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Jessie Oonark


Mar 02, 2018
by Sarah Milroy

In the study of art, a seam in time can sometimes unexpectedly open, spilling a packet of the past. All the spark and vitality of a moment long passed has somehow been saved and can now be relived afresh. Such was the experience of eighty-two-year-old, New York-based writer and educator Richard Lewis, who was quietly performing that most monotonous of domestic chores—cleaning his basement—when he came across a manila envelope containing a blast from his past. Inside were 27 pristine drawings on coloured card stock, the work of the Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, artist Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985), drawings made with coloured pens when the artist was in her prime, in the late 1960s.

Oonark died in 1985, having received the Order of Canada the year before. Though she only began making her drawings and hangings at the age of 59, she quickly established herself as a trailblazer in the field of Inuit visual art, with her work shown in exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History), Av Isaacs’ Innuit Gallery of Eskimo Art in Toronto, ON, and, after her death, in a major 1986 retrospective at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG). Oonark was also den mother—both literally and figuratively—to a whole generation of artists in her adopted hometown. (Eight of her children would become artists, and her work would lay the foundations for the discipline of artmaking in that remote community.) One of the generation of Inuit who began life on the land—in her case in the remote Back River area, 200 kilometers northwest of Qamani’tuaq—she and her children were relocated by the RCMP to Qamani’tuaq in 1958, barely surviving the caribou starvations.

It was decades after those harrowing years that Lewis encountered Oonark’s work for the first time in the Toronto apartment of Alma Houston, founder of Canadian Arctic Producers. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Lewis said to me when we met to talk about Oonark at a diner in New York. “My mouth was literally hanging open. There were just stacks of her works there. Alma said, take some.” Oonark was already gaining a southern following, and Lewis was looking for drawings to illustrate a book that he was working on, I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo (1971), which gathered songs from sources as wide-ranging as the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen to the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. Edmund Carpenter, a noted anthropologist and communications theorist, wrote the forward.

Richard Lewis’ book I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo (1971) featuring cover artwork by Jessie Oonark
What Lewis found in that envelope, returned now to the care of Canadian Arctic Producers, was irrefutable evidence of Oonark’s artistic mastery, expressed in its most condensed, expressive form. Many of Oonark’s drawings were made into prints over the years, both in Qamani’tuaq and at the famous printshop in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, where her first prints were published in 1961. But those compositions have often been cropped and their colours altered by the printmaker, who has their own vision to express. Sometimes these alterations were made with an eye to the imagined preferences of the white, buying audience down south. The drawings Lewis saw that day were likely made at the encouragement of Boris Kotelewetz, who still lives in Qamani’tuaq, and who supplied Oonark with brightly coloured paper and pens. But they take us back to the core of her vision, having come into being with the minimum of material impediment or interference.

During her lifetime, Oonark was much revered as a textile artist, building on her well-honed skills as a seamstress, and that craft would inform her image making in all media. Sewing garments, she would often create decorative embellishments by cutting away material and creating snugly fitted inserts of contrasting skin—a precise and exacting craft that she translated with apparent effortlessness to her brightly coloured wall hangings. The artist Jack Butler, now eighty and living in Hamilton, ON, watched Oonark’s art closely over the course of his many years as an art advisor to the Sanavik Co-op (Butler lived in Qamani’tuaq off and on from 1969 to 1976). He, too, can remember his first view of Oonark’s drawings. “They had a striking graphic authority,” he recalls, “like she was absolutely certain of everything she was doing. Her image making comes, I think, from that very fundamental practice of inlaying—of setting one piece of fabric or skin decisively inside another. So even before she started drawing, she was a master of what we in our world would call figure-ground relations. The more mature she became, the more tension there was between the two.”

Jessie Oonark — TOP LEFT Untitled (Catching Caribou on the Water), c. 1967, felt-tip pen, 22.8 × 30.5 cm TOP RIGHT Untitled (Owl with Eggs), 1967, felt-tip pen, 22.8 × 30.5 cm BOTTOM RIGHT Untitled (A Hunter on the Lookout), 1967, felt-tip pen, 22.8 × 30.5 cm BOTTOM LEFT Untitled (Caribou on the Move), 1967, felt-tip pen, 22.8 × 30.5 cm
This is clear when you look at the drawings, in which figure-ground relations are laid out as Oonark spontaneously devised them. An assembly of women with their ulus and elaborately braided hair fill in the picture surface, their somewhat cramped pictorial quarters expressing a feeling of conviviality, intimacy and pleasure in present company. (The selection of bright yellow paper for this work expresses a kindred warmth.) Another drawing shows five men engaged in a drum dance, their bodies arced in exertion inside the tight pictorial space, and one feels the compression of activities performed in the close quarters of the igloo. In Oonark’s drawing of a hunter in a kayak, both kayak and caribou surge to the picture’s right-hand margin, enhancing the drama of movement, with space opening out behind them. In another drawing depicting a hunter harpooning a seal, an isolating backdrop of stark white around the figures heightens our sense of the concentration of the hunter. All extraneous detail is deleted in her depiction of this high-stakes act of survival. With Oonark, what is left out is as telling as what is put in. Composition always enhances the dynamics of meaning.

Simplicity was Oonark’s strength. “What is remarkable is her ability to organize her images, to be able to see what was essential,” says Marie Bouchard, co-curator with Jean Blodgett of the 1986 Oonark retrospective at the WAG. Bouchard also appreciates Oonark’s use of often dramatic dislocations of scale in the service of emphasis—an approach unfamiliar to European eyes accustomed to three-point perspective. In Oonark’s world, scale speaks not of foreground proximity but of importance. Thus two handmaids serve as full-body pendants to the giant head of a tattooed woman clad in her amauti (woman’s parka). The whole is understood, with Oonark indulging an emphatic pictorial shorthand that is all the more expressive for its economy.

Here, as in so many of her works, there is the initial perception of symmetry, one that on closer scrutiny becomes destabilized by the revelation of difference. Both attendant figures lean in, yet their clothing is different. One carries a child; the other does not. One stands; one crouches. Yet they hold our attention with precisely equivalent force, two vibrant parentheses binding the composition together. Oonark’s drawing of two men wrestling does likewise. A composition in black and green, the drawing both is and is not symmetrical; the wrestlers’ forms are interlocked in a yin and yang of gesture and colour. It is that tension between symmetry and asymmetry that energizes the whole.

To a degree unprecedented in Inuit art, Oonark verged on abstraction. A hunting blind becomes a stack of blocks worthy of Donald Judd, dividing the picture space. A mother caribou and her calf tiptoe across a series of black, tower-like plinths denoting landscape, the precariousness of the formal relations heightening our sense of their delicate tread. There is a vulnerability expressed here, further heightened by the worried concentric rings of the adult caribou’s gaze as she turns to meet ours. Oonark, who had struggled to shepherd her own children through fearsome adversity in her days of young motherhood, must have known all too well the harried hyper-vigilance of the mother protecting its young.

Jessie Oonark — LEFT Untitled (Catching Fish), 1967, felt-tip pen, 27.9 × 45.7 cm RIGHT Untitled (Drumming Scene), 1967, felt-tip pen, 27.9 × 45.7 cm
Most important, though, is Oonark’s command of line, which confers an extraordinary liveliness to her scenes. Some suggest the curving lines of a cloth garment pattern, perhaps the swooping line of the shoulder epaulet on an amauti, a shape the artist would have known by heart through her many years of sewing. (“She had all of us children,” her son, artist William Noah, remembers, “but she would always be making clothes and boots for anyone in the community who needed them.”) But Oonark’s line goes beyond utility, cutting through space, tightening it under her control and demarcating zones of action—often those of the hunter and the hunted. In one such drawing, the line of a hillside seems to snap back on itself, like one of the long whips used by hunters on their dog-teams. That line brings coherence to the picture, pulling it together with a sharp constriction, stunning us with its incarnation of joy.

That joy may be Oonark’s most remarkable accomplishment, most extraordinary when you consider the austere realities of her life. Everyone who knew her speaks about the tenacity of her Christian faith, adopted in childhood, but it’s still hard to marry the fierce vitality of her art with the knowledge of the dark episodes of her early life: crouching in her skin tent with her starving children, living off boiled caribou leather and awaiting deliverance, or mopping the floors in the Anglican church hall, one of her jobs after resettlement in the community. Oonark was assigned an ID tag—E2 384—as were all the Inuit in the settlement. Her resolve was a sign of her immense personal strength.

“She was always working,” Noah remembers. “She would say, ‘You are being lazy. You cannot afford this. We are Inuit.’ There was always that determination to do every task to the very best of her abilities, and she told us we must do the same.” When asked what his mother did for fun, Noah is at a loss, recalling only her pleasure in cooking for the family while out in the summer camp. There was no notion of time off.

Her only indulgence seems to have been her grandchildren. Fred Ford, who manned the counter at the tuck shop attached to his Qamani’tuaq gallery, recalls her coming in for candy, always with a flock of children in attendance. (Some were her relations, others were hangers-on.) “They followed her around everywhere,” he remembers. Sandra Barz, a New York-based specialist in Inuit prints, first met Oonark in 1976 at the United Nations in New York, where Oonark was signing a special stamp commemorating the UN Conference on Human Settlements. Most important to Oonark was to explain to her new admirers, “I have a very big family.” Barz remembers, too, Oonark’s delight in bringing home a pair of silver boots for one of her granddaughters, after one of her trips down south. Once Oonark had gained her market in the South, gestures of affection might take the form of new washing machines, sewing machines, canoes or ATVs, which would be delivered to Qamani’tuaq via sealift. When she bought things in the co-op, Ford remembers, she would hand her wallet to the person behind the till, and ask them to take the money for her. In her community, she lived a life of total trust.

Her other occasional indulgence, Jack Butler recalls, was movie night at the Qamani’tuaq community hall. In particular, he remembers her excitement about the Beatles film The Yellow Submarine, with its buoyant music, dazzling colour and stylized rendering of an imaginary world. Never mind that the reels were shown in the wrong order.

Jessie Oonark — TOP Untitled (Hunter with Seal), 1967, felt-tip pen, 22.8 × 30.5 cm BOTTOM Untitled (A Man Plays with His Family), 1967, felt-tip pen, 22.8 × 30.5 cm
Most of all, Butler remembers her vibrant aliveness, so obvious in both her art and life. “I can remember once there was a very bad blizzard. You could barely see outside,” Butler told me. “She lived about 20 houses up the road from me, and I was out in the storm trying to get over to the craft shop. It was one of those days when your eyes were freezing open, where the fur of your parka was freezing onto your beard and face. I was kind of stumbling along through the deep snow, when whom should I meet happily bustling along the other way but Jessie Oonark, heading out to do her shopping at the co-op. She was looking at me and laughing.”

This feature appeared in the Inuit Art Quarterly's 30th Anniversary issue as the cover story.

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