Living memories — the art and hand of Inuit printmaker Elisapee Ishulutaq

At 89, Elisapee Ishulutaq is the last of the path-breaking Inuit artists from Pangnirtung still alive. And, as David Gutnick discovered, she hasn't stopped drawing a life full of change.

The last surviving Inuit artist from the path-breaking Pangnirtung co-operative

The last of the original Pangnirtung printmakers, Elisapee Ishulutaq, recently appointed to the Order of Canada, continues to draw her life-long memories on anything from foolscap to metal printing plates. (Bess Muhlstock)

From the time she was a little girl Elisapee Ishulutaq knew what do with a sealskin: scrape it clean, measure it up and then  with a bone or metal needle  sew it into kamiks, comfortable and warm waterproof boots.

In the 1930s, Elisapee and and her family lived off the land on Baffin Island.

In the late 1960s, when she was in her 40s, she moved to Pangnirtung, picked up coloured pencils and her life changed.

Listen to David Gutnick's Sunday Edition documentary on Elisapee Ishulutaq here

She spent hours hunched over sheets of paper, drawing what she saw around her — men hunting seals, women caring for babies, polar bears out on a jaunt.

Her images are both simple and striking, almost dreamlike.

Some are no bigger than a sheet of foolscap, others like Nunagah ("My Home Place"), which is at the National Gallery in Ottawa, cover entire walls.

A path-breaking generation

Ishulutaq was among the first Pangnirtung artists to make prints, and over the decades her art has helped define how the Inuit are seen around the world.

Now 89, she is the only one of that path-breaking generation of Pangnirtung artists still alive. This spring she was appointed to the Order of Canada.

Elisapee's grandson Andrew wheels her about and also interprets, as she only speaks Inuktitut. (Bess Muhlstock)

She also visited Montreal to work with master fine art printer Paul Machnik in his studio.

When I went there, Ishulutaq's wheelchair sat abandoned by the wall. She was on her knees on the cement floor, a paintbrush in one hand and a coffee cup in the other.

A delicate cross carved from a walrus tusk hung around her neck, and her eyes were closed as she sang a playful song she learned as a little girl.

Her grandson, Andrew Ishulutaq, interpreted, as his grandmother only speaks Inuktitut.

The song itself stemmed from those long, dark winters years ago when Ishulutaq's family lived in an igloo, the only light coming from the flames of seal oil burning in soapstone lamps called qulliqs.

Elisapee and the other children amused themselves by tossing a caribou skin ball back and forth for hours on end.

That happy memory is what the artist has been working on all morning: turning a song into a printed image that will last forever.

A 'deeper sense of communication'

As she dips her brush into a sugar solution and paints away on a metal plate, Paul Machnik stands at a table a few metres away, wiping ink over another plate.

Paul Machnik is making sure every one of Elisapee Ishulutaq's brush-strokes is well-inked before the plate and a sheet of damp paper is wrapped in felt and run through the press.

The two first met in Pangnirtung in the mid 1990s when Machnik went North to give some workshops.

They sat and drank cup after cup of sweet tea as Elisapee patiently schooled him about her life in the far North.

"She treated me like a son," says Machnik. "The older folk are looking at who you are, not where you are coming from or what you are wearing. It is a deeper sense of communication."

In her talks with Machnik, Ishulutaq spoke about beauty, and about the devastating consequences that followed when federal authorities moved nomadic Inuit off the land and into settlements, so they were easier to monitor and control.

That schooling continued this morning in Machnik's studio as light streamed in the windows.

Ishulutaq turns a song and a childhood memory into a painted image. (Bess Muhlstock)

"Elisapee spoke yesterday about how the dogs were shot, and they were told they had to live in the community and therefore were restricted to that environment," says Machnik.

"She spoke about her father having to struggle to fetch seal in the middle of the night, it got so bad the whole community was eating sealskin, they were that desperate."

Elisapee has been on the floor for more than an hour, and has almost finished outlining the walls of an igloo. The face of a very serious looking little girl is done.

A tossed caribou-skin ball hangs in the air.

The way her eyes move

Filmmaker Sylvia Safdie is also present this day, and trains her camera on Elisapee's face, hands and paintbrush.

"I see such deep emotions from one moment to the other," says Safdie. "Here is a woman who has lived through so much, and it is in her face. It is the way her eyes move, they light up and then they become sad."

Safdie is trying to capture images about something that Elisapee has that is fleeting, almost invisible.

"She is not functioning in theory," says Safdie. "She is functioning from within, and that is the essence of art. For me that is a gift, to be able to really observe her working."

Inuit artist Elisapee Ishulutaq shares a laugh with the CBC's David Gutnick. (Bess Muhlstock)

Elisapee looks up from her painting — of another memory. "My grandfather used to play the Inuit violin," she says. "Nobody plays it anymore. So many people would be up on their feet, dancing."

Good times. Good memories.

"She is leaving her gesture, her hand," adds Machnik, who says that it is not just the images themselves that are important, but that it is also a kind of statement: "I was here, my hand did this and I wanted to convey that I was alive and I lived like this. We had a good life."


David Gutnick is a documentary producer with CBC Radio One's Ideas. He is based in Montreal, and has covered stories all over the world.


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