Earth Day: Jutai Toonoo

Jutai Toonoo, Untitled (Landscape), 2008, oil stick on wove paper

Jutai Toonoo, Untitled (Landscape), 2008, oil stick on wove paper, 118 x 118 cm. Purchased 2010. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Jutai Toonoo, Dorset Fine Arts Photo: NGC

Jutai Toonoo spent his life in Kinngait, Nunavut, part of a highly artistic family that included his father, carver Toonoo, his mother, carver and draftswoman Sheojuke Toonoo, and his sister, renowned sculptor Oviloo Tunnillie. He began carving his own sculptures by copying those of his father when he was seven years old. Toonoo was always determined to pursue his own path, creating works that in style and subject matter went against the grain of art practices in Kinngait at the time. He avoided, for example, overt references to Inuit culture and traditional Inuit themes and imagery. “I try to say what’s on my mind. It’s my perception of my surroundings, of what is going on around me,” the artist has stated, as cited by curator Christine Lalonde in Inuit Sculpture Now.

Although he began his career in sculpture, Toonoo only came to works on paper in 2006 – participating in workshops using oil stick with printmakers Paul Machnik and Bill Ritchie, he emerged as one of the most immediately apt at the media. Untitled (Landscape) is evidence of his confidence in this material and of his quick grasp of its expressive potential. Rather than laying down solid areas of colour with a heavy hand, Toonoo has explored and invented a variety of applications for different effects, as seen in the layered cross-hatching in the sky and in the parallel undulating lines to depict water.

In this view of the islands and hilly land across the water from Kinngait, Toonoo not only communicates physical details of a place but also an awareness of the seasons in flux. A clear day, it is full of light, unlike the startlingly brilliant light that occurs in late spring when the sun returns, eventually lasting 24 hours, and when the ice and snow begin to melt at a rapid rate. The land formations, drawn in saturated earth tones, stand out against the light blue of the icy water. Toonoo has captured a sense of the movement in the sky and the flow of currents in the water around the rocky outcrops. It is a fresh and beautiful depiction of the northern landscape that is both clear and deeply expressive and dramatic.

Describing the inspiration behind this work in a 2009 interview for Inuit Art Quarterly, the artist explained: “The workshop where we work has only three small windows. I made a small sketch, looking out one of the windows, of rocks and snow. When I worked on the actual painting it became an impression of what I saw out the window. It became sort of a fantasy thing [a] painting of a sketch. Reproduced … morphed.” Toonoo’s works act as reflections of the environment and landscape around him, vivid and impressionistic views of his experience in the North.


Jutai Toonoo's work is on view in We are the Land; the Land is Us, Room B104, at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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