If you were around in 1970 and happened to mail a letter, you were probably acquainted with the works of Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak. That year, Canada Post selected Kenojuak's print The Enchanted Owl to commemorate the centennial of the Northwest Territories, marking the first time the work of a female Inuit artist had adorned a Canadian stamp.
The Enchanted Owl's mythical image captured the imaginations of Canadians from coast to coast. It helped spark an international appreciation of Inuit art and artists that has continued to grow stronger ever since. That beloved owl is, indeed, Kenojuak's most familiar work, but it doesn't begin to represent the depth of a spectacular career that spanned six decades.
Born in 1927 in Ikerrasak, Northwest Territories, at the southern tip of Baffin Island, Kenojuak began to draw in her early 20s while enduring a long recuperation from tuberculosis.
At age 22, she married fellow artist Johnniebo, and the couple lived in various camps throughout South Baffin and Arctic Quebec, finally settling in Cape Dorset, in 1966. In the late 1950s, the couple met James Houston, who was then serving as the federal government's administrator for the district. Houston encouraged the pair to experiment with stone carving and drawing.
As journalist Anne-Marie Sigouin later observed, the neophyte Kenojuak's style underwent "an extensive, but swift progression from tentative beginnings to accomplished, confident and individualistic expression." Originally working in graphite on typing paper, she was, by the mid-1960s, using coloured pencils and felt-tip pens. The resulting vibrancy of her palette has since become a Kenojuak Ashevak trademark.
Though best known for her representations of birds, Kenojuak's themes have included rabbits, dogs, whales and a host of other animals, as well as humans, spirits, the sun, transformed creatures and objects representative of her culture and environment. Her goal, she states simply, has always been to "make something beautiful."
Recognition of Kenojuak's superb talents began as early as 1962, when she was the subject of a National Film Board documentary. In 1970, she and her husband travelled to Ottawa to collaborate on a 96-foot mural for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.
Four years later, Kenojuak was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Her second postage stamp arrived in 1980, featuring the 1961 print Return Of The Sun. A third stamp, in 1993, showcased her 1969 drawing The Owl as part of Canada Post's Masterpieces of Canadian Art series.
What might be the most fulfilling accolade came in 1990, when Indian and Northern Affairs Canada commissioned Kenojuak's print Nunavut Qajanatuk to commemorate the signing of the Inuit Land Claim Agreement in Principle. Kenojuak later created the spectacular, hand-coloured lithograph Nunavut to mark the signing of the Final Agreement.
Besides her induction in Canada's Walk of Fame, Kenojuak Ashevak has received some two dozen honours for her contributions to Canadian art and culture, including being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967, with a promotion to Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982, and honorary degrees from Queen's University in Kingston and the University of Toronto.
Since 1959, her work has been presented in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions throughout the world and it appears in more than three dozen permanent collections across North America, including the National Gallery in Ottawa; the Royal Ontario Museum; the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario; Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology and the Inuit Culture Institute in Rankin Inlet.
For decades, art critics and aficionados from all corners of the globe have striven to explore the deeper symbolism of Kenojuak's drawings and prints. However, she has always preferred a fanciful yet pragmatic approach to her life's work.
As Kenojuak explained in 1980 to Jean Blodgett, author of several books and essays on the artist: "I just take these things out of my thoughts and out of my imagination, and I don't really give any weight to the idea of its being an image of something.... I am just concentrating on placing it down on paper in a way that is pleasing to my own eye, whether it has anything to do with subjective reality or not. And that is how I have always tried to make my images, and that is still how I do it, and I haven't really thought about it any other way than that. That is just my style, and is the way I started and the way I am today.".