Kenojuak Ashevak was born in the outpost camp of Ikirasaq, on the southern coast of Baffin Island, to Silaqqi and Ushuakjuk, a hunter, fur trader and respected shaman . Ashevak first learned traditional skills from her grandmother Koweesa and began carving and drawing in her twenties alongside her husband Johnniebo Ashevak (1923–1972), with whom she shared her love of art . While undergoing treatment in southern Canada, Ashevak began to draw to pass the time . Upon returning north and settling in Kinngait (Cape Dorset) with her husband and family, she met James Houston, OC, FRSA (1921–2005) and Alma Houston, who were establishing an arts program and encouraged her to pursue graphic arts through the Co-op. In the late 1960s Ashevak quickly gained recognition for her prints and has since become arguably the most renowned Inuit artist in the world.
Ashevak worked in carving and drawing but rose to prominence through her graphic works. She portrayed animals, humans and spirits of her surrounding environment, focusing on birds in particular. The Enchanted Owl (1960), one of her 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; Ashevak was the first Inuk to have her artwork on a stamp . The Enchanted Owl is only the beginning of her vast and diverse output.
Ashevak participated in exhibitions across Canada, Europe and Asia, and her work is held in collections internationally. Her achievements are numerous and include the 1963 National Film Board production Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, which opened the eyes of many to the rich cultural life of the Canadian Arctic and, in particular, Ashevak and her artistic practice . She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1967, a Companion to the Order of Canada in 1982 and the Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts in 2008. She received an honorary degrees from the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. Further, she has been included in almost every Annual Cape Dorset Print Collection since 1960. In 2016 Ashevak was the subject of a Canadian Heritage Minute, which paid tribute to the huge impact she continues to have on Inuit artists and Canadian art.
As well as being a renowned artist, Ashevak’s extensive travel schedule placed her in the position of being a cultural ambassador and a role model for women . She was known as charming, gracious, intelligent and humorous, traits that helped her as a public figure. Ashevak spoke of her artistic practice as a way for her to financially support her family, especially after her first husband passed away in 1972. However, drawing and creating were also deeply embedded in her everyday life, and she loved it. Late in life, she was often asked when she would stop drawing, to which she responded, “This is my job and my love. I cannot imagine life without art” .
2016: A Canadian Heritage Minute on the artist was released and was the first one to be presented in Inuktituk as well as English and French.
2014: The campaign to build a new Cultural Centre in Kinngait was launched and was officially named for Ashevak.
2014: The Winter 2014 issue of Inuit Art Quarterly was released as a special issue dedicated to Ashevak.
2008: Ashevak was included in the Inuit Art Foundation Arts Alive Video Archive.
2004: Ashevak created the first stained glass window commission by an Inuit artist at Appleby College, Oakville.
2002: Ashevak was commissioned to do a limited-edition blanket from the famed Pendleton Wollen Mills.
2001: Ashevak was honoured with a Canada Walk of Fame Star in Toronto, ON.
2000: Kenojuak was commissioned to make the print Quiviashutsiaq Arnaq (happy woman) for The Albers Gallery, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.
1996: Ashevak was commissioned by the International Society of Urologists to create the print Owl’s Domain.
1996: The Artists for Kids Trust, Vancouver commissioned Ashevak to create the print Radiant Owl.
1994: To commemorate the signing of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement-in-Principle for the formation of Nunavut, Ashevak conceived and hand-coloured a large and exclusive lithograph entitled Nunavut. The image was eventually on the cover of the final agreement.
1992: Ashevak received her second honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto.
1991: Ashevak received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University.
1990: The limited edition lithograph Nunavut Qajanartuk (our beautiful land) was commissioned by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to commemorate the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut’s land claim agreement.
1988: Ashevak was commissioned to complete a large mural for Via Rail's Club Car series.
1986: Ashevak taped an edition of CBC’s “Tarqravut”.
1983: Ashevak was commissioned by the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and Merritt Editions Limited to create two original prints to be included in a portfolio entitled Idea of the North.
1981: A limited-edition book (275 copies) of Ashevak’s work, Graphic Masterworks of the Inuit: Kenojuak was released.
1981: Ashevak was commissioned to produce a limited edition etching, Myself and I, for Mintmark Press.
1981: Ashevak was selected as one of three artists whose work appeared in a special folio of prints for the Cape Dorset Graphics Annual Catalogue.
1980: Part of a group of six artists was selected to assemble a special etching portfolio for the Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection.
1980: A folio of lithographs, Kenojuak Litho Portfolio II, was published by Waddington Galleries.
1979: Theo Waddington commissioned and published a limited-edition portfolio of 12 lithographs by Ashevak.
1979: Ashevak was commissioned to produce the stencil print Owl with Seagulls in commemoration of the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta.
1978: Ashevak’s design was selected by the Northern Images retail stores as their official logo.
1977: Ashevak was commissioned to make a print for the World Wildlife Fund’s portfolio of six Inuit prints.
1970: Ashevak and Johnniebo collaborated on a 96-square-foot plaster mural to be hung in the Canadian Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.
1967: An engraving portfolio is produced as a set of prints to commemorate Canada's Centennial Year.
1963: Alcan Aluminum commissioned a drawing used on an aluminum tray produced to commemorate the opening of their plant in Kingston, ON.
1962: The National Film Board of Canada produced a film about Ashevak and her life on the land entitled Eskimo Artist – Kenojuak.