Being and Becoming: The Life and Art of Pitseolak Ashoona

Cover image for Pitseolak Ashoona: Life and Work, Art Canada Institute, 2015. Pictured: Pitseolak Ashoona, The Shaman’s Wife, 1980 Stonecut and stencil on paper, 71 x 50.5 cm Cape Dorset annual print collection 1980

Two women laugh together as they gut fish. A group of men build an inukshuk as a beacon for the seasonal Hudson’s Bay Company ship. A bird plucks hairs from the head of a shaman’s tattooed wife.

In Pitseolak Ashoona’s world, the stuff of everyday life is a window into the past, a reflection of current reality, and a record for future generations. Created in graphite, felt-tip pen and coloured pencil, her drawings have become iconic examples of mid-20th-century Inuit art, setting the tone, to some extent, for many later Inuit artists.

In a recently published e-book by National Gallery of Canada (NGC) curator Christine Lalonde, Pitseolak’s work is given the comprehensive treatment befitting one of Canada’s most celebrated artists. Published by the Art Canada Institute (ACI) and available for free download, the beautifully designed Pitseolak Ashoona: Life and Work contains numerous illustrations of Pitseolak’s work from collections across Canada, as well as archival photographs and the work of other artists — including several celebrated members of Pitseolak’s own family.

Pitseolak Ashoona, Untitled, 1979–80, coloured pencil and coloured felt-tip pen on paper, 46.4 x 66.5 cm. Collection of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Ltd., on loan to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario

“One of the things we’re trying to do,” said Sara Angel, Founder and Director of ACI in an interview with NGC Magazine, “is showcase artists who either are, were, or should be, household names. In this case, Pitseolak is someone who was a rock-star artist in the 1970s, but had become less well-known over the years. Christine Lalonde’s book helps change that.”

The book opens with a biographical section on Pitseolak’s life, including the artist’s own observation that she had an “unusual life, being born in a skin tent, and living to hear on the radio that two men landed on the moon.”

Born sometime between 1904 and 1908, Pitseolak lived in relative prosperity until the death of her trapper father in 1922. As Lalonde notes in the book, “By the time she was five or six, Pitseolak had travelled with her family thousands of miles [. . . ] Travelling these distances by umiaq [sealskin boat], dog team and qamutiq (sled), as well as on foot, Inuit developed a profound knowledge of the landscape — one that would later inform and inspire Pitseolak’s art.”

Pitseolak Ashoona, Portrait of Ashoona, c. 1970, coloured felt-tip pen on paper, 27.6 x 20.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

When her father died, the family’s days of prosperity ended. Pitseolak was given in an arranged marriage to Ashoona, whom she had known since childhood. Although Pitseolak mentions a rocky start to the union, she also says that, “after I got used to my husband I was really happy; we had a good life together.” One of the more humorous works in the book is Pitseolak’s felt-tip pen Portrait of Ashoona (c. 1970), depicting her husband playfully touching the tip of his tongue to his nose.

Ashoona was a hunter and guide, and Pitseolak often spent time alone or with the other women in hunting camps while the men were away. During her marriage, she bore 17 children, and lived a conventional existence for an Inuit woman, preparing hides, sewing both clothing and shelter for her family, and cooking meals. All of these activities would eventually figure prominently in her later art, particularly in detailed works such as Summer Camp Scene (c. 1974).

Pitseolak Ashoona, Summer Camp Scene, c. 1974, coloured felt-tip pen on paper, 50.6 x 65.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

It was often a difficult life. Some of Pitseolak’s children died in childhood. Some were adopted out and raised by other Inuit families, as was the custom of the time. In the drawing, Pitseolak’s Hardship #2 (1999–2000) by Pitseolak’s daughter, Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002), a child is violently removed from its mother — although Pitseolak herself never publicly referred to such an incident, nor reflected it in any of her work.

In the mid-1940s, Ashoona died of an illness, and life became even more difficult. As Lalonde writes, however: “Despite the impact of the years of hardship that followed his death, scenes of deprivation or suffering almost never appear in her drawings . . . Pitseolak was one of the first Inuit artists to create openly autobiographical work, yet she focused almost completely on good memories and experiences.”

An Inuit widow with young children to raise would normally remarry as soon as possible. Pitseolak, however, did not. Instead, she made do, living with extended family and supporting herself with sewing and other activities.

Around this time, the world was waking up to the unique beauty of Inuit art. In 1956, James Houston and his wife Alma moved to Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, and, supported by a circle of local Inuit leaders, began developing the Inuit arts and crafts program that became the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative.

Napachie Pootoogook, Pitseolak’s Hardships #2, 1999–2000, black felt-tip pen on paper, 51 x 66.2 cm. Winnipeg Art Gallery

Pitseolak was a skilled seamstress, and at first produced traditional items of clothing such as decorated mittens and parkas for sale through the Co-op. She had also taken note, however, of the drawings and prints being created for the Co-op by one of her older cousins, and began drawing. “Nobody asked me to draw,” she once said, recalling that she had originally decided to draw to earn extra money for her grandchildren. Although she had never really drawn before, one night, she produced a trio of drawings, took them to the Co-op the next day, and received $20. “I realized I could get money for them,” she marvelled. “Ever since then, I have been drawing.”

All of ACI’s books feature original scholarship by their authors, and Pitseolak Ashoona: Life and Work is no exception. “I hate to admit it,” says Angel, “but despite years of art education, I knew next to nothing about Pitseolak before Christine brought her to life in this book. The idea for us is always to present artists from today’s perspective, and Christine did that admirably well.” 

One of the most interesting comments by Lalonde in the book is her observation of the commonalities between traditional Inuit sewing and Pitseolak’s drawings: “Pitseolak made many images of the landscape, continuously refining her depiction of visual space. From her years of designing and sewing textiles, she adapted two devices found in Inuit clothing design: mirroring a motif, and breaking down the visual surface into registers.”

Pitseolak Ashoona, Innukshuk Builders, 1968, stonecut on paper, 69.8 x 60.9 cm. Cape Dorset annual print collection 1968

The 1970s were particularly rewarding for the artist. In 1971, a book and a National Film Board documentary, both called Pictures Out of My Life, profiled Pitseolak and her work. In 1974, she was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts. From 1976 to 1978, a retrospective exhibition, simply titled Pitseolak, was produced the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in partnership with the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. The exhibition toured to three venues in Canada and five in the U.S. Crowning a banner decade, in 1977 Pitseolak received the Order of Canada for her contribution to Canadian visual arts and heritage. And posthumously in 1993, she was one of four important Canadian women featured on a series of postage stamps issued on International Women’s Day.

Over her lifetime, Pitseolak, who died in 1983, produced somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 drawings. Of these, about 250 were turned into prints. For the most part, other printmakers reproduced her work. This resulted in some interesting reinterpretations, several of which are presented in the book. Her felt-tip pen drawing Innukshuk Builders (c. 1966–1968), for example, is a colourful sketch with vigorous pen strokes clearly visible. The same drawing, when turned into a stonecut print by Lukta Qiatsuk, becomes a highly graphic black-on-white work.

Pitseolak Ashoona, The Eyes of a Happy Woman, c. 1974, coloured felt-tip pen on paper, 66.2 x 51 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

For many years, the 1971 book Pictures Out of My Life, edited by Dorothy Harley Eber, was the definitive book on Pitseolak’s work. With Christine Lalonde’s ACI publication, however, Pitseolak’s art has been revisited for a new generation, showcasing the vibrancy, wry humour, and timeless vitality of an unforgettable artist.

In a recorded ACI talk on Pitseolak, Christine Lalonde is asked if she has a favourite work. Although noting that it’s difficult to choose, Lalonde selects The Eyes of a Happy Woman (c. 1974). “I am convinced,” she says in the video, “that this is Pitseolak looking at us. She’s also added these whimsical eyes and set it in this happy, joyful sphere. And to me that really does sum up Pitseolak as an artist and as a person.”

Pitseolak Ashoona: Life and Work by Christine Lalonde is an Art Canada Institute publication, available in both French and English, either to read online or download from the ACI website.  

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