“Jessie Oonark was born in the area of northern Canada known as the Barren Lands, north and west of the present-day village of Baker Lake, Northwest Territories, where she settled in the late 1950s. Her childhood and young adulthood were spent in the traditional pursuits of an Inuit woman: dressing caribou and sealskins, and making parkas and other items of traditional clothing. Oonark began her career as a graphic artist in 1959, when a Canadian biologist working in Baker Lake gave her art supplies. Her talent was immediately recognized, and she was soon making drawings for sale. A selection of Oonark’s drawings were sent from Baker Lake to Cape Dorset, the only Inuit settlement issuing prints at the time…. She was the only outsider ever included in the Cape Dorset print program.
Oonark was a major force in the development of the graphic arts program at Baker Lake in the 1960s and 1970s. Her singular talent was rewarded by an art advisor at Baker Lake who gave Oonark her own studio and a small salary to allow her the freedom of full-time artistic creativity. (She had previously been working as a janitor at the local church.) Between 1970 and 1985 more than 100 of Oonark’s drawings were translated into prints and issued in the annual Baker Lake print editions.
A strong, bold graphic sense informs all of Oonark’s work. Traditional dress, women’s facial tatoos, and shamanistic themes are common in her art, yet they usually appear as isolated, fragmentary forms, shaped into a graphically bold image rather than a comprehensible narrative. Oonark is also well known as a textile artist, whose wool and felt wall-hangings reveal her as a master of color and form.”
Janet Catherine Berlo in “North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary”, 1995
Most of Jessie’s children are artists: Janet Kigusiuq, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Nancy Pukingrak, Peggy Qablunaaq Aittauq, Mary Singaqti Yuusipik, Josiah Nuilaalik, Miriam Marealik Qiyuk and William Noah.
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