Spotlight on Jessie Oonark

June 21, 2020

Highlights from our Forthcoming 12 July 2020 Auction

Lot 19, Jessie Oonark, Wallhanging


Jessie Oonark is the most celebrated Baker Lake artist, a recognized genius in both the graphic and textile arts. Her drawings, prints and wall hangings can be found in virtually every major public and private collection of Inuit art in the world and have been exhibited and published extensively. Oonark's works range from small, intimate drawings to an immense textile hanging (373 x 601 cm) which hangs in the foyer of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Oonark's genius was her ability to fuse narrative, symbolic, and decorative elements into works that are simultaneously delightful, profound, and moving. Her compositions and colour sense feel intuitive and spontaneous yet her images are brilliantly designed. 


Oonark was born in April, 1906 near the estuary of the Back River north of Baker Lake. She began living at Chantrey Inlet with her future husband, Qablunaaq, at about the age of fourteen; her first child, Kigusiuq, was born in 1926. The family lived in the Back River/Garry Lake region for several decades. Qablunaaq died around 1953, but Oonark and her youngest children continued living a traditional camp life until 1958, supported by her brother-in-law and older children. In March of that year Oonark and her young children, believed to be starving, were evacuated by plane to Baker Lake. Eventually the entire family was relocated to the community.


At first Oonark worked at various odd jobs to support her family, but she was soon recognized for her drawing and sewing skills. Her occasional drawings, clothing and small hangings supplemented the family's income throughout the 1960s, and Oonark was encouraged to participate in experimental art projects by a succession of arts advisors in Baker Lake. By the time the Baker Lake graphic and textile arts projects became established in earnest in 1969 under the direction of Jack and Sheila Butler, Oonark was well positioned to become a mainstay artist. Jessie Oonark quickly and deservedly became one of the most renowned and influential Inuit artists of all time. She worked and experimented ceaselessly until 1979, when her artistic career was cut short by a neurological condition in her hands and legs. Jessie Oonark died on March 2, 1985, and according to her wishes was buried on a hill just outside Baker Lake.


Remarkably, Oonark launched an artistic dynasty in Baker Lake; all eight of her surviving children became artists: Janet Kigusiuq, Josiah Nuilaalik, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Miriam Nanurluk Qiyuk, Mary Yuusipik Singaqti, Peggy Qablunaaq Aittauq, Nancy Pukingrnak Aupaluktuq, and William Noah.


First Arts is proud to offer five magnificent works by Jessie Oonark in our July 2020 collection.


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Sunday 12 July 2020 at 7:00 PM


LOT 19

Lot 19, Jessie Oonark, Wallhanging


Untitled Wall Hanging, 1974

stroud, felt, and embroidery floss, 10.5 x 72 in (26.7 x 182.9 cm)

signed "ᐅᓇ".


Estimate: $25,000⁠  $35,000


Inukshuk Gallery, Waterloo, Ontario;

Acquired from the above by a Private Collection, Ontario.



Inukshuk Gallery, Kenojuak/Oonark: Prints - Wall-hangings -

Sculpture (Waterloo: May 1977).


Jean Blodgett beautifully summarizes Oonark's approach to visual expression in the concluding paragraph of her essay, "The Art of Jessie Oonark", "In Oonark's hands, space becomes subject, real becomes abstract, decorative becomes symbolic, thought becomes image; or vice versa; or some combination of them all or more" [1]. 


Canoes do not appear often in Oonark's art, but it turns out that Oonark had a very strong personal memory of one in particular, when describing a 1974 drawing in the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre collection:

The first time our family allowance was received, we had a lot of cash and we bought a canoe and a sewing machine at the same time! It was the very first canoe that I ever had, and I even asked my brother-in-law to go and get it. It was a really nice canoe. It came from Baker Lake. That's me (on the end) and those are my kids and my husband in the canoe [2].


In that drawing, the figures of Oonark and her husband Kabloonak (d. 1953) form the bow and stern [3]. Is it possible, then, that the two pairs of male and female figures at opposite ends of this hanging represent Oonark and Kabloonak in a slightly different configuration? The bird figures that form two of the canoe bow/sterns appear on another 1974 hanging by the artist (see reference). Birds and bird-people appear so frequently in Oonark's hangings and drawings that they seem to take on a talisman-like significance for the artist. The birds here could be viewed as spirit guides.


We wonder if the sequence of four canoes represents a single craft making its way along a lake or river (or through time, or memory), or if Oonark was once again multiplying and modifying shapes for decorative/symbolic effect. Given the "processional" look of much of Oonark's imagery, comparisons have often been drawn between her wall hangings and Egyptian art. In that vein, let us point out a serendipitous similarity here: the image looks like a small flotilla of Egyptian funerary boats!


In the mid 1970s Oonark experimented with interesting shapes and formats for her wall hangings; this period is replete with hangings that are round, oval, and igloo-shaped, as well as narrow vertical and horizontal formats. And within those novel layouts she continuously played not only with varying configurations of her subject matter but also with alternating and contrasting patterns of lush and more muted colours, in both appliqué and embroidery. And, typically, she loved symmetry but was never a slave to it, making numerous small changes to the figures and their embellishments. As we allow our eyes to skip back and forth across this beautiful wall hanging, we realize that it is defined as much by its quirks as it is by its symmetry.


1. In Jean Blodgett and Marie Bouchard, Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective (WAG, 1986) p. 71.

2. This thematically related drawing by Oonark, also from 1974, is illustrated in Marion Jackson et al, Qamanittuaq: Where the River Widens (Guelph: Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, 1995) cat. 10.

3. For a 1982 (#17) Oonark print with closely related imagery see People in Kayaks. The print depicts people and animals in three vertically stacked kayaks; the bottom boat has a human prow and stern.

References: For a thematically closely related hanging, also from 1974, see Jean Blodgett and Marie Bouchard, Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1986) cat. 61. For an identically sized horizontal hanging by Oonark, also from 1974, see Waddington's Auctions, Nov. 2007, Lot 138. For a similarly proportioned (145 x 26 cm) but vertical hanging by Oonark from c. 1977, see Bernadette Driscoll, "Tattoos, Hairsticks and Ulus: The Graphic Art of Jessie Oonark" in Arts Manitoba (Fall 1984), pp. 12-19.


View Additional Images

 LOT 20

Lot 20, Jessie Oonark, Inland Eskimo Woman



Inland Eskimo Woman, 1960 #62

stonecut, 21.5 x 12.5 in (54.6 x 31.8 cm) 



Estimate: $8,000⁠  $12,000



Private Collection, Australia.


Jessie Oonark began drawing in 1959, encouraged by Dr. Andrew Macpherson, a biologist working for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Her drawings quickly aroused interest among government officials, and a half-dozen were sent by a Mrs. Edith Dodds to James Houston in Cape Dorset. Three of these (including Inland Eskimo Woman) were published in the 1960 and 1961 collections, listed as designed by “Una, Kazan River” (which was incorrect, since Oonark was from the Back River region, northwest of Baker Lake). They are the only non-local images ever published in Cape Dorset. It was not until 1970 that Oonark re-emerged as a star of the first Baker Lake print collection.


As a graphic image Inland Eskimo Woman is every bit as striking as Oonark’s famous stonecut and stencil Woman of ten years later (Baker Lake 1970 #14). Its proportions are as radically attenuated as Woman’s are broadened. It is a remarkable harbinger of things to come. We hate to think of a world without the art of Jessie Oonark, but even if she had never produced another drawing or hanging, Inland Eskimo Woman would rank as one of the most supremely elegant Inuit images ever conceived.


Oonark’s keen interest in clothing styles from different regions is well known. In an unpublished 1983 interview with Marion Jackson, Oonark identified the clothing style in this print as “sort of western coast – Gjoa Haven people” [1]. That answer seems rather ambiguous, since Gjoa Haven is situated on King William Island – north, not west, of the Back River/Chantrey Inlet area of Oonark’s upbringing. It should be noted that earlier in that interview Oonark mentioned that her mother “was adopted from the Western Arctic people” [2]. We wonder if the parka style depicted in this print might be a Copper Inuit (i.e. “Western Arctic”) design. For See Judy Hall et al (1994) for photos of a Copper Inuit woman’s amautiq with a short waist, long rear flap, and elongated hood (p. 33), and strikingly similar women’s stockings (p. 36). [3]


1. Marion E. Jackson, Transcripts of Interviews with Jessie Oonark and her Children (unpublished, Inuit Art Section, Indian & Northern Affairs Canada, Spring 1983) p. 13.

2. ibid., p. 2.

3. Judy Hall, Jill Oakes, and Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster, Sanatujut: Pride in Women’s Work (Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994).

References: This image has been fairly widely published, including in Bernadette Driscoll, The Inuit Amautik: I Like My Hood To Be Full (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1980) cat. 89. For a later drawing by Oonark, Eskimo Family c. 1968-69, which depicts a similarly posed woman, see the National Museum of Man travelling exhibition catalogue Oonark-Pangnark (Ottawa: NMM, 1970) cat. 20.


LOT 43

Lot 43, Jessie Oonark, Untitled Drawing


Two Female Spirits, c. 1978

coloured pencil drawing, 29.875 x 22.175 in (76 x 56 cm)

signed in syllabics "ᐅᓇ".


Estimate: $5,000⁠  $8,000



Ex Collection of Lorne Balshine, Vancouver;

Private Collection, Toronto.


Jessie Oonark’s wall hangings could be large and quite complex, often composed of several tiers of figures and symbolic or decorative elements. It is in her drawings that we sometimes see Oonark focussing on simpler compositions, working with fewer and larger figures and design elements, and experimenting with colour combinations. Oonark’s later drawings are rarely narrative; even when she portrays human figures or faces, these are often incorporated into the overall symbolic imagery.


Two Female Spirits is a wonderful case in point: although incorporating two lovely women’s faces, the composition is fundamentally symbolic and almost abstract. The delicate arced shapes emanating from the faces might represent hairsticks (one of Oonark’s favourite symbols of womanhood) but the multiplication of the forms suggests further possibilities: hairsticks and arms? shoulders? wings? Whether these faces represent spirits, or sisters, or a mother and daughter is almost immaterial; they soar ethereally, elegantly, and effortlessly. Stunning.


References: For Oonark drawings incorporating some similar imagery see Blodgett and Bouchard, Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective (WAG, 1986) cat. 63; Waddington’s Auctions, May 2018, Lot 82; Nov. 2015, Lot 107; and June 2014, Lot 78. For similar imagery incorporated into wall hangings see Art Gallery of Ontario, The People Within (Toronto: AGO, 1976) cat. 56. A 1985 print comes to mind as well: Pipedreams (1985 #23), where a cascade of arcs implies flying or swimming.


Lot 44

Lot 44, Jessie Oonark, Untitled Drawing


Challenging Wrestle, c. 1975-76

coloured pencil drawing, 29.875 x 22.175 in (76 x 56 cm)

signed, "ᐅᓇ".


Estimate: $6,000⁠  $9,000



Ex Collection of Lorne Balshine, Vancouver;

Private Collection, Toronto.


This important drawing is either Oonark's original drawing for the serigraph print Challenging Wrestle (executed in 1976 and released as 1977 #24), or a very closely related second version. It is possible that Oonark was playing with the theme and created two slightly different drawings; it seems equally likely that the advisor and/or printer at the Sanavik print studio may have decided to make some changes to the original. This drawing and the print are virtually identical except for the figures on the backs of the fish-people, and the colour changes. In the print the two figures are hunting or competing with spears.


When asked about the print, Oonark described the large figures as creatures that lived in lakes or the ocean, adding that shamans had seen people like these [1]. These two fish-people are the wrestlers, shown with powerful arms and eyes locked together. The two small figures at the top are playing a traditional Inuit pulling game. The figures dancing and standing on the backs of the fish-people seem to be cheering on the combatants. Interestingly, the four small figures resemble those in a late 1960s Oonark drawing [2].  We love Oonark's use of vibrant colour in this drawing; all in all, it's a lively and entertaining image.


1. Marion E. Jackson, Transcripts of Interviews with Jessie Oonark and her Children (unpublished, Inuit Art Section, Indian & Northern Affairs Canada, Spring 1983) p. 37.

2. An early drawing by Oonark, Men at Games (c. 1968-69), illustrates a pulling game assisted by two helpers; see National Museum of Man, Oonark-Pangnark (Ottawa: NMM, 1970) cat. 15.


References: Because of the high degree of symmetry in Oonark's mature style, there are numerous examples of graphics and hangings that incorporate "opposing figures"; see Blodgett and Bouchard, Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective (WAG, 1986) cats. 58, 67, 74. See also Marion Jackson et al, Qamanittuaq (Guelph: Macdonald Stewart, 1995) cat. 64. For fish-people, see Marion Jackson and Judith Nasby, Contemporary Inuit Drawings (Guelph: Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, 1987) cat. 61 and front cover.



Lot 45

Lot 45, Jessie Oonark, Pursuit with Spears and Kayak, 1971



Pursuit with Spears and Kayaks, 1971 (1972 #5)

stonecut, 24.5 x 34 in (62.2 x 86.4 cm)



Estimate: $1,800⁠  $2,800



A Montreal Collection.


We know that Jessie Oonark occasionally drew scenes of caribou hunting as early as 1963, including in the lovely Caching Caribou drawing in the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre collection [1]. Depictions of caribou hunting with bow and arrow crop up in drawings and hangings from the mid 1960s onwards, but scenes of caribou hunting by kayak by Oonark are quite rare. We know of one from the c. 1967, depicting a single kayaker spearing a caribou just as it reaches the shoreline [2].


Pursuit with Spears and Kayaks is probably based on a drawing of the same period. It's a fascinating image; the caribou are naturalistically depicted, but the rendering of the kayak hunters seems naïve by comparison. Oonark seemed to be working out the depiction of the hunters themselves as the drawing progressed, with the upper one being the most realistic; she also depicted the kayakers with Anguhadluq-style mixed perspectives. Note: although the caribou are shown as though walking, Oonark states, "Those are supposed to be swimming caribou and chased by a kayak" [3].


1. See Jean Blodgett and Marie Bouchard, Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective (WAG, 1986) cat. 9. 

2. The felt-tip drawing is illustrated (in reverse) in Richard Lewis ed., I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971) p. 33. The same drawing is published in Sarah Milroy's article "Flashback: Jessie Oonark" in the Inuit Art Quarterly (Fall 2017: 82-95, and online), p. 87.

3. Marion E. Jackson, Transcripts of Interviews with Jessie Oonark and her Children (unpublished, Inuit Art Section, Indian & Northern Affairs Canada, Spring 1983) p. 31. 

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