Jessie Oonark (1906-1985)

Jessie Oonark Narwhal Gallery

Portrait by Marion Jackson. The Narwhal Inuit Art Gallery currently holds a copy of the print Giver of Life – Price on application

Jessie Oonark was born around 1906 in the Back River area, about one hundred and fifty miles north of Baker Lake. She lived a traditional life with her family on the land. When Jessie was between twelve and fourteen years of age she left her family to live with Quabluunaq, near Chantrey Inlet, and he became her husband. In those days, parents arranged marriages between their children. Often these arrangements were made when the children were still very young. Traditionally, Inuit did not participate in a formal marriage ceremony. When they were of marrying age, and the parents agreed, the young woman and man would declare their commitment by simply beginning a life together. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries began introducing Christianity to the people of the north. Through their efforts, many Inuit converted to Christianity. In 1946, about 28 years after Jessie and Quabluunaq had begun their life together, they were formally married with a Christian ceremony in Baker Lake.

Unfortunately, Jessie was widowed in 1953 or 1954. She had eight children at that time; six of them were married. Two of her children still lived with her. They could not support themselves on the land without Quabluunaq to hunt for them. Her relatives tried to help, but the 1950s were a time of famine. Their major resource, the caribou, had changed migration paths away from the Back River area. Jessie moved to Baker Lake in 1958 and managed the best she could. At this time, she happened to accompany her children to school where she saw the students drawing pictures. She said that she could do better than that, if she had the supplies. Fortunately, a biologist named Dr. Andrew Macpherson was working in the north and overheard her comment. He took it upon himself to supply Jessie with paper and pencils and tried to help her market the drawings.

A group of six drawings were sent to the newly established Cape Dorset printmaking shop. Although she is from Baker Lake, her first prints were released in the 1960 Cape Dorset portfolio.

Jessie had a distinguished career as an artist. She started to make art at age fifty-four and continued for another nineteen years, being very prolific. She is best known for her wall hangings and her prints. Her use of bold, flat areas of colour distinguishes her individual style, which is thought to be firmly grounded in traditional Inuit sewing techniques. As a wife and mother, she sewed for her family. Her skills with clothing manufacture were adapted to suit the fabrication of wall hangings. Bernadette Driscoll points out that her experience as a seamstress may have given her a preoccupation with shape instead of line. Shapes are predominant in all of her work, drawings and prints, as well as wall hangings.

The ulu knife is traditionally a woman's knife. The rounded, fan shaped blade has become an icon of Inuit art. Jessie has incorporated the ulu knife into many of her works. The ulu takes the place of peoples' hands and feet in Hands and Feet like Ulus (1981). She also placed ulus side by side to represent the body of a fish in Fish with Ulus (1981).

Jessie Oonark is widely recognized as an artist and has received many honors. A copy of her best known image 'Giver of Life' was presented to the Pope on his visit to Ottawa in 1983. She was elected as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1975 and named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984. The Jessie Oonark Arts and Crafts Center in Baker Lake was named in her honour and continues to be the centre of artistic excellence for the community.

She was a talented, multi disciplinary artist who worked on her art, almost daily, until 1979. Unfortunately, she lost the dexterity in her hands following a neurological operation in Winnipeg. The loss of the use of her hands greatly frustrated her because she had so many ideas for wall hangings and prints that she could not bring to fruition. She passed away in Churchill, Manitoba in 1985 and her body was flown back to Baker Lake for burial.

In common with the great first generation Inuit Artists she is represented in all major worldwide public and private Inuit Art collections both for her graphics and wall hangings. Her works are regularly available through the secondary auction market, and a large wall hanging purchased in 2004 at Waddington's auction Toronto currently holds the record price achieved for a two dimensional Inuit Art piece at $165,000.