Kenojuak Ashevak (1927—2013) . . . In Memoriam

Most Canadians were aware of the death of one of our greatest artists in the dark, early days of the new year. Some of our writers did a good job of explaining her importance, notably Sandra Martin in her obituary in the Globe and Mail. It made the appalling point that after Kenojuak was shipped south from Baffin Island to a TB sanatorium, she returned to find that her young daughters had died in her absence. And Patrick White added a fond, rueful account of his brush with greatness.

Sarah Milroy, also in the Globe, paid a fine tribute, summarizing Kenojuak’s career in this way: “She was one of the first of the Inuit artists, born and reared on the land, to enter into the experiment of art making at Cape Dorset, and one of the most talented. Her famous work The Enchanted Owl was replicated on postage stamps in 1970. In 1982, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.” Later, Milroy writes of an encounter with the old lady, now in a wheelchair, at the AGO: “her countenance that day was radiant with astonishment and a kind of elfin glee. While she never expected such success, she enjoyed every bit of it.”

“Elfin glee” is very good. That certainly catches the beaming old lady I got to know a little on Baffin Island. This was because my friend James Houston was the man who discovered Kenojuak’s talent, and encouraged her to turn it from sealskin bag decoration to making prints. It was James Houston (and a chapter in my book is devoted to this remarkable man “Artist, Author, Hunter, and Igloo Dweller”) who not only set up the trade in Inuit sculpture but went to Japan to learn the trade of print-making at the feet of an old master, so that he could go back to the Arctic to introduce print-making at the Cape Dorset artists’ co-op.

And Kenojuak was his star pupil. Our Hokusai, you might say, if you were to follow the Japanese theme.

In that chapter I talk about how fortunate I was to be invited by Adventure Canada to join  a cruise that was intended to follow the travels of James Houston. The cruise (along the south shore of Baffin Island), took me for the first time to the North that I had published such exciting books about, but never seen. On board ship, alongside James’s widow, Alice, and his sons John and Sam, Jane and I met “celebrities like Kenojuak Ashevak, the most famous Inuit artist of all, a beaming, tiny elder whom I got to know despite a language barrier.”

I was able to make myself useful, providing an arm when we had to walk over rough ground, on occasions such as the time that we assembled at the base of some striking red cliffs just outside Cape Dorset to scatter Jim’s ashes.

Earlier, I had been present in the historic Cape Dorset artist’s studio, when Kenojuak (then aged almost 80) entered, throwing off her parka, and heading straight for a drawing board. Sitting before it she seized a pen and with bold strokes began to draw wide sweeping lines with her left hand. I was amazed by swift, unhesitating way she drew what would soon be a new print, right before our very eyes.

Later, as my book records,

when I saw John’s film about his father, I was fascinated to see Jim talk about the fast, confident way Kenojuak’s left hand moves as she draws. Jim asked her about that, and she told him that she just follows “a little blue line” ahead of her pen.

“A little blue line!” Jim snorts. “I wish I had a little blue line would do that for me!”

At the end of the cruise, on our last morning I suggested through friendly gestures to my new friend that we should swap our Adventure Canada name tags. Kenojuak laughed happily at the idea, and the swap was made. I suspect she did not keep mine as carefully as I have kept  the “Kenojuak Ashevak” name tag that sits on our mantelpiece, not far from one of her magnificent prints. It’s like having a calling card from Claude Monet.

When the news of her death came to us, that name tag received much thoughtful, affectionate handling, often as I stood in front of my recent December birthday present from Jane. It is “Filigreed Raven” a stonecut from Cape Dorset in 2012, one of the very last prints created by Kenojuak.

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