Exhibitions

Power of Thought: The Art of Jessie Oonark

February 8, 2004 to May 30, 2004

“The show is powerful on a number of levels — Oonark was a brilliant graphic artist by any standards, and she deserves to be considered alongside the Western masters her work most strongly resembles …”
LA Weekly, March 2004

“An enjoyable exhibition … [an] engaging introduction to her boldly stylized graphics.”
Los Angeles Times, February 2004

Experience the work of distinguished Canadian artist Jessie Oonark (1906-85), whose vibrant art explores and celebrates the life and culture of the Inuit peoples of the Arctic. Oonark lived the nomadic existence that was typical of her people until 1958 when, facing famine, she and hundreds of other Inuit were relocated to Baker Lake, Nunavut, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Oonark, a self-taught artist then in her 50s, began drawing and working with printmakers there, and from 1970 to 1985 produced the brilliantly colored stone-cut, silkscreen, and stencil prints highlighted in Power of Thought.

Exhibition in Depth

Jessie Oonark (1906–85) lived the nomadic existence that was typical of the Inuit in the Barren Lands of Canada until 1958 when, facing famine, she and hundreds of her people were relocated to Baker Lake, Nunavut, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Oonark, a self-taught artist then in her 50s, began drawing and later working with printmakers there, and from 1970 to 1985 produced the brilliantly colored stone-cut, silkscreen, and stencil prints highlighted in this exhibition.

Power of Thought: The Art of Jessie Oonark presents forty of Oonark’s prints, as well as a selection of twelve drawings and five textiles by her, all of which explore and celebrate the life, land, mythology, and activities of Inuit culture. Her intuitive drawings and vibrant prints often are informed by her transformation from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle. With her knowledge of sewing, refined making clothes for her family and for sale, she adapted her design vocabulary to colorful, appliquéd and embroidered textiles.

Born near the estuary of the Back River region of the Canadian Central Arctic, Oonark experienced firsthand the major changes and crises faced by the Inuit during the twentieth century. In 1958 when caribou and other food sources became scarce, the Canadian government evacuated the Inuit population from the Back River region and took them to a permanent settlement in Baker Lake. To survive in this new, wage-based society, Oonark took on odd jobs such as sewing, cooking, and cleaning.

At Baker Lake she began drawing and then working with local printmakers, applying her traditional work ethic to creating hundreds of images, most depicting people and animals. A prolific artist, at times she would complete forty to fifty drawings in a week.

Strong central images and bold designs and colors characterize much of Oonark’s work. Many of her creations reflect Oonark’s preoccupation with the role and importance of women in Inuit society. The ulu, an essential, crescent-shaped knife used predominantly by women, appears repeatedly as a design motif symbolic of womanhood.

The title of this exhibition, ‘Power of Thought,’ comes from a same-named drawing and print created by Oonark in 1977 depicting a human face with geometric images radiating from it. The phrase alludes to Oonark’s inner vision as an artist: the invisible sphere of thoughts and ideas that she expressed most clearly through color, shape, line, and symbols. Oonark used this process of visual thinking to intellectualize and explore such metaphysical issues as being, identity, time and space— matters that concerned her as a woman and as an artist living in a time of tremendous social and cultural upheaval.

Exhibition Credits

This nationally traveling exhibition presented forty Oonark prints organized by the Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond Museums. The Fowler added examples of her original drawings as well as several of her appliquéd and embroidered textiles to tell a fuller story of this important Canadian artist.