Kenojuak Ashevak, believed to be the last living link to the birth of Inuit printmaking, died Tuesday at her home in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, at the age of 85.
Over a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ashevak's bold, harmonious images of Arctic animals and lives became calling cards for Canadian art around the world. Her image "The Enchanted Owl" was used on a 1970 postage stamp.
By the time of her death, the Ashevak was a member of the Order of Canada, the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and Canada's Walk of Fame. She held several honorary degrees and was the subject of biographies and film documentaries.
Born in 1927 in a traditional camp on south Baffin Island, she lived life on the land before moving to the tiny community of Cape Dorset. There, in 1958, she encountered James Houston, a government administrator who was encouraging Inuit to make art as a way of earning money.
Houston noticed an interesting design that Ashevak had created on a sealskin bag — a rabbit thinking about eating seaweed, she explained.
He handed her a pencil and some paper and asked her to draw it. He took that drawing, traced it onto a stencil and turned it into print.
"Rabbit Eating Seaweed" was Ashevak's first print, part of a debut exhibition of Inuit graphics. The young woman from the remote Canadian North was an immediate success, said Christine Lalonde, an expert in Inuit art with the National Gallery of Canada.
"Already, she had her own sense of design ... She was already willing to let the pencil go because she already had the hand and the eye co-ordination to make the image she already had in her head."
The National Gallery owns several copies of "The Enchanted Owl," including the original pencil sketch from 1960. That sketch reveals much, said Lalonde.
"It's a very simple drawing — pencil on pulp paper. But you can see even then how confident and sure her line was as she's making the curves of the fanning feathers."
A 1963 film of Ashevak at work reveals even more.
"When you see her, you realize she doesn't use an eraser," Lalonde said. "She just sits down and she starts to draw."
Ashevak herself was matter of fact about her working methods.
"When I started drawing my artwork, I was just given a pencil and I started to draw," she said in a 2008 video. "I just kind of move the pencil around and started drawing.
"For drawing animals, or something like that, it's not really coming from the animals but from how I feel."
Ashevak remained creative until her death from lung cancer, with contributions to every annual Cape Dorset print show. Her prints are highly valued — one bidder recently paid more than $58,000 for a copy of "The Enchanted Owl."
Ashevak, the last artist left from the original 1959 exhibition, left an "immeasurable" influence on two generations of Inuit artists, Lalonde said.
Her personal presence was just as profound.
"She was gracious, very well-composed, a very thoughtful person — an observer, with an enormous amount of dignity," said Lalonde. "Even when she was in a roomful of people she was a little bit removed."
Ashevak remained most of her life in Cape Dorset, where she enjoyed a large extended family of children and grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband Johnniebo and several children.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton