(1947 – 2003)
Paul Toolooktook was born on May 6, 1947, at the Beverly Lake District (Tipjalik). Like most Inuit artists, he came from a family of carvers and printmakers. His mother, Martha Aptanik, carved and made prints and his stepbrother, Basil Aptanik, is very well-known for his sculpture. Paul began carving from a very young age, and sold his first sculpture in 1959 at a local Qamani’tuaq co-op.
A few years after selling his first piece, Paul’s work was featured in Arctic Values ’65, an art exhibition at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. The sculptures in this exhibition included robust figures and detailed transformation scenes that were carved in dark Kivalliq stone. These kinds of sculptures were very characteristic of his early work.
In 1970, Paul was one of the four Canadian artists who were chosen to perform carving demonstrations at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. At this event, he carved in front of hundreds of thousands of international visitors, which included royalty. The following year, his sculptures were featured in the landmark exhibition Sculpture of the Inuit, Masterworks of the Canadian Arctic, which toured internationally. Then, in 1972, Paul began creating stonecuts for the Annual Baker Lake Print Collection, and continued to do so for the next 15 years. During this time, he cut stoneblocks for several celebrated artists. Thus, Paul’s work throughout the early 1970’s was instrumental in establishing what would be a long and successful career, and solidifying his place as one of the most prolific and influential Inuit artists of his time.
Paul used his privileged position in the Canadian art community to advocate for other Inuit artists. Many of these artists, including Paul himself, faced several challenges, particularly in regard to accessing carving materials and finding an audience for their work. In response to these issues, Paul founded and presided over the local artist association, which he named Ujaraqtatit. In 1994, through this organization, Paul teamed up with the Inuit Art Foundation to provide two weeks of skill-building workshops for carvers in the community. These workshops were just one of the many initiatives that Paul participated in and helped facilitate.
Prior to founding Ujaraqtatit later that year, Paul attended the Beyond Boundaries Intercultural Sculpture Symposium in Ottawa. This symposium was organized by the Inuit Art Foundation, in partnership with the Ottawa School of Art, for the purpose of allowing Inuit and Southern artists to work alongside each other. Paul very much enjoyed participating in this event, which allowed him to learn from, and collaborate with, a wide variety of other skilled artists. Furthermore, it was at this symposium that he learned how to carve with power tools, which helped him achieve even greater detail in his pieces.
Throughout a career that lasted over forty years, Paul was able to develop a distinct personal style. In both his carvings and his prints, Paul’s work was incredibly smooth, with flowing lines and precise facial detail. His human figures were startlingly emotional, particularly those that depicted transformation.
Although Paul carved a diverse collection of figures over the course of his career, he had a special fondness for creating birds. While birds are often considered to be a simple subject, Paul had a knack for making this figure his own. The birds he carved were usually depicted mid-transformation, with human faces, stylized hair, and menacing fangs. The end result was always beautifully complex, and these birds became a trademark of his work.
Overall, Paul’s attention to detail and ability to capture empathy in the stone made him stand out as an exceptional Baker Lake artist. Between his incredible skill, his influential role in the Canadian art community, and his advocacy for his fellow artists, Paul’s importance in the survival and growth of Inuit art over the last half-century cannot be overstated.