Published on September 15, 2013 by Amy
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Jessie Oonark, OC (March 2, 1906 – March 7, 1985) was a Canadian Inuit artist who is best known for her wall hangings and her prints.
Oonark was born in a remote area roughly 150 km north of Baker Lake, near the Back River in Nunavut on March 2, 1906. Her name was sometimes written as Una or Unaaq.
She was married to another Inuit at a young age, but in approximately 1953 was widowed with two of her eight children still dependent on her. During this period, the annual caribou migration – on which the Caribou Inuit in the Kivalliq Region depended – shifted away from the area where she lived, leaving many Inuit to starve. Unable to support her children through hunting under such harsh conditions, she moved to Baker Lake in 1958. There, she started drawing, inspired by her children’s efforts at the mission school in Baker Lake.
While Oonark was living at Kazan River, her drawings were noticed by Mrs Sam Dodd, the wife of the Baker Lake area administrator. Her efforts led to two of Oonark’s images, Inland Eskimo Woman/Eskimo Woman and Tattooed Faces being published as single color stonecuts in the 1960 Cape Dorset print collection. The 1961 Cape Dorset collection also included an Oonark image. It was unusual for an artist living outside of Cape Dorset to be included in the annual collections.
In Baker Lake, several of Oonark’s images were included in an experimental print collection produced in 1965. The first Baker Lake Print collection was released in 1970, and included several Oonark images. She continued to contribute images to the Baker Lake Print collections until 1985.
Despite a late start – she was 54 years old when her work was first published – she was a very active and prolific artist over the next 19 years, creating a body of work that won considerable critical acclaim and made her one of Canada’s best known Inuit artists. Her style is marked by her bold use of large areas of flat colour and the attention she paid to shapes rather than to line styles. Although her medium was wall hangings and prints, her technique drew largely on traditional styles used in Inuit sewing and clothing manufacture.
Following surgery in 1979, she lost much of her manual dexterity and produced only a few more pieces afterwards. Her career had lasted roughly 19 years, but its impact on Inuit art – and on the perception of Inuit art in the larger world – is considerable.
In 1975 she was elected a Member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and in 1984 she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. She died March 7, 1985 in Churchill, Manitoba and is buried in Baker Lake.