Kenojuak Ashevak in 1997
October 3, 1927
Ikirasaq, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada
|Died||January 8, 2013
Cape Dorset, Dorset Island, Nunavut, Canada
|Known for||soapstone carving, drawing, etching, stone-cut, and print-making|
Kenojuak Ashevak was born in an igloo in an Inuit camp, Ikirasaq, at the southern coast of Baffin Island. Her father, Ushuakjuk, an Inuit hunter and fur trader, and her mother, Silaqqi, named Kenojuak after Silaqqi's deceased father. According to this Inuit naming tradition, the love and respect that had been accorded to him during his lifetime would now pass on to their daughter. Kenojuak also had a brother and a sister.
Kenojuak remembered Ushuakjuk as "a kind and benevolent man", but her father, a redoubtable shaman, "had more knowledge than average mortals, and he would help all the Inuit people." According to Kenojuak, her father believed he could predict weather, predict good hunting seasons and even turn into a walrus; he also had the ability "to make fish swarm at the surface so it was easier to fish."
Her father had come into conflict with Christian converts, and some enemies assassinated him in a hunting camp in 1933, when she was only six. After her father's murder, Kenojuak moved with her widowed mother Silaqqi and the rest of the family to the home of Silaqqi's mother, Koweesa, who taught her traditional crafts, including the repair of sealskins for trade with the Hudson's Bay Company and how to make waterproof clothes sewn with caribou sinew.
When she was 19, her mother, Silaqqi, and stepfather, Takpaugni, arranged for her to marry Johnniebo Ashevak (1923–1972), a local Inuit hunter. Kenojuak was reluctant, she said, even playfully throwing pebbles at him when he would approach her. In time, however, she came to love him for his kindness and gentleness, a man who developed artistic talents in his own right and who sometimes collaborated with her on projects; the National Gallery of Canada exhibits two of Johnniebo's works, Taleelayo with Sea Bird (1965) and Hare Spirits (1960). During this time and also later on, many of her children and grandchildren succumbed to disease, as eventually also did her husband of 26 years. Three daughters of Kenojuak, Mary, Elisapee Qiqituk, and Aggeok died in childhood, and three sons, Jamasie, her adopted son Ashevak, and Kadlarjuk and Qiqituk. The latter two were adopted at birth by another family, an Inuit custom that was common at the time.
Kenojuak Ashevak became one of the first Inuit women in Cape Dorset to begin drawing. She worked in graphite, coloured pencils and felt-tip pens, and occasionally used poster paints, watercolours or acrylics. She created many carvings from soapstone and thousands of drawings, etchings, stonecut prints and prints — all sought after by museums and collectors. She designed several drawings for Canadian stamps and coins, and in 2004 she created the first Inuit-designed stained-glass window for the John Bell Chapel in Oakville, Ontario.
In 1950 a public health nurse had arrived in her Arctic village; Kenojuak, having tested positive after tuberculosis screening, was sent to Parc Savard hospital in Quebec City, where she stayed for over three years, from early 1952 to the summer of 1955. During her recovery, she learned to make dolls and to do beadwork, crafts which attracted the attention of civil administrator and pioneer Inuit art promoter James Archibald Houston and his wife Alma. Houston introduced print-making to the local artists in the 1950s, and he and his wife began marketing Inuit arts and crafts. In 1958 her first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, was produced from one of her designs on a sealskin bag, and by 1959 Kenojuak and other Cape Dorset Inuit had formed the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative as a senlavik (workshop) for aspiring Inuit artists. Her reception in southern Canada was rapidly favourable, as Mark Lipman's Canadian Press obituary reported:
- Rabbit Eating Seaweed was Ashevak's first print, part of a debut exhibition of Inuit graphics. The young woman from the remote Canadian North was an immediate success, said Christine Lalonde, an expert in Inuit art with the National Gallery of Canada. "She had her own sense of design... She was already willing to let the pencil go, because she had the hand and the eye co-ordination to make the image she already had in her head."” The National Gallery owns several copies of The Enchanted Owl, including the original pencil sketch from 1960. That sketch reveals much, said Lalonde. "It's a very simple drawing — pencil on pulp paper. But you can see even then how confident and sure her line was as she was making the curves of the fanning feathers."  — The Toronto Star
By 1963 her art had made her sufficiently notable to be the subject of a National Film Board documentary by producer John Feeney, Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, about Kenojuak, then 35, and her family, as well as traditional Inuit life on Baffin Island. The film showed a stonecutter carving her design into a relief block in stone, cutting away all the non-printing surfaces; she would then apply ink to the carved stone, usually in two or more colours, and carefully make 50 "shadow" prints for sale. National Gallery of Canada art expert Christine Lalonde marvelled at her confident artistry: “When you see her, you realize she doesn't use an eraser. She just sits down and she starts to draw.” With the money she earned from the film. Johnniebo was able to purchase his own canoe and become an independent hunter to help provide for the family, which now included a new daughter, Aggeo, and an adopted son, Ashevak.
The year after Johnniebo died in 1972, Kenojuak remarried Etyguyakjua Pee; he died in 1977, and in 1978 she again married Joanassie Igiu. She had 11 children by her first husband and adopted five more; seven of her children died in childhood. At her death (from lung cancer) she was living in a wood-frame house in Kinngait (Cape Dorset). A CBC report of Kenojuak's death characterized her as a person of unfeigned humility and simplicity:
- Okpik Pitseolak, an artist from Cape Dorset who knew her personally, said Kenojuak Ashevak 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.” — CBC News
- In 1967, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 1982.
- In 1970, Canada Post placed her 1960 print Enchanted Owl on a stamp to commemorate the centennial of the Northwest Territories.
- In 1974, she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
- In 1980, Canada Post uses her 1961 print Return of the Sun on a seventeen-cent stamp as part of its Inuit postage stamp series.
- In 1991, she received an honorary doctorate from Queen's University.
- In 1992, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto.
- In 1993, Canada Post featured the 1969 drawing The Owl for its Masterpieces of Canadian Art series.
- In 1999, a famous piece of hers, the "Red Owl" was featured on the April issue of the 1999 Millennium quarter series. Her initials in Inuktitut – ᑭᓇᐊᓯᐃ – were on the left of the design, the first time the language had appeared on circulation coinage.
- In 2001, she was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.
- In 2004, she created the first ever Inuit-designed stained glass window for the John Bell Chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario.
- In 2008, she received the renowned $25,000 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts from the Canada Council of the Arts.
In 2004, Kenojuak designed a stained glass window for a chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario. The window, of an Arctic char along with an owl against a vibrantly blue background, is the first such window made by an Inuit artist; it was suggested by two Biblical stories in which Jesus feeds a large crowd of people with two fish and a few loaves of bread, which for Kenojuak thoroughly embodied the spirit of the Inuit community, where food is always shared. The window was dedicated by the Rt. Rev. Andrew Atagotaaluk, Bishop of the Arctic, on November 9, 2004, celebrating the 75th anniversary of John Bell Chapel.
- In 1963, she was featured in the National Film Board of Canada documentary Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, directed by John Feeney, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1964.
- (Note on title: Feeney had suggested using the term "Inuit" in place of "Eskimo," but in 1963 it had been rejected as an unfamiliar term to non-Inuit audiences)
- 1992, archival and contemporary footage of Kenojuak was featured in Momentum, Canada’s film for Expo '92.
- Odette Leroux, Kenojuak Ashevak, Inuit, 1991, Steinbrueck Native Gallery. Accessed 9 January 2013.
- Kenojuak at the Wayback Machine (archived July 3, 2008), Native American Rhymes, Rhodes Educational Publications, 2005. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Fraser, Kenojuak, Famous Artist Quest Project, Ecole Whitehorse Elementary School, 2004. Accessed 9 January 2013.
- Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Indian Women. pp. 112-114. ISBN 1438107889.
- P. Cash, Kenojuak Ashevak, Artiste inuite, FSL French Biographies of Famous Canadians, 2006, Scruffy Plume Press. Accessed 9 January 2013.
- Johnniebo Ashevak, 1923 - 1972, 2013. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Walker, Ansgar, Kenojuak: an Inuit artit's life story, Penumbra Press, 1999, pp. 218-9
- See generally Jean Blodgett, Kenojuak (Toronto: Firefly Books, 1985) ISBN 0-920668-31-3
- Mark Lipman, "Kenojuak Ashevak, renowned Inuit artist, dies at 85", 8 January 2013, The Toronto Star. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- National Film Board, Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, 1963 documentary by filmmaker John Feeney, narrated in English (19 min. 50 sec.). Accessed 9 January 2013.
- Valerie Alia, Encyclopedia of the Arctic. Mark Nuttall, ed., pp. 1070-1072, ISBN 978-0-203-99785-7.
- "Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak dies at 85", 8 January 2013, CBC News. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Office of the Governor General of Canada. Order of Canada citation. Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved 24 May 2010
- Kenojuak Ashevak, The Enchanted Owl, 1960, National Gallery of Canada. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Comment to "Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak dies at 85", 8 January 2013. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak about the film
- Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak the actual film online at the National Film Board of Canada
- Momentum about the film
- Kenojuak Ashevak's Artist Profile at the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
- Image timeline view at the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
- Some of Kenojuak's prints appear at a Canadian government website.
- Kenojuak Ashevak's Artist Page at Feheley Fine Arts.
- Artist profile ten short videos featuring Kenojuak Ashevak speaking in Inuktitut about her artworks (15 min. 10 sec. in total)
- Brief Audioguide about Kenojuak Ashevak's life (1 min. 32 sec.)
- The Enchanted Owl video and essay in the Virtual Museum of Canada
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