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Kenojuak Ashevak: A personal appreciation

Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak is shown in an undated handout photo. The artist whose work became a worldwide icon of the Canadian Arctic has died.

Martin Lipman/Canada Council for the Arts

You don't need to love ballet to appreciate Mikhail Baryshnikov, know opera to feel Luciano Pavarotti or worship piano to understand the fuss about Glenn Gould.

And you wouldn't need any expertise in Inuit art to find yourself as spellbound as I was one fall morning by the old lady in the Cape Dorset print shop.

She was stooped over a drawing, her nose six inches away from a piece of paper bearing a vibrant combination of primary colours. She had a magnifying glass and a box of coloured pencils. There was a hypnotizing presence to her.

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"Who's that?" I whispered to Bill Ritchie, the genial print-shop manager.

"Kenojuak."

"Would I know her work?" I asked, an embarrassing question as it turned out.

"The Enchanted Owl?" Mr. Ritchie responded.

Even I knew The Enchanted Owl, the 1960 piece that remains the defining image of Inuit print-making. An original has hung above my grandmother's fireplace for decades, slow-roasting to an unfortunate yellowish hue. Since that breakout piece, Kenojuak Ashevak's work has been featured on stamps and train cars. She sits along the same stretch as Mary Pickford and Alexander Graham Bell on Canada's Walk of Fame.

One of her colleagues had to yell to get her attention, her hearing had become so poor. This was in late 2010. She'd taken a long hiatus due to health issues. Many were unsure if she'd ever return to the art that had made her an international star as well as one of Cape Dorset's primary breadwinners. A few weeks before I arrived in Cape Dorset with photojournalist Peter Power, she had come back to the studio with a new sense of urgency.

"We have to watch out," Mr. Ritchie said. "She's so eager to work that she'll walk over snow and ice to get here, not a great idea in her condition." Everyone in town was instructed to give her a lift if ever they saw her limping to the print shop.

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I spoke to her briefly through a translator, but she had little patience for questions from outsiders. She wanted to work. So we stared. As soon as she completed one drawing – later named Six-Part Harmony – she hung it up with clothes pins, pulled out another sheet of paper and began drawing again. It was simple and quiet and utterly captivating.

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