ashevak artist, 85

Ashevak is the last of the founders of the printmaking Cape Dorset studio established by James Houston, then a government-appointed administrator, in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s.Images from Cape Dorset, Nunavut on November 8, 2022.

Only three years after Kenojuak Ashevak drew her famous sketch The Enchanted Owl in 1960, she was enough of a celebrity to be the focus of a National Film Board documentary.

Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, written, edited and directed by John Feeney, begins in shadows with the sounds of snow crunching, dogs panting, and a whip cracking through the frigid air. Ashevak, her husband Johnniebo and their children are travelling by dog sled from their winter camp to the settlement at Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. As the family waits out a storm in an igloo, we see Ashevak feeding her children and entertaining them with animal shapes that her nimble fingers project on the ice walls. Later, she makes a drawing in the flickering light of an oil lamp, drawing with an uncanny concentration, confidence and fluidity, almost as though she has projected her imagination like a shadow onto the paper and is merely tracing the image with her pencil. There is no hesitation, no second-guessing, no erasing.

By film's end, that sketch, The Return of the Sun, had been cut into stone and made into an edition of 50 prints at the Kinngait Studio at the Inuit-owned-and-operated West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. (Canada Post used the image on a 17-cent stamp in 1980.) Ashevak's payment for the drawing and her earnings from the documentary provided the money for her husband to buy his own canoe – a big step in the family's financial independence and a measure of her emerging importance in the traditionally male role of provider.

In the half-century since Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak was made, the world of the Inuit became dramatically different, from the creation of Nunavut to the proliferation of the Internet and the soaring commercial value of Inuit art – a print of The Enchanted Owl sold for more than $50,000 at auction in 2007.

Art changed everything for Ashevak. Among many other honours, she was among the original inductees into the Order of Canada in 1967 (and promoted to Companion in 1982), The Enchanted Owl was put on a postage stamp in 1970, and she was awarded a Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2008. "She was the star of the Dorset artists, but she was also a national icon transcending Inuit art," said her long-time dealer and friend, Pat Feheley of Feheley Fine Arts.

"What mattered to her most was to make the picture beautiful," Feheley said in an interview this week. "It was all a desire to create what was in her head, but to do it in a beautiful way." Although Ashevak's imagery was very personal to her beliefs, her childhood and her spirituality, she also was an "extraordinary" role model for younger artists, said Feheley, because of her dedication to her art and her work ethic.

Ashevak's death at 85 on Tuesday of complications from lung cancer signals the end of a generation of Inuit artists who grew up on the land. Born into nomadic camps, they made the transition from igloos and sod huts to manufactured houses in permanent communities. From drawing, carving and embroidering images to commune with the natural and spiritual world around them, they learned how to make art – a concept unknown to the ancient Inuit – to reflect their memories, their changing world, and the effects of southern materials, processes and influences.

She is the last of the founding artists in the printmaking studio established by James Houston, then a government-appointed administrator, in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s. Houston gave her paper, but she made it her own, in drawings that combine the shadows and memories of the past with the luminosity of her imagination. At the core of the annual Cape Dorset release from the beginnings of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in 1959, she had eight prints in last year's collection, including Bird Fanfare, which had a suggested retail price of $1,200. She never stopped working, never stopped experimenting with new materials and forms, from copper etching in the 1960s to sugar-lift paintings, a process in which paint is squished directly onto an etching plate, in the past decade. She also created an owl design for a stained glass window in a chapel at Appleby College in Ontario in 2004.

And yet, what comes across in the NFB documentary is how fully formed she was 50 years ago as an artist and a human being. She never went to school, she never studied art, she never learned English. The charisma that snags a viewer's eye continued to radiate on a rare visit to Toronto in November, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of new work by her nephew Tim Pitsiulak. She drew a bevy of reverent collectors, seeking a touch of her hand or merely a flicker of recognition. Adulation didn't faze her. She smiled beatifically, but she retained her inner distance even while calmly smoking a cigarette surrounded by shivering admirers outside the gallery.

Her bold graphic sense and her love of the decorative and spiritual were there from the beginning. The telegenic young woman grew frail and grey over the decades as she absorbed the deaths of her beloved husband and several children. But she retained an open-eyed yet knowing wonder at the world around her, an abiding optimism, and a determination to use her art to provide for her family no matter how extended or how many generations it encompassed. As Ashevak told critic Peter Mellen in 1978 for his monumental Landmarks of Canadian Art, "I like to make people happy and everything happy. I am the light of happiness and I am a dancing owl."

Few would say that Kenojuak Ashevak, who was born on Oct. 3, 1927, in an igloo in Ikirasaq, an Inuit camp near the southern coast of Baffin Island, had an easy life. When she was a child, her father, Ushuakjuk, a trapper and the son of a shaman, was murdered by other members of the camp, his body weighted with stones and thrown into the sea. It is not clear whether the murder was prompted by rivalry or a religious dispute between supporters of Animism and Christianity, but Ashevak never forgot her father's agitation the night before his death and the hardship her mother, Silaqqi, endured as an outcast in the camp. Eventually, Ashevak began living with her grandmother, who taught her traditional crafts such as sewing sealskin clothes with caribou sinew for family use and to trade for goods with the Hudson's Bay Company.

When she was 19, Ashevak's mother and stepfather arranged a union for her with hunter Johnniebo Ashevak. At first reluctant, she grew to love and honour him for his gentleness, good humour and kindness. In 1948, two years after their pairing, an Anglican missionary officially married them. That was also the year that the federal government began issuing family allowance benefits to Inuit and keeping track of them by number, instead of name. Ashevak's number was E7-1035.

By the early 1950s, Cape Dorset had a teacher, a nurse and regular visits by medical personnel. Ashevak was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951, and sent south to recuperate in a hospital in Quebec City, leaving behind her husband and children. Her children died during her long, lonely absence, and in her sorrow, she began doing beadwork and making dolls, encouraged by a local artist and the occasional visits of Houston and his wife, Alma.

When Ashevak returned to Cape Dorset in 1955, she became a part of Alma Houston's crafts studio and began making sealskin appliqués on handbags. One of these designs, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, attracted the artistic eye of James Houston. He encouraged Ashevak to carve, and gave her paper on which to draw with graphite and coloured pencils.

Her Rabbit Eating Seaweed design was the only work by a woman included in the 1959 print release. The Houstons left Cape Dorset in the early 1960s – the southerner working in the print studio in the NFB film is not Houston (known as Saumik, the left-handed one), but Terry Ryan, the first southerner the Inuit hired to run their print studio. He and Ashevak worked together for 50 years and were "good" buddies. "She was always herself," he said in a telephone interview. "She didn't put on airs."

Ryan thinks her art resonated with southerners because it "was bold, dramatic, colourful and appealed to a wide spectrum of people whether they were collectors or just passersby." It was also safe, certainly when compared with the stark realism depicting drug abuse, social problems and the clash of values that inspired younger artists such as Annie Pootoogook, winner of the 2006 Sobey Prize.

As well as being prolific and industrious, Ashevak found a perfect medium for her graphic style in printmaking. Art collector and dealer John Houston, son of James and Alma, has known Ashevak since he was a baby living in Cape Dorset. "She had her own wonderful sense of design," he said earlier this week, which became "an inextricable part of our self-image as Canadians." Connecting The Enchanted Owl – a "beautiful, bold, red-and-black image on a white field," from 1960 with Canada's flag from 1965 – an audacious red maple leaf on a white field – he argues that "it is pretty uncanny how they have a lot of the same bold energy."

Ashevak spent her last years making art and living in her own home in Cape Dorset. Thrice widowed, she had many children, both biological and adopted, including the artist Arnaqu Ashevak, who died in 2009, her son Adamie, her daughter, travelling companion and translator Silaqqie, and a multigenerational extended family.

Diagnosed last summer with inoperable lung cancer, she submitted to radiation in an Ottawa hospital briefly, but decided she would rather be at home with her family in Cape Dorset. That's where she died in her sleep, as she wanted.