Nunavut native revived artistic career after long hiatus

Alooktook Ipellie: writer, illustrator, dreamer


Alootook Ipellie, an accomplished illustrator, writer, and most of all, a dreamer, died of a heart attack outside his Ottawa apartment Sept. 8. He was 56.

He dreamed of becoming a famous artist. It's a dream he chased most his life, ever since he was mesmerized by Superman comics as a young boy growing up in Frobisher Bay.

Through fits and spasms of work, he seemed to be slowly gaining recognition. Several years ago he toured Germany and Australia to showcase his older work. And after more than a decade of artistic silence in Canada, he unveiled an exhibit of new drawings in Ottawa earlier this year, which the Ottawa Citizen described as "superb."

"His technical skills are unbeatable," wrote Paul Gessell. "His content ranges from playfully innocent to devilishly searing. The pen-and-ink images, although often minimal, carry a wallop."

Friends remember Ipellie as shy, quiet and thoughtful. He was small, about five foot four, with long hair and a wispy beard. He sometimes joked about his appearance by calling himself "an Eskimo Dr. David Suzuki." He dressed plainly, often wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans.

He was born in an outpost camp in 1951, and moved to Frobisher Bay shortly afterwards. He later moved to Ottawa to complete high school, and for much of his life, he remained there, but his thoughts often drifted north.

Ipellie often attended Inuit gatherings, such as country food feasts put on by Tungasuvvingat Inuit. Recently, he announced plans to move back to Iqaluit next summer.

"He said he had enough of southern living," said his cousin, Koomook McLister, who spoke with Ipellie regularly. "He wanted to go home."

At the family's request, he was to be buried in Iqaluit.

Ipellie sometimes lamented how he spent too much time dreaming, rather than working on making his fantasies come true. He dropped out of a lithography course at the famous West Baffin Eskimo Co-Op in 1972, and shortly afterwards, took a job as a typist and translator for Inuit Today, a magazine published by Inuit Tapirisat of Canada.

To fill space in the magazine, he drew one-box cartoons. His drawings, which often commented on social issues, soon found a following among Inuit readers who shared his wry humour. One drawing, titled "The idiot box is here," marked the introduction of television to the Eastern Arctic with rows of igloos outfitted with antennas.

Besides becoming a noted cartoonist, Ipellie went on to be a writer, designer, photographer, and eventually editor of the publication.

He also briefly worked as a radio reporter for CBC Iqaluit. And in the early 1990s, he drew a cartoon for this newspaper, called Nuna and Vut, and also wrote a column, titled Ipellie's Shadow, where he wrote about the joy of being alive, the terror of loneliness, and his sometimes crippling shyness.

Upon first moving to Ottawa to complete high school, a teenaged Ipellie was so silent in class, his guidance counsellor sent him to Royal Ottawa Hospital, "where common criminals are regularly sent," for psychiatric assessment, he recalled in one column.

He didn't say much to the shrink, either. But the counsellor stopped worrying after seeing his "straight A marks in school."

Ipellie also wrote poetry, now found in several anthologies. His poems are still read by students in Micheal Kennedy's courses at the University of Saskatchewan. Kennedy has long-considered Ipellie to be one of Canada's finest, and under-rated, aboriginal writers.

The fertility of Ipellie's imagination was revealed in 1993, upon publication of Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, a book of ink drawings accompanied by stories, also written by him.

It was a far cry from how Inuit art was supposed to look. Even today, most accepted Inuit art either depicts scenes of traditional nomadic life, or Arctic animals and scenery.

It's hard to imagine a connoisseur of Inuit art gazing with admiration at a print of a woman who has the long neck and head of a goose protruding from her nether regions.

No matter that this is a portrayal of a traditional Inuit story. In fact, Ipellie's drawings have much in common with the bawdy humour and frank descriptions of sex and violence found in many old Inuit stories.

But that's not how Inuit art is supposed to look, at least according to most of those who buy it.

Only now is the art world coming to accept Inuit artists such as Annie Pootoogook, whose prints depict children watching television and other realistic scenes of life in the North today.

But Ipellie's work is way further out there than that. He drew hermaphrodite shamans, an Arctic crucifixion, and Brigitte Bardot about to be clubbed by an oversized seal. His drawings in Arctic Dreams and Nightmares are in turn funny, erotic and disturbing.

The accompanying stories, told by the spirit of a long-dead shaman travelling the Earth, mix old myths with modern reality. Sedna, mother of sea beasts, turns out to be sexually frustrated because she was abused as a child. Shakespeare sings with shamans on the sea ice. God howls the blues with an Inuit back-up band.

Ipellie struggled with alcohol. He was homeless at least once. But he rarely talked about his problems with friends. "He didn't want other people to worry about him," McLister said.

Ipellie is survived by his daughter, Taina.

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