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Inuit fabric artist Normee Ekoomiak brought the North to the city Add to ...

Normee Ekoomiak endured a great deal of pain during his life, both emotional and physical, but no matter how bad things got, he always went back to his art. Even when eight of his fingers and both legs had to be amputated in 2007, he tried for months to keep stitching his celebrated wall hangings before he finally admitted defeat.

Renowned across North America for his paintings, drawings and embroidered tapestries, Mr. Ekoomiak was an Inuk who illustrated Inuit life, myths and culture. Praised in 2000 by a critic as "remarkable for their exquisite use of form and colour," much of his art was autobiographical, displaying the traditional way of life that he experienced first-hand growing up in northern Quebec during the 1950s.

Although Mr. Ekoomiak built an enviable artistic reputation with his colourful wall hangings made of woollen embroidery and felt appliqué, his serious addiction to drugs and alcohol during most of his life led to periodic bouts of poverty and homelessness.

Living from hand to mouth on the streets of Ottawa in the early 1990s, he sold his art to anyone who walked by for whatever he could get. Things were different at the beginning of his career, though.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Ekoomiak produced hundreds, maybe several thousand, embroidered tapestries, paintings and drawings, selling them through established art galleries in Toronto and Montreal.

Montreal gallery owner Mark London sold about 20 of his works during the early 1990s. "He used to come in every few weeks with a wall hanging or embroidered vest to sell. They were illustrative, narrative and charming. He was very soft spoken, easy going and sweet. I thought that he was a talented artist."

In 1986, the U.S. government recognized Mr. Ekoomiak's talent when he was appointed the official Native American Artist for the New York Statue of Liberty Foundation. He also made a special wall hanging for the Museum of the American Indian.

Besides representing Canada at the International Children's Art Festival in New York City, Mr. Ekoomiak was hired by the Ontario Arts Council to lecture grade school students on Inuit life and art. He quite enjoyed talking to students from Grades 4-7. "They write me letters and say, 'I think you are a perfect artist' and 'You are a very good children entertainer' and they say, 'Your friend always,'" wrote Mr. Ekoomiak in his 1988 book Arctic Memories .

The text, in both English and Inuktitut, described everyday activities, various myths or the author's personal convictions. The 11 acrylic paintings and six wall hangings illustrate scenes of ice fishing, children playing, Ookpic the snowy owl, mermaids and narwhals.

"The art is faithful to its folk origins, but glows with the sophistication of talent. The result is a work of integrity, an authentic representation of a culture which now mostly exists, as Ekoomiak says, in memory," wrote Christine Behrmann of the New York Public Library.

An intensely private man who shunned the spotlight, Mr. Ekoomiak did reveal something of himself in Arctic Memories . He admitted he drank "a lot" of beer. "People say I am an alcoholic. But the alcohol is good for me. When I look at a person on the street, I am always smiling. Those people look at me and they think I am sick. But sick is sadness and happy is always freedom."

During the 1980s, he also got "beaten up all of the time. Something is wrong with those other people but not with me. My scars are my souvenirs. I cannot hear all of the people who laugh and who say bad things. But here in the city, I can hear the owl and I can see the bear, and the Sedna [a deity in Inuit mythology]still sings to me," Mr. Ekoomiak wrote.

Sadly, his youth spent among his family, the spirits and the animals the Inuit revere was gone forever, he wrote wistfully. "My North is not there any more. It is only in my memory. I live and work in the South. I am an Inuk of the city."

Normee Ekoomiak grew up at Fort George, on the Quebec side of James Bay. He lived in his grandfather's wooden tent covered in canvas and seal skins. "[He]taught me about Inuit ways and about how to do my art. My father and mother and six brothers and seven sisters lived with us. I went to school at the mission there," he wrote.

A very religious man, Mr. Ekoomiak's beliefs were reflected in his art. Although he acknowledged his Christian upbringing, the spirits that make up Inuit culture were vital to him.

One day, when he was six months old, he couldn't stop crying so his mother took him to the church where a "very great and holy man," Bishop Marsh, baptized him. "The Spirit went into me and I stopped crying and I looked at the man and I smiled. Before I was a year old, I found I had special powers. I was able to go through walls and walk in the air and go to different places. I knew all of the spirits of the land animals and the birds and the fish and the sea animals. I knew their names and could understand them and I could speak to them."

Mr. Ekoomiak started sewing boots and clothing at an early age. As he got older, he started embroidering them, but some people didn't think embroidery was a manly thing to do. That made him lonely, he wrote. "I knew they were laughing and pointing at me because of the sewing. So I went to Ottawa to stay with my sister."

After moving to Toronto in 1972, he attended art school at George Brown College. The following year, he worked at the Ontario Science Centre on the Inuit Cultural Exposition. After that, the CBC commissioned him to design the costumes for a Farley Mowat play called The Executioner .

In 1976, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs sent him to study at Toronto's New School of Art. Things were going well and the future looked promising.

Mr. Ekoomiak earned money selling his art to galleries, but he often claimed the owners never treated him fairly. Whatever they did pay never lasted long because he was hopeless managing money. He liked to share it with his friends. By the end of the 1980s, his drinking had gotten much worse and he started living in shelters and on the street.

In 2000, he moved to Ottawa. The following year, Jeff Turnbull of the Ottawa Inner City Health program found him living under a bridge. It took time, but Dr. Turnbull convinced him to become the first patient of the new Ottawa Hospice Mission. He had pneumonia and they gave him just five weeks to live, but he stopped drinking and got better.

"What happened is that he got the medication and care he needed. He was [now]in a place where he was happy [and]people appreciated him as a person and an artist," said Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health.

By the end of 2001, Mr. Ekoomiak was back at work. "He was very prolific. It was nothing for him to produce a couple of tapestries in a week. He could work for hours and hours. I was always amazed how he could sit and cut something freehand and sew it and it turned out exactly as he had imagined it," Ms. Muckle said.

One of his tapestries, which depicts a family hunting, is in the collection of Ottawa's Canadian Museum of Civilization. He was also awarded an honorary diploma by the Ottawa School of Art.

Although he could have left the mission after he got better, Mr. Ekoomiak elected to remain with his "family." Giving up his art after the amputations was hard for him, but he did his best to remain cheerful, said Ms. Muckle. "He lived with grace. Despite the challenges of his life, he was a happy person, he was adorable."

NORMEE EKOOMIAK

Normee Ekoomiak was born Apr. 19, 1948, in Cape Jones, Que. He died of complications relating to his health problems in Ottawa on Oct. 12. He was 61. He leaves his brothers and sisters.

Special to the Globe and Mail

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