We celebrate the enchanted art and life of this remarkable female artist
Kenojuak Ashevak was born in an igloo in an Inuit camp in 1927. She became one of Canada's most celebrated graphic artists, collecting multiple honors and achievements until she died in 2013.
The daughter of an Inuit hunter and fur trader, she grew up traveling from camp to camp in Arctic Quebec. When she was 19, she married Johnniebo Ashevak, a local Inuit hunter who developed artistic talents in his own right and sometimes collaborated with her on projects. In the late 1950s, both Kenojuak and Johnniebo experimented with carving and drawing.
Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak
In 1963, her life and work became the subject of a short documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada, which introduced her life and art to the world beyond her camp in Cape Dorset.
'Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak' tells the story of Kenojuak, then 35, and her family. It is a snapshot of an Inuit community set in a beautiful landscape in extreme natural conditions. In the film, she is shown drawing a design by candlelight. A stonecutter, whose regular role would be that of a hunter, carves her design into a relief block in a locally sourced stone; another community member applies colorful ink to the carved stone, under the watchful eye of pioneer Inuit art promoter James Archibald Houston. Together they create 50 prints to be sold.
In the film, Kenojuak marvels at seeing 'a piece of paper from the outside world, as thin as the shell of a snow bird's egg,' becoming the first print of her beautifully composed design.
With the money Kenojuak earned from the film, Johnniebo purchased his own canoe and became an independent hunter to help provide for the family.
The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative
Houston introduced printmaking to Cape Dorset artists in the 1950s. The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was created in 1959, and Houston began marketing Inuit arts and crafts and exhibiting collections of Inuit art.
Kenojuak's drawings were featured in the collections every year until her death; their captivating popularity earned her honors and recognitions over the decades.
Kenoujak Ashevak worked in graphite, colored pencils, and felt-tip pens. Occasionally she used poster paints, watercolors, or acrylics. She created many carvings from soapstone and thousands of drawings, etchings, stone-cut prints, and prints. The subjects of her work all come from nature, from brightly colored fish to her favorite birds, to radiant suns.
This is how Kenojuak described her creative process:
"I just take these things out of my thoughts and out of my imagination, and I don't really give any weight to the idea of its being an image of something... I am just concentrating on placing it down on paper in a pleasing way to my own eye, whether it has anything to do with subjective reality. And that is how I have always tried to make my images, and that is still how I do it, and I haven't really thought about it any other way than that. That is just my style and is the way I started and the way I am today."
The Enchanted Owl
This 1960 print is one of Kenojuak's most famous artworks. One of the birds that she enjoyed drawing the most, this image has vivid colors, simple rounded forms, and a strong composition. It is representative of her style and the Inuit mythology themes that recur in her art.
In 1970 the Enchanted Owl was reproduced on a stamp commemorating the centennial of the Northwest Territories.
Over the years, Kenojuak received many special honors. In 1967 she became a Companion in the Order of Canada. In 1992, she was granted two Honorary Degrees from Queen's University and the University of Toronto. In 1996 she received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards Ceremony in Vancouver.
In 2001, Kenojuak was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame, the first Inuit artist to achieve this honor. In 2008, she was granted the Governor General's Award for excellence in the visual arts.
Kenojuak Ashevak brought Inuit art to the world. She was very humble about her work but "thankful for the fact that she was given this gift," her friend recalls.
After a prolific and acclaimed career, in 2013, Kenojuak died peacefully at home, surrounded by her loving family and community.
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