• Feature

30 Ways To Describe An Owl According to Kenojuak Ashevak

Aug 04, 2020
by IAQ

Throughout Kenojuak Ashevak’s (1927-2013) illustrious career, the owl was a constant source of inspiration. In over 100 different prints, Ashevak captured the inquisitive expressions and majestic grandeur of owls using a wide range of vivid colours. What’s also impressive is the fact that each of these prints has a creative title to describe her hootiful creations. Below are our 30 favourite ways to describe a Kenojuak Ashevak owl. 


Look at that owl strut – no wonder Ashevak named this stonecut print the Audacious Owl! Although Ashevak uses more muted colours here compared to her earlier owls, the expansive plumage captures the boldness of this bird.

AshevakKenojuakAutmnalOwlKenojuak Ashevak Autumnal Owl (1999)


“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” – L.M. Montgomery and this owl, probably. Ashevak’s Autumnal Owl is highlighted by the warm orange and red tones of the owl’s feathers that reflect the hues of the season.

Kenojuak Ashevak Blossoming Owl (2006)


Flower power! Blossoming Owl is sprouting flora where its wings and ears should be, building an insulating wall of foliage between itself and the edges of the page. This print was one of five serigraphs commissioned from Ashevak by the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver. Predominantly sold to private collectors, these prints are rarely publicly displayed, and never as the set of five they were intended as. Can you figure out which, if any, of the rest of the owls in this post are part of the set?

AshevakKenojuakBlueOwlKenojuak Ashevak Blue Owl (1969)

BLUE OWL (1969)

As shown in Blue Owl,  Ashevak had a great eye for pairing pleasing complementary colours. About the process of selecting colours, in 1980, Ashevak told Jean Blodgett: “The colours are part of an informal system that I have. I select two colours that will go side by side, lining them up, saying that these two look good together. I use that system for my colouring and don’t change it halfway through the drawing.” Although varying shapes and textures are nestled within and behind the bird, the owl’s vivid eyes keep it from fading into the blue.

AshevakKenojuakBrightOwlKenojuak Ashevak Bright Owl (1967)


Owl on the prowl! The negative space and linear emphasis of Bright Owl is characteristic of Ashevak’s work with engraving in the late ‘60s, which was dominated by line drawings that were then etched by Ashevak onto copperplate before being printed. The parallel lines, which here depict feathers, are a repeated motif in other Ashevak engravings from this period, sometimes appearing as hair and fur as well. Ashevak was becoming a bright owl herself during this time: 1967 was the year she became an officer of the Order of Canada.


AshevakKenojuakBrownOwlKenojuak Ashevak Brown Owl (1967)

BROWN OWL (1967)

While the Brown Owl is sparse in colours, it is full of textures. Notice how Ashevak uses varied linework to illustrate the unique plumage of this bird. Look closely and you’ll see two other creatures popping out of this owl’s head.

AshevakKenojuakEnchantedOwlKenojuak Ashevak The Enchanted Owl (1960)


The Enchanted Owl, one of Ashevak’s earliest and most well-known works, depicts an owl that faces out toward the viewer. The texture of the body is created through dots and lines in black and white. The feathers extend out from the body and surround the bird, and the long red tail feathers reach out and curve upwards. Ashevak created a powerful and captivating image through subtle details. In 1970, The Enchanted Owl was reproduced on a Canada Post stamp.

AshevakKenojuakFestiveOwlKenojuak Ashevak Festive Owl (1970)


Festive Owl first appeared in the Cape Dorset Print Collection. The black and white image in the print catalogue does not do justice to the reds, browns and greens that compose this stonecut print, which make the abstracted shapes that extend from the owl’s body into oak leaves. Colour is important to reading this piece, but the muted tones definitely seem more restive than festive.

AshevakKenojuakFlamboyant Owl
Kenojuak Ashevak Flamboyant Owl (2006)


What makes this owl hoot louder than the rest of them? Over the course of her evolution with owl depictions, Ashevak has depicted them sprouting the heads and tails of other animals, surrounded with rainbow plumage, and overlaid on jewel-toned leaves. And yet the almost watery, pastel primary colours of Flamboyant Owl, coupled with its overlarge bunny ears, make it the Prime Minister of this parliament of owls.

AshevakKenojuakGreyOwlKenojuak Ashevak Grey Owl (1978)

GREY OWL (1978)

50 shades of grey? We don’t think so. Only in its original black-and-white appearance in the 1978 Cape Dorset Print Collection could this owl truly be called ‘grey’. In full colour, it is a tonal riot of browns and greys, with key details, such as the owl’s feet and eyes, picked out in vibrant yellow.  Ashevak’s use of symmetry again plays on that idea of boring conventionality, only to subvert it by refusing to let all of the lines of the piece carry the eye outward, instead using the texture of her own hair to subtly throw the balance off.

AshevakKenojuakHappyLittleOwlKenojuak Ashevak Happy Little Owl (1969)


Cover up that sneaky beaky and you could be forgiven for thinking this an abstract starburst. The eyes and beak remain a constant in Ashevak’s owl portraits, regardless of what transformations she has wrought on their bodies. Here, a set of enormous green claws dominate a much smaller body, with similarly large eyes set in the middle of a yellow and green circle of feathers, calling to mind the gawkiness of youth. Ashevak once called herself a happy owl, but to the best of our knowledge, never titled a work other than this with that adjective. We like to think this is a self-portrait.

AshevakKenojuakIllustriousOwlKenojuak Ashevak Illustrious Owl (1999)


Hoo do you think you are? By the time Ashevak released this print, she was already a Companion of the Order of Canada, had been elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and received two honorary doctorates from Queens and the University of Toronto. Her pearls of wisdom gather around Illustrious Owl, illuminating its black body with shades of rusty red, moody purple and saffron yellow.

Kenojuak Ashevak Inquisitive Owl (2001)


I say hooom, not hoo, when I ask questions. Ashevak’s Inquisitive Owl is thinking so hard that questions are literally coming out the top of its head. The contained orange body, boundaried on either side by black and red wings, is juxtaposed with the wild spring flowing from the head, navy thoughts exploding upwards and outwards.

AshevakKenojuakLongFeatheredOwlKenojuak Ashevak Long Feathered Owl (1994)


The Long Feathered Owl really shows off Ashevak’s masterful skill of  balancing. The long blue feathers of this owl are perfectly mirrored on either side of the owl, keeping the deep maroon coloured bird standing tall.

Kenojuak Ashevak Lustrous Owl (2012)


Glowy and flowy, Lustrous Owl was one of Ashevak’s last prints before her death in 2013.  The etching/aquatint method Ashevak used here imparts a smooth transition between colours, light and dark, making the owl appear lit from within. Although Ashevak features spreading feathers in many of her depictions of owls, in a flight of imagination here she has opted to preserve the radial symmetry and tip the feathers with yellow, enhancing the owl’s resemblance to the sun.

 AshevakKenojuakMajesticOwlKenojuak Ashevak Majestic Owl (2011)


Look no feather than Majestic Owl if you would like an optical illusion. The red shafts of the owl’s plumage emanate from its black body and expand into tufted black ends with inverted arrow points, creating a Muller-Lyer illusion that bounces the eye outward as it travels around the image. Uninterrupted by the owl’s body or other elements on the page, Ashevak’s deceptively simple linework traps the viewer in feathers until their gaze is broken.

AshevakKenojuakObservantOwlKenojuak Ashevak Observant Owl (2009)


In Observant Owl, the owl gazes openly upon the viewer, as if aware of its own strange majesty. A stonecut and stencil work from later in Ashevak’s life, it showcases the newer printmaking techniques that allowed her to create the fine textures on the bird’s gray-green body as well as the striking transition of the feathers from incandescent yellow into earthy red. The print was featured in the “Nipirasait: Many Voices” (2010) at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, an exhibition that celebrated five decades of Inuit art from Cape Dorset.

AshevakKenojuakOwlInBlueKenojuak Ashevak Owl in Blue (1991)

OWL IN BLUE (1991)

Picasso has his blue period, and Ashevak has hers. Far from depression, Owl in Blue seems almost celebratory in the exuberance of its plumage and its polka dot body, strutting across the page. The black shape protruding from the back of the head could easily be a cockscomb raised in pride as the only solo owl print Ashevak featured in the 1991 Cape Dorset Print Collection.

AshevakKenojuakPreeningOwlKenojuak Ashevak Preening Owl (1995)


Preening has two meanings: to clean or straighten one’s feathers (as in a bird), or to congratulate or pride oneself. Ashevak’s Preening Owl, with its outstretched wings, full-frontal pose, and golden halo is clearly partaking in the latter. One wonders if Ashevak was taking a moment to take pride in her own work, or if she felt that any bird with a magnificent display of plumage such as this should justly be proud. Either way, Preening Owl, which was first featured in the 1995 Cape Dorset Print Collection, has become one of Ashevak’s most well-known and frequently reproduced prints.


AshevakKenojuakProudYoungOwlKenojuak Ashevak Proud Young Owl (1979)


“I’m too cool for you.” – Proud Young Owl.  This lithograph was one of the ten commissioned by Theo Waddington for the Waddington Galleries’ Ashevak portfolio, which was released in 1979. Many of the other works in the portfolio have Ashevak’s signature symmetry, with wide-eyed owls and outstretched plumage. This print, however, shows an owl turned partially away from the viewer, its wings outstretched, with narrowed eyes. Feathers were ruffled, literally and figuratively.

Kenojuak Ashevak Radiant Owl (1996)


Whether shown in its green or orange variants, Radiant Owl is a sight to behold. The tawny feathers on the orange version are interpreted as a tawny body on the green variant. Too, the green variant clearly shows that the orange was printed on an already green body. One wonders if the body on the orange version, which initially reads as black, had a similar inverse printing of green over orange, which ended up with a radically different colour. Whether the variants were meant as inverted versions of one another or not, the interplay of colour on both truly make this owl shine.

AshevakKenojuakTheRedOwlKenojuak Ashevak The Red Owl (1995)

THE RED OWL (1995)

Just chillin’ with my polar bears. Ashevak’s The Red Owl became so celebrated following its release that it was featured on the April quarter for Canada’s 1999 millennium coin series, alongside Ashevak’s initials in syllabics, marking the first time syllabics appeared on circulation coinage. The owl dwarfs the polar bears in the background, commanding viewers with a direct gaze. In lieu of using colour to make the owl stand out, the Canadian Mint opted to make the owl shiny and background bears matte, retaining the parallel lines Ashevak drew for texture on both.

AshevakKenojuakResplendentOwlKenojuak Ashevak Resplendent Owls (2005)


One owl to bring them all and in the darkness bind them: resplendent means attractive and impressive, and these owls, with their clean lines and strong secondary colour palette, certainly are. Resplendent also, however, has monarchical connotations. Was Ashevak trying to establish a hierarchical relationship between these owls? The triangular composition, such a departure from the more circular one usually employed by the artist, and the purple colouring (long associated with royalty) on the top owl certainly suggests that this is the one owl to rule them all.

Kenojuak Ashevak Secluded Owl (2006)


Ashevak has barricaded her Secluded Owl in flowers, owl by itself. The symmetrical composition recalls the traditional decorative arts of Scandianvian countries, called Rosemåling, which incorporates flowers and scrollwork. Here, the leaves of Ashevak’s serigraph seem to fan out like the scrollwork of this traditional design method, although the mix of secondary colours in this depiction of a small owl with extravagant tail plumage is pure Ashevak.

AshevakKenojuakSentinelOwlKenojuak Ashevak Sentinel Owl (1970)


Your perspective on Sentinel Owl will likely vary depending on whether or not you saw the restful print or its more elusive and energetic drawing. The print has a serenity that derives from the muted tones of red and purple which cover only certain aspects of leaves and wing, leaving the majority of the image to be represented by flowing black lines and negative space. By contrast, the drawing explodes off the page in a bright, high contrast rainbow that crowds for attention on a fully coloured image. Front and centre is the owl’s chest, smooth and white on the print, a saturated yellow with textural cross hatching on the drawing.


AshevakKenojuakSilverOwlKenojuak Ashevak Silver Owl (1999)


Silver Owl, which appeared in the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative collection, is a work of etching and aquatint, techniques that Ashevak experimented with in the last decade of her life. There is less of the imaginative colour play that we associate with her more eye-catching owls; instead, the silvery-purple palette of the bird’s body has an almost metallic sheen, which is softened by the watercolour effect created by the aquatint. The image is energized by her buoyant use of lines—the owl’s magnificent wings are dramatically raised as if it is about to take off.

Kenojuak Ashevak Singular Owl (2006)


It’s odd that Ashevak decided to call this work Singular Owl. This is one of many works by Ashevak where the owl appears alone, and in this case the viewer is granted a more expansive view of the background flora than usual, so the owl does not truly stand alone on the print. Further, this piece was produced around the same time as Secluded Owl (2006), and from the warm greens and oranges as well as the floral accoutrements, it’s clear that they are a pair. Birds of a feather flock together, don’t they?

AshevakKenojuakSolitaryOwlKenojuak Ashevak Solitary Owl (1998)


“Don’t call me, Owl call you” – Solitary Owl. Both literally and figuratively, this owl stands alone. It is the only object on the page, dominating the background with a blue that seems to emanate from its chest in a subtle glow. It is also one of the few examples of an Ashevak print with a dark background. Usually either left blank or else shaded with a primary colour, the deep brown printed onto the background gives a texture and interest needed in a print which features little in the way of other visual stimuli.

AshevakKenojuakSummerOwlKenojuak Ashevak Summer Owl (1979)


If you can’t take the heat, get out your owls. Ashevak has several Summer Owls. Her first, from 1975, is all greens, yellows and navys. This second attempt at summer, from 1979, features exuberant pinks, purples and oranges that call to mind flamingoes and tropical paradises. The owl’s body is obscured by radial foliage, placing the head as the yellow pistil of an enormous flower.

AshevakKenojuakWildOwlKenojuak Ashevak Wild Owl (1967)

WILD OWL (1967)

“All good things are wild and free” says Henry David Thoreau, and Wild Owl is no exception. A flurry of antlers and leaves burst forth from the head of this staring animal, identifiable as an owl only by the eyes and beak, which remain constants regardless of how much Ashevak abstracts the owl itself.

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