From $50 a print to once fetching $58,000 at auction for her most recognizable print, The Enchanted Owl, Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak has certainly made her mark on the Canadian art scene and she’ll be missed by many.
She walked on Tuesday, January 8 after a long battler with lung cancer at her home in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. She was 85.
“For Canadians in particular she’ll be remembered as one of our great artists because her work and she herself are Canadian icons,” Pat Feheley, director of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto, told CBC News. Feheley handled Ashevek’s art in the past and also told CBC News that she was “someone who came out of the blue with [a] radically new style.”
“When she made a bird, it was not just an ordinary bird like we would draw a bird, her birds had happiness sprouting out of them,” Ann Hanson, former commissioner of Nunavut, told CBC News.
She was born in 1927 in South Baffin Island and met James A. Houston, an artist, author and government administrator who was encouraging economic development by the sale of Inuit art, in the 1950s. She was the first woman to join the printmaking shop he started in Cape Dorset.
“She was so important to the print studio, the development of it—she influenced artists in the community to continue their artwork and become artists,” Christine Lalonde, associate curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada, told CBC News.
The gallery owns 50 pieces of Ashevak’s art, including the original 1960 drawing of The Enchanted Owl, which was reproduced on a six-cent postage stamp in 1970.
"It's a very simple drawing—pencil on pulp paper. But you can see even then how confident and sure her line was as she's making the curves of the fanning feathers," Lalonde told The Canadian Press.
She spoke of her artwork and her process in the Inuktitut language in an Aboriginal Peoples Television Network video that was posted on YouTube in 2009.
“When I started drawing my artwork I was given a pencil and just started to draw. I just kind of move the pencil around the paper and started drawing,” she says in the video. “For drawing animals or something like that, it’s not really coming from the animal but from how I feel. I would draw things like animals or something and it may not be what they really look like.”
She wasn’t only an artist though.
“A lot of people of course around the world will remember her and mourn her as a great artist and that is certainly true, but she was also a wonderful family person and she loved going out on the land,” John Houston, James’s son—who knew her since he was a child—told CBC News.
He is an art dealer and collector and told The Globe and Mail she was like his aunt. He explained to The Globe how upon hearing of her death he had an image in his head of a balloon full of air, as it slowly deflated he realized that “Canada just shrank.”
"She was such a very warm traditional person," Feheley told CBC News. "She had sparkle in her eyes and there was spark of life in her that was remarkable. I've not run into it in others."
She garnered numerous awards throughout her life including being named to the Order of Canada in 1967 and promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982. She also received the Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts in 2008. In 2012, she was appointed to the Order of Nunavut.
“This has been an honor for me to be recognized for my work and I am very happy about it,” she says in the APTN video. “It would make me very happy to see others be recognized as well for their work, not only me. I just seem to be one of the first Inuk.”
Ashevak may have walked on, but her art lives. And she is one of many artists who will be featured in Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery that opens January 25 and runs through April 14. The show
Her nephew, Tim Pitsiulak, is also part of the show. “She is my inspiration,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2011.