• Feature

Get to Know Ookpik Through 5 Inuit Artists

Mar 29, 2022
by IAQ

With their wide faces, large eyes and varying shapes, textures and personalities, ookpiks have a rich history in Inuit art. Coming into popularity in the 1960s, following Jeannie Snowball’s handcrafted sealskin dolls, Ookpik became iconic. The figure of the owl quickly proliferated in popular and consumer culture and has inspired countless expressions. More than consumer items, owls continue to be a significant subject for Inuit artists. Traversing time, space and media, these fuzzy friends bring joy to all. 

Take a closer look and get to know Ookpik through 5 Inuit artists. 


Kenojuak Ashevak
Owl’s Embrace (1995) Lithograph 57.1 x 61 cm

When I think of owls, the first thing that comes to mind is their large piercing eyes that allow them to see in the dark. In Owl’s Embrace (1995), Kenojuak Ashevak captures this trait with striking accuracy, the whites of the owl’s eyes popping against the speckled black background that is reminiscent of a starry night sky. The owl figure is situated with two raven-like birds within its wingspan and a wolf in the center with its head tilted high as if howling to the moon. This hierarchical cascade evokes feelings of protection and watchfulness, honouring the owl’s all-knowing presence in the animal world.

—Lisa Frenette, Associate Editor


Jeannie Snowball
Ookpik (1965) Sealskin, hide and cotton thread 25.4 x 20.3 x 19 cm

You can’t have a list of ookpiks without featuring Jeannie Snowball’s iconic sealskin owl, with its furry rotund body and inquisitive eyes. The “OG” of ookpiks, Snowball’s handicraft was chosen to represent Canada at a 1963 Philadelphia trade show, where it captured the hearts and wallets of southern buyers while earning its place as the country’s unofficial mascot. Copyrighted by the federal government on behalf of the Fort Chimo co-operative in 1964, Ookpik became the star of comics, books and songs, and remains a nostalgic symbol of Montreal’s Expo ’67.

Snowball was a talented seamstress, who, according to a story from her granddaughter, Etua Snowball, originally created the doll as a way of paying tribute to an owl that she hunted to save her family from near-starvation. Snowball’s story of resilience has faded into the background, while her Ookpik design has become ubiquitous within the North and Inuit culture and as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists such as Kablusiak.

—Sue Carter, Deputy Editor


Ningiukulu Teevee
Owl and Friend (n.d.) Graphite, coloured pencil and ink 58.4 x 76.2 cm

Want to get acquainted with an owl? Look no further than the work of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, graphic artist Ningiukulu Teevee. In the tradition of Kenojuak Ashevak, Teevee has countless ways to describe these intriguing birds of prey that’ll bring you joy. Taking inspiration from often-told Inuit stories like The Raven and the Owl, Teevee imagines these familiar characters in new scenarios, creating dynamic and fully realized personalities that come to life and make me laugh. With her piercing yellow eyes, I was drawn to this drawing, Owl and Friend (n.d.), looking closer at this white ookpik set against a field of pink and blue. Feathers clasped behind her back, she looks over her shoulder and walks forward as the tail of her amauti trails behind her. Moving my eyes down to her kamiits—there!—I finally spotted her feathered friend, the tiniest beak of her old pal, the raven, barely peeking out from this surprisingly large owl’s toe. 

—Leanne Inuarak-Dall, Contributing Editor


Michael Massie
Thinking Long and Intensely About Contemplation (2016) Anhydrite, bone, ebony, birch and brass 15.3 x 20.3 x 8.5 cm

Made of hard stone instead of cuddly sealskin and stuffing, this isn’t a typical ookpik. Michael Massie said that the title came to him when he saw the raw stone, and he set out to match it by carving an owl deeply in thought. And yet Thinking Long and Intensely About Contemplation (2016), with its triangular body leaning slightly to one side and feet flopping out at the base, retains the shape and feel of a childlike ookpik doll, the mottled body like the downy feathers of an owlet with narrowed eyes peering down at its own talons like human babies do with their toes. 

—Jessica MacDonald, Associate Editor


Agnes Nanogak
Furious Owl (1977)

To me, one of the most striking things about snowy owls are their black markings that contrast stark against their white plumage. Agnes Nanogak’s delicate linework captures them beautifully in this vivid print. She balances the bold sharp lines with elongated curves that give a great sense of the action in this scene. The eyes are drawn to those lethal talons and with a downcast head and drooping legs, there is no question who is predator and who is prey. As if we needed another cue, this ookpik’s crimson crown and glowing yellow eyes secure its place at the top of the food chain while bringing a vivid splash of colour to the page. 

—Napatsi Folger, Associate Editor



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