The owl that beckons

ODD Gallery director Tara Rudnickas shares her office with the orange crates containing about half again as many of Ashevak’s drawings as the small gallery is able to display

If you have lived in Canada for any time, you will likely recognize her work, even if you weren’t sure how to say her name. Kenojuak Ashevak’s image, “Owl’s Bouquet,” is featured on Canada’s $10 bill. Her iconic “The Enchanted Owl” was featured on a stamp in 1970. She was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and received the Order of Canada. Her images have been part of the story of Canadian identity for a long time.

Ashevak was one of the founding members of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in 1959. Her drawings were some of the first that were carved into the local stone by other members of the cooperative and printed in numbered series. The Cooperative sells members’ work to galleries in the south, and organizes shared purchase of fuel oil and other commodities.

Life and Legacy, a retrospective at Dawson City’s ODD Gallery, was organized in Kinngait, formerly known as Cape Dorset, in cooperation between the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, the Kenojuak Cultural Centre and the Kinngait Arts Foundation. It includes 31 drawings and three prints, drawing from Ashevak’s later production, from 1994 until her death in 2013.

Tara Rudnickas, director of the ODD Gallery, says that they were surprised when the organizers approached them with the show, but figured they wanted to exhibit in other northern communities. The smallish ODD Gallery can only exhibit about half the work. A live video visit with members of the Kinngait community is planned for sometime this fall.

Ashevak is one of the elder artists whose conversations Shuvinai Ashoona would have been listening to as she drew. Ashoona, also a member of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, exhibited Mapping Worlds at the Yukon Arts Centre this fall. Both Ashevak and Ashoona create large, fully committed drawings in coloured pencil and felt tip pen. These are not media that we usually see in works this large. It’s interesting to see the time and commitment expressed in the strokes of these humble drawing materials. Ashevak, in particular, masters a kind of patterning with black coloured pencil that works as a kind of cross-hatching, but with a rounder and more random application. This translates flat areas into something that feels a lot more like stone carving.

There is a National Film Board video about Ashevak that likens her shape-based drawings to shadows made by the light of the qulliq, the Inuit oil lamp, or to shadows on the snow. In the catalogue that accompanies the show, which you can buy from the gallery, the point is made that some of Ashevak’s design strategies, including her symmetries, are influenced by sewing patterns drawn by other women in her culture.

Ahsevak’s work abstracts animals, adding long fingerlike protrusions. These often proliferate past our ability to easily count them, communicating both movement and power. Her owls hold court with other birds. Her long-fingered wolves gather with other animals, or seem to wear a striped serpentine sock. Her compositions reward close observation.

It is curious that in times of COVID, when we cannot easily travel to see other exhibits in the south, Kinngait, remote at the best of times, has so generously come to us here in the Yukon. I am the kind of person who would travel a long way to see an art show by an artist I admire. Kathe Kollwitz and Rita Letendre have motivated trips south for me in the past. There is an exhibition of paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, currently on display in London, England, that I am very sorry to miss.

In consequence, I treasure the opportunity to get to know Ashevak’s work better and invested my art viewing travel in-Yukon. I stayed with a friend at Bombay Peggy’s, right across from the gallery. We had the hotel to ourselves on the Friday night. Whitehorse readers, I invite you to consider a gallery viewing trip to Dawson City. It’s not like you will be flying anywhere else. Ashevak’s owls invite you to fly into your own imagination with her. It might be just the trip you need.




Erin Dixon – Artist documents the vintage, the eclectic and the historical houses of Whitehorse and Dawson

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