Jessie Oonark (1906 - 1985)

Jessie Oonark, OC RCA, was a prolific, influential Canadian Inuit artist of the Utkuhihalingmiut, whose wall hangings, prints and drawings are in major collections including the National Gallery of Canada. She was born in 1906 in the Chantrey Inlet (Tariunnuaq) area, near the estuary of the Back River in the Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut) - the traditional lands of the Utkukhalingmiut (the people of the place where there is soapstone).

Her artwork portrays aspects of the traditional hunter-nomadic life that she lived for over five decades, moving from fishing the camp near the mouth of Back River on Chantrey Inlet in the Honoraru area to their caribou hunting camp in the Garry Lake area, living in winter snow houses (igloos) and caribou skin tents in the summer. Oonark learned early how to prepare skins and sew caribou skin clothing. They subsisted mainly on trout (lake trout and Arctic char), whitefish, and barren-ground caribou. The knife used by women, the ulu, their clothing, the kamik, the amauti were recurring themes in her work.

Oonark's work illustrated a 1972 anthology of Inuit poetry from the circumpolar regions including Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia 1972. In the spring of 1972, Baker Lake print collection is released and it includes five Oonark prints, two of which are based on small wall hangings. The stencil print, Young Woman, is featured on the cover of the catalogue. Later that year, an Oonark wall hanging is commissioned by The Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario, is featured on the cover of their publication, The Business Quarterly.

In May 1975 Oonark was elected a Member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Later that year, the Baker Lake print collection is released featuring 11 Oonark prints, a new record for the artist. By 1976, Oonark is well known in her community. That year, her work was featured on 2 stamps for the United Nations commemorating the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. The first day of Issue was May 28, 1976.

In 1984 she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

In the first generation of Inuit artists working in printmaking, Oonark, together with Pitseolak Ashoona and Kenojuak were recognized quickly as significant figures, receiving solo exhibitions, scholarly attention and professional awards. Rosemary Tovell wrote in the catalogue entitled Baker Lake Prints 1985 that when Oonark died in 1985, the Canadian Eskimo Art Council (CEAC) were quoted as saying that they were pleased with the quality of her last prints and they recognized that "Without Oonark, Baker Lake as a centre for prints may never have happened. It was largely due to her enormous talent that the world's attention came to the community." On September 4th, 2016, the CBC released an article titled, "Inuit Art Centre to Reveal Beauty of the North in the South" discussing Winnipeg's $65-million centre that will house the world's largest collection of Inuit art. In it, they reference the important role printmaking played, especially for female artists like Oonark, Kenojuak Ashevak and Helen Kalvak, who gravitated towards visual arts, while men focused on stone-carving which required more physical strength.

All her children, Janet Kigusiuq, Victoria Mamnguqsualuq Kayuryuk, Josiah Nuilalik, Nancy Pukirniq, Miriam Qiyuq, Peggy, Mary Yussipik and William Noah are artists.

[source: wikipedia]