AN ARCTIC BESTIARY: Animals in Inuit Prints and Drawings

When most people think of Arctic wildlife polar bears, seals, and, perhaps, whales most likely come to mind.  However, many more animals call the vast northern wilderness home and thousands of others migrate there during the warmer months.  The arrival of the sun after the long Arctic winter heralds a time of plenty for both humans and animals.  Birds are particularly dependent on the season of light, coming by the millions to the Far North from thousands of miles away to mate, raise their young, and then fly south again.  Some species feast on the abundance of fish while others avail themselves of the vast swarms of mosquitoes and other insects that appear at this time of year.

There are many sculptures of Arctic animals by Inuit artists.  However, when they are portrayed in prints and drawings they are rendered in dazzling colors.  From the tiniest insects to the largest mammals, Inuit artists have presented a wide array of living creatures, often in non-realistic and humorous ways.

Auvviq (Caterpillar) by Ningeokuluk Teevee, lithograph, 8/30, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 4”h x 5”w, Cape Dorset Spring Release #8 (20010).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


Even the smallest of Arctic creatures have not been overlooked by Inuit artists.  Auvviq (Caterpillar) offers an image of a caterpillar that is not much bigger than life size.  The work is one of the smallest Inuit prints ever produced. Creating a print on such a tiny scale was quite daring since most Inuit prints are much larger, a few even oversized.  The dimensions of this work combined with the handling of the subject matter give the piece charm and whimsy.  The fact that it is hard to tell which is the creature’s front side and which is its opposite end creates the print’s gentle humor.  The tiny leaf may be a clue.

Mosquitos by Cee Pootoogook, lithograph on BFK Rives White paper; Printer: NujaliaQuvianaqtuliaq, 42/50, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 30x 22.5, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection # 1 (2014).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


Mosquitos by Cee Pootoogook depicts an inescapable fact of life in the Arctic: each spring millions of the insects hatch, becoming a torment for humans and animals alike as well as a food source for thousands of birds, many traveling great distances to partake of the feast.  Up close, Mosquitos is a highly detailed representational work.  However, at a distance, the scores of mosquitos take on a decidedly abstract quality.  The artist’s use of a red background adds a wry sense of humor to the print since mosquitos feed on blood.

Qaumajaq (Fly) by Saimaiyu Akesuk, stonecut, and stencil; Paper: Kizuki Kozo White; Printer: Qavavau Manumie; 3/50, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 37.25” × 24.5”, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection #3 (2014).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


Saimaiyu Akesuk increases our revulsion for flies by magnifying one a thousandfold.  As much as most people despise flies, they are more than just a minor annoyance in the Arctic when they descend by the millions upon the land and its human and non-human inhabitants.  Unlike Cee Pootoogook who used scores of tiny images of mosquitos to suggest their great numbers during the summer months, Saimaiyu Akesuk achieves the same result by using the image of one fly enlarged many times over.

          Iqalutsiavak (Beautiful Fish) by Kenojuak Ashevak, stone-cut & stencil on Osaki Seichosen kozo paper; Printer: Qiatsuq Niviaqsi, 38/50; Colors: green, blue, orange, yellow, burgundy; Inuit, Cape Dorset, 26”h x 32”w, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection #11 (2005).  Collection of E. J. Guarino.


The fish portrayed in Kenojuak Ashevak’s Iqalutsiavak (Beautiful Fish) is a salmon although it is portrayed in a somewhat less than realistic way.  Seeming to swim down the paper, the fish’s body forms an S-like shape  The yellow, orange, and burgundy of the fish’s body and the elongated, balloon-like fins, akin to the opulent feathers of the artist’s fantastic birds, create a work that is visually exquisite.

Arvialuk (Great Big Whale) by Kananginak Pootoogook, lithograph on BFK Rivestan paper, 19/50, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 40h x 30”w, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection # 6 (2003). Donated to the Loeb Art Center Vassar College in 2007 in honor of Kyle Aron Burns.


Kananginak Pootoogook, one of the most famous Inuit artists, was known for his detailed depictions of Arctic wildlife.  The quality of Arvialuk (Great Big Whale) is so fine that it can easily be mistaken for a drawing.  The animal’s body is rendered in rich detail and shadings, but perhaps what is most intriguing is the impression that the creature is alive and sensuously swimming down the page.  Traditionally, whales were a source of food for the Inuit.  However, hunting these massive creatures is dangerous.

The size of Arvialuk (Great Big Whale) is impressive; at forty inches by thirty inches, it is unusually large, which fits its subject matter in much the same way that the dimensions four inches by five inches of Auvviq (Caterpillar) by Ningeokuluk Teevee perfectly matches the content of that work.


Ancient Beluga by Tim Pitsiulak, Inuit, Cape Dorset, etching with chine-collé, /50, Paper: Arches White & Tengu-Jo Tissue Blue; Printer: Studio PM, #4, 25”x 31.5” (2017).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


Tim Pitsiulak was particularly drawn to northern whales, which he presents as noble and mystifying creatures.  The whale the artist created in Ancient Beluga is at once ominous, mysterious, and somewhat playful.  Upturned flippers and an eye that seems to be looking warily back at the viewer give the leviathan a lighthearted quality.  The black whale swims through murky depths suggested by the color blue.  With the use of just two colors, Tim Pitsiulak created an enigmatic work that is somewhat more than a realistic representation of a marine mammal.

            Red Walrus by Tim Pitsiulak, Inuit, Cape Dorset, lithograph,/50, Paper:  Arches Cover White; Printer: Niveaksie Quianaqtullaq, #2, 29.5” x 41.75” (2016).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


It is a common Inuit printmaking practice to isolate an iconic image of Arctic wildlife on the page, but in Red Walrus the figure of the animal takes up almost the entire sheet, making it visually commanding.  At twenty-nine and a half inches by forty-one and three-quarter inches, the work is unusually large.  Clearly, this is an important Arctic animal.  However, the artist has chosen to render it in whimsical fashion since the creature seems to be doing the backstroke across the page.  The viewer is also left to wonder why the artist created a walrus that is red.

Snowy Owl by Kanginak Pootoogook, Inuit, Cape Dorset, etching and aquatint, 18” x 19.5” (1981).  Photo Courtesy of Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto.


Although he produced works on many subjects, Kananginak Pooktoogook was particularly known for his highly detailed, realistic images of northern birds, which earned him the nickname “Audubon of the North.”  Snowy Owl exemplifies the artist’s naturalistic portrayal of animals.  Kananginak was a keen observer of Arctic wildlife and his work reflects this.

            Ornamental Owl by Ooloosie Saila, Inuit, Cape Dorset, stone-cut, 22/50, Paper: Kuzuki Kozo White; Printer: Qiatsuq Niviaqsi, #13, 18”x 24.5” (2017).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


Of course, owls aren’t bright yellow, but often Inuit artists choose to create works that are not completely representational depictions of the natural world.  In art, an animal can be any color an artist can envision.   With Ornamental Owl Ooloosie Saila expands the conceit.  Clearly, the image is not intended to be a realistic representation but, instead, the bird is rendered as a phantasmagorical creature.  Ornamental Owl is about happiness – the sheer joy of living.  The owl’s bright yellow color, outspread wings, and large round eyes are sure to bring a smile to the face of any viewer.   The owl’s brilliant yellow feathers, delineated with black markings, are more striking because of the placement of the bird against the print’s muted background.  Life and movement are suggested by the use of flowing, sensuous lines.

Snow Bunting by Kananginak Pootoogook, Inuit, Cape Dorset, ink and pencil crayon 20” x 26” (1993/94).  Photo courtesy of Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto.


One of the most accurately drawn images created by Kananginak Pootoogook, Snow Bunting is rich in acutely observed details.  Basically a ground-dwelling bird, the snow bunting is the first bird species to arrive in the Arctic after a long, nocturnal migration.  A keen observer of Nature, the artist presents the little bird in a striking pose, wings outspread, mouth open, and tongue protruding.   

            Spotted Loon by Kenojuak Ashevak, lithograph on BFK Rives cream paper; Printer: Pitseolak Niviaqsi; 36/50, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 28”w x 22”h, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection #9 (2006).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


For sheer visual splendor, it would be hard to surpass Kenojuak Ashevak’s Spotted Loon, one of the most glorious Inuit prints ever produced.  Most noted for her birds with phantasmagorical plumage, Kenojuak also created works that, although not photo-realistic, clearly depict a specific species. In Spotted Loon, the bird is identifiable, but Kenojuak has played with coloration, using a steel blue tone and posing the animal against a light burnt sienna background, making the image extremely appealing.

Young Bird in Flight by Kenojuak Ashevak, etching, aquatint, sugar lift & hand-painted by Beatriz Sobrado Sámano, 31/50, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 30½”h x 40½”w, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection # 13 (2010).  Collection of E. J. Guarino.


Young Bird in Flight is decidedly not realistic.  Kenojuak Ashevak is going for something beyond simple documentary truth.  In its portrayal of a young bird suddenly finding itself in mid-air and freaking out, the artist has created a comic work.  Kenojuak’s humorous take on Nature lends a special dimension to Young Bird in Flight.  Seeing young birds attempting to fly is something she would have commonly experienced in her Arctic homeland.  The sugar-lift technique and hand painting add to the visual beauty of the piece by giving it a painterly quality and enhancing the blue and gold tones employed by the artist.

Twilight Raven by Pitaloosie Saila, lithograph; Paper: Arches Cream; Printer: Niveaksie Quvianaqtuliaq; 36/50, Inuit, Cape Dorset, 15” × 22.5, Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection #25 (2015).  Collection of E. J. Guarino.

For the most part, collectors of Cape Dorset prints have tended to prefer colorful and charming images of Arctic wildlife, but in Twilight Raven Pitaloosie Saila subverts the tried and true formula of filling the page with a vibrant, iconic image of an animal.  Her raven, black against a cream page, is somewhat abstracted, with claw-like appendages at the ends of its wings.  It is certainly not a prosaic representation of a bird, but the work is visually interesting, darkly humorous, and undermines expectations.

Call of the Musk Ox by Kananginak Pootoogook, Inuit, Cape Dorset, Lithograph, 14/50, 22½” x 30¼”, 2005 Cape Dorset Spring Print Collection #1.  Collection of E. J. Guarino.


Visually bold, Call of the Musk Ox at first glance appears to be strictly realistic, but the use of color renders the print more complex.  The mixture of hues in the animal’s thick coat is somewhat expressionistic, but it does suggest multiple layers as well as the play of Arctic sunlight.  The animal’s stance is proud and noble.  Symbols of bravery, power, intelligence and loyalty, these huge beasts have been known to fend off a wolf pack.  When their young are threatened the herd forms a protective circle around them, pointing their fearsome horns in the direction of the enemy.  Kananginak drew inspiration from musk ox throughout his career creating sculptures, drawings, and prints of these massive creatures.


Roaring Wolf by Kenojuak Ashevak, pencil crayon & ink & pencil, Inuit, Cape Dorset 20”x26” (2003 – 04).  Collection of E. J. Guarino.


Roaring Wolf is a completely unique approach to representing the natural world.  In this work, the animal is neither rendered in a completely realistic style nor is it abstracted.  Using a muted palette Kenojuak Ashevak creates a wolf that is ferocious, but charming, appearing to be more the type one might encounter in a folk tale rather than in reality.  Certain aspects of the wolf such as its nails and teeth are stylized and its mouth is highlighted by the use of red.  The beast’s fur is drawn in such a way that it has a tactile quality.  The wolf appears to be sly and on the prowl.  However, the title of this work is puzzling since roaring is not a word or action that is usually associated with wolves.  Howling or growling would be more appropriate, but the reason for the use of an inexact word might be a simple one.  Unlike Inuit prints, when drawings are sent south from the Arctic co-ops where they are produced most arrive at galleries as untitled works and some galleries simply choose to sell them as such; other galleries, sometimes in consultation with the artists, decide to title the drawings they have received to make them more marketable.  Whether or not a gallerist who never saw a wolf titled the work is unknown, but it is a possibility.

Walking Bear by Lucy Qinnuayuak, Inuit, Cape Dorset, pentel, 20” x 26” (1976/77).  Collection of E. J. Guarino.


It is doubtful that anyone has ever seen a purple bear, but the imagination of Lucy Qinnuayuak certainly conjured one.  The artist is best known for her images of birds, making a drawing by her of a bear a rare work.  The bear is charming rather than ferocious and its fur has a textile quality because of the use of Pentel.

Mighty Bear by  Quvianaqtuk Pudlat, Inuit, Cape Dorset, Stonecut, 13/50; Paper: Kizuki Kozo Natural; Printer: Qavavau Manumie, #33, 24“ x 37“ (2018).  Collection of E. J. Guarino. 


As is often the case with Inuit prints, the image of the animal in Mighty Bear dominates the page.  Whether or not the artist created an accurate or fanciful representation of a bear is open to interpretation.  There are other Inuit works on paper that show yellowish polar bears.  Such animals do exist in Nature;  the discoloration is caused by environmental pollution.  On the other hand, the bear may simply be pure fantasy on the part of Quvianaqtuk Pudlat.  It is not uncommon for Inuit artists to create works in which the color of the animals they depict has no relationship to reality.

Contrary to what some may believe, the Arctic is not a vast wasteland.  Rather, it is teeming with life on land and in the sea and air.  Scores of insects exist there as well as millions of shellfish, crustaceans, fish (large and small), marine mammals such seals, walruses, and whales, land mammals that include rodents, caribou, bears, foxes, musk ox, wolves, as well as the millions of birds that migrate to the region during the summer months.  From the tiniest sea creatures and insects to the largest mammals, Inuit artists continue to draw inspiration from the living world around them.  Whether created out of stone or brought to life in vibrant colors in works on paper, Arctic animals can be seen by people around the world through the artistry of Inuit artists who sometimes depict them realistically, at other times unrealistically, and often in humorous ways.