Kenojuak Ashevak, C.C., O.N., artist (born 3 October 1927 in Ikerrasak camp, South Baffin Island, NWT; died 8 January 2013, Cape Dorset, NU). A Companion of the Order of Canada and winner of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Ashevak is perhaps the best-known Inuit artist because of her famous print The Enchanted Owl (1960), which was featured on a Canada Post stamp. She was also the first woman to become involved with the newly established printmaking shop at Cape Dorset.
The Birth of an Artist
Kenojuak Ashevak grew up on the land in the traditional, semi-nomadic hunting lifestyle, living in igloos and skin tents. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she was hospitalized at Parc Savard Hospital in Québec City from 1952 to 1955. There, she was introduced to Harold Pfeiffer, who taught patients arts and crafts as a way to pass the time and also make extra money — the hospital sold work on behalf of the patients. When she returned to Cape Dorset, Ashevak was encouraged to continue making art by James Houston, who taught the Inuit printmaking techniques and founded the West Baffin Co-operative.
Drawings and Prints
Ashevak’s work gained almost immediate attention. Her first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958), for instance, was included in the Cape Dorset Print Collection and Catalogue. Ashevak’s early drawings had simple, bold forms, often featuring birds and creatures metamorphosing into one another. Her iconic The Enchanted Owl (1960), which was used on a postage stamp in the 1970s to commemorate the centennial of the Northwest Territories, has a spotted blue-grey owl gazing out at the viewer, feathers fanning out above its head and curving up from its tail. An untitled etching from 1962 features elongated twin bird-like creatures at the centre of which are a star and human faces. Another etching from 1962 features a spotted creature in the foreground that looks like a seal, its tail rising up into the neck and head of a bird, its head the head of a woman with a forking tongue; behind two apparently dancing birds is a child in a snowsuit with his or her back to the viewer.
As Ashevak’s art evolved, it became more complicated and highly stylized, eschewing the directness and clarity of her earlier efforts. In the ink and colour pencil drawing Dog Caribou Spirit with Birds (1988/89) there is a female caribou with a human head and bird feet, a bird streaming out of its sides, and in the elaborate Dog Mother Shaman Transformation (1988/89) there is a dog barking and what appears to be a half man, half spiky dragon bursting out of it. The work of Ashevak’s last years returned to her early simplicity, but this time with vibrant colour. Fine Feathers (2013) is just the body of an owl with orange-tipped feathers fanning out behind, and “Above and Below” (2013) has an aquamarine bird flying above what looks like a blue and green sea creature swimming in the opposite direction.
Awards, Exhibits and Other Work
Although best known as a graphic artist, she also carved, designed blankets and (with her late husband Johnniebo Ashevak) created a mural for the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, Japan. In 2004, Ashevak designed a stained glass window for the chapel of Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario. The window has an owl gazing out at viewers, feathers fanning out beside it, and an Arctic char swimming beneath, all of it suffused in a deep blue. The window was dedicated to Rt. Rev. Andrew Atagotaaluk, Bishop of the Arctic.
The recipient of numerous awards, including the Order of Canada (Companion in 1982) and participant in many exhibitions, Ashevak travelled to southern Canada and Europe. She was featured in a National Film Board film in 1963 and in a limited-edition book published in 1981. She became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1974 and was given a 30-year retrospective of her work at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection Gallery (Kleinburg, Ontario) in 1986. In 2002, her work was featured in the exhibition Kenojuak Ashevak: To Make Something Beautiful at the National Gallery of Canada. She was awarded a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2008 and in 2012 was appointed to the Order of Nunavut.
See also Inuit Art; Inuit Printmaking.