Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak dies at 85

World-renowned Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak died this morning at home in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

Celebrated Inuit art pioneer from Nunavut remembered as humble

Inuk art pioneer dies

11 years ago
Duration 3:05
World renowned Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak died Tuesday morning at her home in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, at the age of 85

World-renowned Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak died this morning at home in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, at age 85.

Ashevak is considered a pioneer of Inuit art. Her drawings, prints and sculptures have been bought and displayed around the world.

'I think Kenojuak [Ashevak] is remarkable as an artist who has stayed true to that very clear idea of beauty that she had already when she was in her 20s.'—Christine Lalonde, art gallery curator

Her work has also been featured on several Canada Post stamps over the years, including her most famous print, Enchanted Owl.

Ashevak was born in 1927 in a camp on Baffin Island and lived the traditional nomadic life on the land before settling in Cape Dorset.

Okpik Pitseolak, an artist from Cape Dorset who knew Ashevak personally, said she brought Inuit art to the world but was "very humble about her work." Pitseolak said that when she appeared on the radio to talk about her art, she didn't want to come across "as someone who brags" about it. But she was "thankful for the fact that she was given this gift."

Ashevak died after a long battle with cancer.

One of Canada's great artists

Director of Feheley Fine Arts Patricia Feheley, a Toronto dealer who handled Ashevak’s work, said she should be remembered as one of Canada’s great artists.

Ashevak was "someone who came out of the blue with radically new style," Feheley said.

Kenojuak Ashevak's The Enchanted Owl, created in 1960, was featured on a Canadian stamp and has permeated Canadian culture. (Dorset Fine Arts )

"Although what she does today looks almost old fashioned to us in that everyone has seen Enchanted Owl so many times, in fact that was a very unique style and she kept that unique style all her life."

Ashevak first became famous in her 20s, when the NFB film Kenojuak, made in 1962, showed her at work.

She was creating drawings, prints and even sculptures in the 1960s. As her reputation grew, so did the reputation of Cape Dorset, the Inuit studio on Baffin Island that evolved into one of Canada’s most important artistic communities.

"When she was first given paper and pencil and asked to draw, the concept of being an artist did not really exist in the culture and she immediately became the embodiment of an artist in terms of being passionate and dedicated to creative process," Feheley said.

"She has been a role model … to a generation of young artists."

National Gallery owns 50 works

The National Gallery of Canada owns 50 works by Ashevak, including two prints and the original drawing for Enchanted Owl.

"The strength of her line, the beautiful flowing line that she draws the curves of the owl’s plumage is already set even though she’d only been drawing a few years," said Christine Lalonde, associate curator of indigenous art at the gallery.

Her distinctive style may have evolved out of old Inuit crafts, such as decorating sealskin clothing, Lalonde said.

"Already there was a vision of what is beautiful there. I think Kenojuak is remarkable as an artist who has stayed true to that very clear idea of beauty that she had already when she was in her 20s," she said.

"She grew more sophisticated in terms of using pattern and texture. Her drawings have always had a balance and harmony that I think, especially in her later years, she had the ability to push the boundaries of that balance, distort images of an animal beyond what is reasonable and still have it maintain its harmony and never go outside that vision of beauty that she had."

New techniques at Cape Dorset

Lalonde said Ashevak's participation in the world’s fair in Osaka in 1970 brought her to international attention and her work is well-known in Europe and Asia.

She adopted new techniques as the artists of Cape Dorset, always a very innovative community, adopted new ways of making prints. From pencil and paper drawing she moved on to felt-tipped pen, then to copper plate and etchings, doing the etchings herself directly on the plate.

In her later years she worked collaboratively with other artists, combining aquatint with etching and eventually creating lithographs in which colour is overlaid using computers, as with her 2001 panorama Gulls and Ravens.

Her legacy in Cape Dorset is "almost immeasurable," Lalonde said. "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."

Artists such as Tim Pitsiuluk and Métis sculptor Billy Gauthier have spoken of her as a role model.

Ashevak was named to the Order of Canada in 1967 and later promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982. She received the Governor General's Award for Visual Arts in 2008.

She seemed to get such pleasure from her life's work, Feheley said. 

"She was such a very warm traditional person," Feheley said. "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."

Last year, Ashevak was appointed to the recently created Order of Nunavut.