stroud, felt, and embroidery floss, 10.5 x 72 in (26.7 x 182.9 cm)
ESTIMATE: $25,000 — $35,000
PRICE REALIZED: $31,200
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" .
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 .
In that drawing, the figures of Oonark and her husband Kabloonak (d. 1953) form the bow and stern . 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.