Osuitok Ipeelee, RCA
Kinngait, Cape Dorset
(1922 – 2005)
Osuitok Ipeelee was a talented artist from a Neeouleeutalik Camp, NT who later became based out of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut.
He first learned to carve by watching his father Ohotok make ivory cribbage boards, which he often sold to sailors. At thirteen, Ipeelee began carving toys out of leftover pieces of wood from packing crates and in his twenties he was carving ivory sculptures to sell to the Roman Catholic missionaries in Kinngait.
He was already recognized for his artistry by the time James Houston arrived in Cape Dorset in 1951. In the late 1950s, he was a participant in the introduction of the printmaking program and his work was featured in the exhibition “Sculpture of the Inuit: Masterworks of the Canadian Arctic” show, which toured internationally from 1971 to 1973.
Ipeelee and Houston are credited with the “Invention” of Inuit printmaking in 1957. Houston recalls the moment as follows:
Osuitok Ipeelee sat near me one evening studying the sailor-head trademarks on a number of identical cigarette packages. He…stated that it must have been very tiresome…to sit painting every one of the small heads on the small packages with the exact sameness…
My explanation was far from successful…partly because I was starting to wonder whether this could have any practical application in Inuit terms.
Looking around to find some way to demonstrate printing, I saw an ivory walrus tusk that Osuitok had recently engraved…
Taking an old tin of writing ink… with my finger I dipped into the black residue and smoothed it over the tusk. I laid a piece of toilet paper on the inked surface and rubbed the top lightly, then quickly stripped the paper from the tusk. I saw that by mere good fortune, I had pulled a fairly good negative of Osuitok’s incised design.
“We could do that,” he said, with the instant decisiveness of a hunter. And so we did.
In 1952, the National Gallery of Canada presented the exhibition Eskimo Art, which included four of his works and the 1955 exhibition Eskimo Sculpture also held at the National Gallery of Canada featured six of Ipeelee’s sculptures. This began a long list of museum and gallery exhibitions around the world that have presented his sculptures and prints.
As he gradually developed his skills, his sculptures became more minimalist and stylized so by the late 1980s his signature designs were austere renderings that were more symbolic than actual depictions.
Ipeelee’s work is easily identifiable due to the delicacy, detail, balance and unique creativity which he brought to each work he produced. His work has been recognized as some of the best by fellow artists and collectors.
In 1955, Ipeelee was asked to take part in carving an official mace for the Council of the Northwest Territories. He was also commissioned in 1959 to carve a sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II to be given to the Queen herself upon her arrival in Canada. His major achievements include being elected as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1973.
In later years, due to his condition of Parkinson’s, Osuitok could no longer produce sculptures at the same level of his earlier works; however, he continued to create simpler pieces that were in keeping with his initial artistic direction when he began his career.
Historically one of the most influential Inuit sculptors, his works are in international collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Vatican Collection.
1970 Commissioned by Public Works Canada to create an Inukshuk at External Affairs Headquarters in Ottawa
1959 Created a carving of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth which was presented to her on the occasion of her visit to Canada.
2004 Lifetime Aboriginal Art Achievement Award (Indspire Awards).
Reference: Inuit Art Foundation