In a beautiful Heritage Minute about the famed Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak, she describes art as “transferring the real to the unreal.”
Kenojouak was born in an igloo in an Inuit camp on Baffin Island in 1927. Her father was a shaman who could predict weather, transform into a walrus, and make fish swim to the surface of the water. His assassination by Christian converts when Kenojuak was six years old was the reason she went to live with her maternal grandmother who taught her traditional Inuit sewing skills.
When Kenojuak was nineteen a marriage was arranged for her with a local hunter named Johnniebo Ashevak. In 1952 Kenojuak contracted tuberculosis and went to the Parc Savard Hospital in Quebec for several years where she learned to do beading and make dolls. In 1966 she and her husband decided to move to Cape Dorset so their children could go to school there.
In Cape Dorset Kenojuak was part of a group of artists who participated in the first printmaking workshops started by Canadian artist James Houston. He came to Baffin Island after World War II and realized there were many talented artists in the Inuit community and a market for Inuit art in the south.
Kenojuak went on to become one of Canada’s foremost Inuit printmakers. Her work is featured on Canadian coins and stamps and has been included in art shows around the world. She has earned honorary university degrees and was a Companion of the Order of Canada and won the Governor General’s Award. In an interview she gave after winning that award she provided insight into her artistic process describing how she just puts her pencil down on the paper and begins to draw and her work emerges from what she is thinking and feeling.
Kenojuak designed a beautiful stained glass window for the John Bell Chapel in Oakville Ontario. She traveled the world as an ambassador for Inuit art visiting Germany, the United States, Holland, Korea, and Japan. Many of her prints were made on Japanese paper. Mother of sixteen biological and adopted children, Kenojuak supported several generations of her family with her artwork till her death in 2013.
You can see a marvelous film about Kenojuak and her family when she was only 35 years old on the National Film Board website.
Note: Photos of artwork in this post were taken at the Winnipeg Art Gallery during their exhibit Our Land in 2016 and 2017