LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: The Graphic Art of Janet Kigusiuq

When I first encountered Inuit art I knew nothing about it but the more I saw the more intrigued I became.  Visits to Vancouver and Toronto fueled my curiosity.  With a little research, I discovered that the Arctic Artistry Gallery which specialized in Inuit art was only about two miles from where I lived.  Over the years, before the gallery relocated, I spent many hours there being educated by owner Elaine Blechman.

                Scenes of Inuit Life

       Untitled (Scenes from Inuit Life) by Janet Kigusiuq,  pencil, pencil crayon, Inuit, Baker Lake, 20.5” x 29” (circa 1960s).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


On my first visit Elaine showed me a group of drawings by Janet Kigusiuq, an artist who was totally unknown to me, and I was immediately enthralled.  I had never seen anything like these works before.  Filled to brimming with figures and teaming with life, these drawings fascinated me because of the multiple perspectives, the amount of action portrayed and the incorporation of Inuktitut, the Inuit script.  I immediately declared that I wanted to buy two of them.  Although untitled, both drawings have come to be referred to as Untitled (Scenes from Inuit Life).

 Scenes of Inuit Life 2

Untitled (Scenes from Inuit Life) by Janet Kigusiuq, pencil, pencil crayon, Inuit, Baker Lake, 20.5” x 29” (circa 1960s).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

             According to Elaine Blechman, the drawings (ten in number) were commissioned by Bill Martin, an American publisher working in Canada who collected Inuit art and who was a friend of the artist.  In an Email to Professor Karen Lucic, who was doing research for “Forms of Exchange,” an exhibit at the Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Ms. Blechman explained further: “I know the images were used as illustrations for books because I had publishers tissue and markings to separate certain pictures on each sheet.  However, after much effort, I was never able to identify the book for which these images were destined.  Therefore, I cannot be absolutely certain that they did, in fact, end up as book illustrations although I know that was their purpose.”  To date, this mystery has yet to be solved.  Of the use of Inuktitut script in the drawings she added, “I will tell you that the words will be mundane like ‘Get that seal’ or ‘I want to fish’ or ‘I caught three fish.’  I’ve had enough translations done to be sure of that.  Think of cartoon balloons.  If you look carefully at what is happening in each section you can easily figure out what the saying is.”  The script used in the drawings awaits future researchers to be translated.

Ice Fishing

Ice Fishing – Jigging for Trout by Janet Kigusiuq from the artist’s sketchbook, pencil, pencil crayon and watercolor crayon, Inuit, Baker Lake, 14” x1 1” (1997).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


I became obsessed with acquiring works by Janet Kigusiuq.  Her depictions of life as it was once lived in the Arctic fascinated me so I was delighted that after purchasing a number of such works a staff member of the now defunct Isaacs/Innuit Gallery in Toronto told me that a page from the artist’s sketchbook was available.  I jumped at the opportunity.  Although small, Ice Fishing – Jigging for Trout is a strong work in which two figures, almost certainly a husband and wife, are attempting to catch the fish that swim below them and to do so they have cut a hole in the ice.  Using a piece of string tied to a stick at one end and a tiny, bright object at the other, the seated woman “jigs” the line up and down to attract the fish.  When one appears below the opening in the ice, her husband spears it.  Kigusiuq simultaneously shows us what is going on above the ice and below it.  The artist renders the human world in muted tones but the undersea realm is vibrant and colorful.  The two fish are so charmingly drawn that they are clearly characters in the narrative.

CompAbstract Landscape

Composition (Abstract Landscape) by Janet Kigusiuq, pencil and crayon, Inuit, Baker Lake,  22.5” x 30” (2001).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

             For the next three years, I diligently acquired as many works by Janet Kigusiuq as possible, delighting in her portrayals of Inuit life.  The task I had set myself was a bit daunting because, although the artist’s prints were available, her drawings were scarce.  Then, in 2001 I came upon an aspect of her art that was unknown to me – abstraction.  I had spotted Composition (Abstract Landscape) on the Feheley Fine Arts web site and immediately sent Michelle Lewin, who worked for the gallery at that time, an Email.  She quickly replied, giving me some background: “To clarify about the rarity of her work – Janet suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and her hands are particularly affected.  When I met her in Baker Lake . . . her fingers were curled almost into fists and she was waiting for scheduled surgery . . . . I understand, through mutual acquaintances, that the surgery did help a great deal.  Still, her work is few and further between . . . .  Her determination in creating these large and consuming colour field images continues to amaze me.”

          I was amazed as well.  Relying on muted colors, Kigusiuq abstracted the Arctic environment, a landscape most people envision as lacking in all colors but white.

Untitled Salmon

Untitled drawing by Janet Kigusiuq, pencil and crayon on paper, Inuit, Baker Lake 30” x 22” (1971) Collection of E. J. Guarino

           Although I was particularly interested in acquiring abstract works by Kigusiuq, I did not pass up those that were representational.  In 2002, I acquired an untitled drawing by the artist that intrigued and perplexed me because an oversized salmon dominated a scene in which a man in a kayak appears to be in pursuit of three caribou.  Although I knew that the rigid rules of perspective did not particularly interest Inuit artists, I marveled that the salmon had been drawn much larger than the human or the caribou.  The work is clearly representational but not realistic.  The artist’s intent is not mere documentation of Inuit life.  Kigusiuq was suggesting something more profound – the salmon as a symbol of life, abundant food and fertility.  The reproductive cycle of this fish is well known.  In it’s struggle upstream to spawn, it feeds humans as well as a variety of animals.  After mating, the salmon die, their decomposing bodies also becoming food and fertilizer.   It is a fact that would have been well known to the artist.

My desire to acquire abstract drawings by Kigusuiq was amply satisfied within a few months, so much so that 2002 became a banner year for adding such works to the collection

Sunset on the Tundra

Sunset on the Tundra by Janet Kigusiuq, crayon on paper, Inuit, Baker Lake, 22” x 30” (2002).  Collection of E. J. Guarino


I marveled when I saw Sunset on the Tundra, a work in which the artist has abstracted the play of light across the Arctic landscape as the sun moves lower in the sky.  The time of year is clearly the end of summer, bringing to an end the almost twenty-four hours of sunlight.  Although the drawing’s title references the vast, treeless, almost flat tundra, it is a work of pure abstraction with no physical landmarks.  Kigusiuq has distilled the essenceof the sun setting over the Arctic tundra to its purest form – feeling – which is the hallmark of all abstract art.  In this regard her art is not unlike that of Piet Mondrian who stated, “I wish to approach truth as closely as possisble, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects.”  When Kigusiuq created Sunset on the Tundra her hands were so crippled by arthitis that it was difficult for her to draw so it is a wonder that she was able to produce a work of such artistic quality.

 Arctic Landscape

Arctic Landscape (Greys and Browns) by Janet Kigusiuq, pencil crayon, Inuit, Baker Lake, 22.25” x  30” (2001).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

           Taking the concept of abstraction even further, Kigusiuq produced Arctic Landscape (Greys and Browns) in the same year.  Consisting of just three bands of muted colors, the drawing is courageously minimilist and creates a somber, barren tone by visually revealing another aspect of the Arctic environment, which so many believe to be monochromatic.  A number of other great artists also felt free to pair down their work in daring ways late in their careers.  Among them are Mark Rothko and Henri Matisse as well as Claude Monet who, it can be argued, approached abstraction in his late work.  In many cases, these artists have created some of their most striking works in response to a physical challenge that they would not let dimish their desire to make art.  For Rothko it was an aortic aneurysim and depression; for Matisse – cancer; for Monet – the loss of sight; for Kigusiuq – rheumatoid arthritis.

 Arctic Landscape (collage)

 Arctic Landscape (Sky, Land, Water) by Janet Kigusiuq, paper collage (tissue, acrylic polymer & paper), Inuit, Baker Lake, 22.5” x 30” (1999).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

           When I acquired Arctic Landcape (Sky, Land, Water) the work of Henri Matisse again came to mind, particularly his paper cutouts, a type of collage referrred to as gouaches découpés and papiers coupes.  Collage was a radical departure for Kigusiuq and something completely new with regard to Inuit art when the artist produced a number of works in this newly introduced medium.  “It takes less time to do a collage than to do a drawing . . . .  A drawing in pencil crayon and pencil takes hours or even more than one day,” Kigusiuq explained.  It is easy to see the appeal of this medium for an artist suffering with dibilatating arthritis.  Once the technical preparations for a collage have been completed the colors are laid down quickly.  Kigusiuq’s collages reveal an artist who had become quite bold, experimenting with color and abstraction as well as exploring the transparent and opaque qualities of a medium to which she had so recently been introduced.

Throughout her career, Janet Kigusiuq created visually striking prints that focused on life as it was once lived on the land and Inuit mythology as well as drawings portraying various aspects of Inuit culture and the Arctic landscape.  Although I was adament about acquiring the artist’s abstract works, I never lost interest in those that were representational.  A monetary gift from my mother in 2003 allowed me to purchase Hunter in a Storm and Mermaid and Other Sea Creatures – two such works.

Hunter in Storm

Hunter in a Storm by Janet Kigusiuq, Inuit, Baker Lake, #9, artist proof ii/iv, stonecut & stencil, edition 45, 18.75” x 25” (1983/84).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

             I was immediately drawn to Hunter in a Storm because of its artistic technique; its dramatic tension; and its humor.  Depicting snow on a white page is a challenge but Kigusiuq suggests the ferocity of the storm through which the hunter must trudge by employing light blue ink in which irregular lines have been left without color.  The hunter dramatically slouches forward, allowing the viewer to feel the effort necessary to haul the seal back to camp.  The polar bear is also an important character in the narrative and adds humor to the work.  Since the bear is in pursuit of the man and his catch, one is left to wonder if he and the seal will be eaten but the bear is so charmingly drawn that it doesn’t appear particularly threatening.  The fact that the polar bear is following the scent of the hunter and seal is indicated by black lines near the tip of the creature’s nose.


Mermaid and Other Sea Creatures by Janet Kigusiuq, Inuit, Baker Lake, #8, stonecut & stencil, 10/30, Printer: Margaret Amarook, 18.35” x 25” (1988).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

           My mother’s monetary gift also allowed me to acquire Mermaid and Other Sea Creatures, a visually delightful print that uses multiple persectives to portray a mermaid, a large fish, a wolf or fox and four water fowl that swim across the page.  Two of the birds sit atop the water while the other two dive beneath it.  The use of two or more points of view in Inuit graphic art is quite common.  Although  the word mermaid is employed in the work’s title, the term may have been chosen with an eye to the art market, which is made up of collectors from Southern Canada, the U.S. and Europe.  The mermaid is not part of traditional Inuit folklore or religion.  However, the inuit do have a sea goddess who is often mistaken for one.  Sedna, who is also called Taleelayu as well as by other names, is half-woman and half-fish.  She is the mother of all marine life and Inuit hunters have always depended on her goodwill since she can release or withhold the ocean’s bounty.  Often depicted with unruly hair, Sedna rules Adlivun, the Underworld, where souls are purified before journeying to Quidlivun, the moon, where they will find eternal rest.  Considered the most powerful deity in Inuit mythology, Sedna is often angry, creating violent storms and holding back the sea’s abundance from humans.  She can only be placated by a shaman who desends into her watery realm to comb and braid her hair.  Kigusiuq, however, chose to portray the goddes in one of her placid moods, surrounded by marine wildlife.  Smiling, she swims through a calm, blue sea.

 My Mother and Father

My Mother and Father (Jessie Oonark and Kabloonak) by Janet Kigusiuq, pencil crayon on paper, Inuit, Baker Lake, 22.5” x 30.5” (2003).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

           On a summer trip to Vancouver in 2003 I made sure to visit the Marion Scott Gallery where I discovered My Mother and Father (Jessie Oonark and Kabloonak), a tender portrait by Janet Kigusiuq of her parents that includes the family dog. (Jessie Oonark was one of Canada’s most famous artists and she encouraged Janet to draw as a way of supplementing the family’s small income.)   According to Paul Conroy, who was on staff at the time I acquired the drawing, “There is really no title to most Inuit work.  Any ‘title’ is given either by the co-op or the gallery selling them.  We do know that the drawing is of Janet’s mother and father though.”  Although the two humans in the scene are depicted wearing traditional clothing, the setting is unconventional.  Rather than leaving the background white as she did in her earlier work, the artist uses patches of color, creating an abstract backdrop.

 Landscape abstract 2004

Untitled (Landscape) by Janet Kigusiuq, pencil crayon on paper, Inuit, Baker, 11” x 15” (2004).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

             Janet Kigusiuq died on February 27, 2005; she was seventy-nine years old and during her lifetime produced drawings, prints, sculptures and textiles.    Although I had never met the artist, I had always dreamed of one day doing so.  Saddened by her passing, I immediately decided to buy Untitled (Landscape), a small abstract drawing rich in color.  Kigusiuq has been one of the most important influences on my collection which, at the time of her death, contained twenty-seven of her drawings, nine prints, and one collage – more works than by any other artist.  Her drawings, which often lie somewhere between the abstract and the figurative, inspired me to explore contemporary art.