Even when she was well into her eighties, Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak (usually simply referred to as Kenojuak) continued to produce powerful images that were always fresh and surprising. Her unique vision made her one of Canada’s most important contemporary artists whose work is sought after by museums and collectors worldwide. Her body of work ranges from highly stylized representational pieces to the delightfully surreal.
Early on in my collecting career all I knew of Kenojuak were her prints of fantastical birds, but I was told by a staff member at the now defunct Isaacs/Innuit Gallery in Toronto that this was merely a small part of her artistic output. Wanting to learn more, I was directed to contact the Art Gallery of Ontario, which I did. Explaining that I was a teacher and a collector, I was graciously allowed time in the Inuit portion of the museum’s storage area and assigned a volunteer who brought out two carts loaded with drawings. As we went through them one by one we marveled at the range of subject matter – landscapes, scenes of life as it was once lived on the land, and images of animals other than birds – that were unfamiliar to us. Although prints are the most well-known aspect of her output, Kenojuak produced hundreds of rarely seen drawings that would be considered atypical by those only familiar with her print work. In recent years, however, a number of drawings produced by the artist have been made available to a wider range of collectors.
I always say that collecting is a process and this is certainly true of my acquiring works by Kenojuak Ashevak. Although I was more attracted to other aspects of the artist’s graphic art than to her famous birds I finally came to appreciate them and felt that my collection should have at least one example of a Kenojuak bird with fabulous feathers. I saw a print that I liked in the 2007 Cape Dorset Print Collection, but one of the mentors for my collection told me, “That’s not the one.” Although I trusted this person’s judgment and expertise, I worried because I would have to wait another year for a chance at a bird by Kenojuak and there was no guarantee that, even then, I would find “the one.” Sure enough, in the following year one of Kenojuak’s fantastical birds appeared in the Annual Cape Dorset Print Collection and we both agreed that this was the print to acquire.
For art lovers and collectors worldwide, Kenojuak Ashevak’s prints are the face of Inuit art and of contemporary Canadian art as well. In Canada she is an artistic icon and national treasure. Though famous for this work, Ashevak produced art in a variety of other media such as drawing and sculpture and also created designs for stained glass and textiles. Age did not diminish Kenojuak’s creativity and her work continues to inspire younger generations of Inuit artists and her influence cannot be overestimated. Kenojuak’s art is about the sheer joy of living. The artist once stated, “I am an owl, and I am a happy owl. I like to make people happy and everything happy. I am the light of happiness . . . .” This philosophy is evident in all of Kenojuak’s work and because of it her art can be appreciated by anyone for its sheer beauty and requires no knowledge of Inuit culture.
Edd Guarino, 2023.
To view available artworks by Kenojuak Ashevak, click here.