North·Profile

Nunavut woman who 'hated art' her whole life discovers hidden talent

Saimaiyu Akesuk has come a long way since doodling in class seven years ago. Now, she's had two solo exhibitions, and both of them sold out.

Saimaiyu Akesuk, from Cape Dorset, has had 2 solo exhibitions since her first doodle in 2011

Saimaiyu Akesuk is an artist from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. She's had two solo exhibitions since starting to draw seven years ago, in her mid-twenties. (Dorset Fine Arts)

Saimaiyu Akesuk says she's "hated" art for most of her life.

At the age of 25, the closest thing to "art" she willingly did was doodle during class at Nunavut Arctic College's teachers education program.

Little did she know, the charcoal scratches on her notepad would later bloom into unimaginable opportunities — travelling overseas to showcase her creations and even restoring her flailing self-confidence.

"Growing up, for as long as I could remember ... I hated, hated art," said the now 32-year-old Akesuk, a Grade 3 teacher in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. 

"I even kind of failed art when I was taking my teaching program," she said. "That's how much I hated it." 

It was when a classmate, who was an artist, noticed Akesuk's doodles that her life took a turn.

"She kept bugging me. [She said,] 'You should start drawing. You're so good at it,'" recalled Akesuk, who said she repeatedly denied it. 

After being bothered by the persistent classmate, Akesuk said she mustered up the courage to go purchase her first piece of art paper from the local grocery store.

'I was like so nervous'

Akesuk remembers sitting down in front of her first-ever canvas.

"I was like so nervous," she said. 

"So many things were going through my mind. What am I going to do? What am I going to draw? Can I actually do this? I don't think I can do this."

But she started sketching, then drawing, then painting.

Akesuk's print Reflection is one of the Cape Dorset prints that was added to the Brooklyn Museum's collection. (Dorset Fine Arts)

Her first piece was a human face with wings; the next one was a landscape. The third, though, stumped her. 

"I literally sat there in front of my paper for a couple of hours," said Akesuk. "And then, my late grandfather's carvings came into my mind." 

Akesuk said her grandfather Latchaulassie Akesuk's abstract carvings became her inspiration from that moment on. 

"When I was growing up, I was like ugh, he does ugly carvings," said Akesuk, describing his stone birds. 

But when she brought the painting back to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op, the local art buyer recognized her grandfather's carving in her art. 

Akesuk's pieces are sold to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op which works in partnership with Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto to market the art around the world. (Dorset Fine Arts)

"[He] was like, 'Latchaulassie's bird!'" she said, adding that's when she began to focus her art on animals.

"Every time I try and draw something, I try and leave some part of it as my grandfather's carving, like the legs for example."

From Nunavut to the U.S. 

Akesuk had her first-ever solo exhibit at Froelick Gallery in Portland, Ore., in February last year. 

Her second solo exhibit wraps up at the same gallery this weekend.

"Both shows sold out. Can you imagine? And this is someone who's never been to this part of the world. This is an audience that largely doesn't even understand what Inuit art is," said William Huffman, marketing manager with the Toronto-based Dorset Fine Arts.

"That's a pretty remarkable feat."

Akesuk at her first solo exhibit in Portland, Ore., in the U.S. She said her grandfather's old carvings are an inspiration to her art. (Rebekah Johnson Photography)

Huffman has worked personally with Akesuk for the past three years. Dorset Fine Arts works with the Cape Dorset co-op in distributing and marketing local artists' work all over the world. 

I always thought I was a failure ... But look who I am today.- Saimaiyu   Akesuk

Her work is a mixture of approachable, idiosyncratic, lyrical and contemporary, said Huffman. It's not the typical Inuit art people see from the North, he added.

"This is what I think is the next generation," said Huffman, who describes Akesuk as "extraordinary." 

"We have a lot of artists that we work with, and all of them are wonderful artists. But there are a few that stand out as ambassadors for the Cape Dorset artistic community, and I would say she's definitely one of them."

Huffman noted that the Brooklyn Museum in New York City acquired one of Akesuk's pieces as a gift last year. She also worked on a collaborative animation piece with a media artist recently.

"Samaiyu is one of our most successful and highly sought out artists," said Huffman.

Art changed her life 

Akesuk estimates she's sold close to 100 pieces of art to the local co-op since 2011. 

"The day I started and today is so different — and I never thought it would be big like this," said Akesuk.

'I still can't believe who I have become ... I hated art, but look who I am today,' says Akesuk. (Rebekah Johnson Photography)

Finding her hidden talent has also become a turning point for her. 

"I never had self-confidence. I never believed in myself. I always thought I was a failure," said Akesuk.

"I still can't believe who I have become ... I hated art, but look who I am today."

Akesuk leaves a positive message for people, young and old. 

"You have more talent than you think that you have," she said. 

"Always believe in yourself."

About the Author

Priscilla Hwang

Reporter/Editor

Priscilla Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Yellowknife. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, Ottawa, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Before joining the CBC in 2016, she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa to share people's stories. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University and speaks Korean, Tunisian Arabic, and dabbles at classical Arabic and French. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca or @prisksh on Twitter.