Osuitok Ipeelee: 1923 – 2005
Osuitok Ipeelee was born in 1923 at Niulijuktalik, one of the outlying camp areas along the south Baffin coast; he passed away December 31, 2005 at his home in Cape Dorset. He was 82.
To the art world he was known as one of the best sculptors to emerge in contemporary Inuit art. To the people of Cape Dorset, Osuitok was respected as an artist but also as a skilled hunter, leader, and cultural communicator.
In the early 1950’s, Jim and Alma Houston travelled by dog team across southern Baffin Island, heading for Cape Dorset. As they came across Inuit camps they would explain that they were interested in crafts and sculptures.
Unfailingly, the name of Osuitok Ipeelee was mentioned as the best carver in the area. When they finally met the man himself, his work bore out his reputation. Houston immediately recognized him not only as a master sculptor, but also as an artist whose imagination went far beyond the borders of his own culture.
So began a long and fruitful friendship, with Osuitok acting as Houston’s assistant and guide in Houston’s role as the government’s Area Administrator. Osuitok often commented on his role in the early craft shop, confirming that he and Houston were the very first ones to start making prints in Cape Dorset. Two of Osuitok’s images were included in the first print collection from Cape Dorset released in 1959, but he moved quickly back to carving, which was his preferred medium.
“Osuitok was one of the most notable sculptors in the Eastern Arctic,” says Jimmy Manning, manager of the Arts Division of the West Baffin Co-operative in Cape Dorset. “I would agree with many that he was the best of his generation.”
Osuitok started carving as a young man and learned by watching his father, Ohotaq. “My father used to carve crib boards out of ivory from the walrus tusk, and he would take it out to the ship to sell it. I would just surprise my father because I started to think, ‘Maybe I could do that, too.'” Osuitok carved miniatures of kayaks and fox traps and other elements from his daily life for trade with the Roman Catholic missionaries based in Cape Dorset. These delicate replicas were much admired by his contemporaries sparking the reputation of Osuitok, which was established by the early 1950’s.
Osuitok’s talent was first publicly recognized in 1955 when he was commissioned to carve figures on the mace of the Government of the Northwest Territories. He then created a carving of H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth combining indigenous materials (stone and whalebone) with copper for her crown. This was presented to her on the occasion of her visit to Canada in 1959. His range as a three-dimensional artist continued to expand; in fact, there were few things he wouldn’t try. His technical mastery of his medium was evident in everything he produced, but his best work had an inventive quality that distinguished him from most of his contemporaries. Mr. Manning confirms: “He was dedicated. He took his work very seriously.”
Osuitok’s work has been included in many group exhibitions nationally and internationally. His first solo exhibition was at the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal in 1973; this was followed by several solo exhibitions in Toronto, Montreal, New York, and Mannheim, Germany. His list of commissioned work is extensive and includes the creation of an authentic “inukshuk” for the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa. The larger than life figure “in the likeness of a man” was built in Cape Dorset in 1970 and then shipped to Ottawa to be reassembled and installed.
His work is represented in major collections including the National Gallery of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto Dominion Bank Collection and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. In 1978 he was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1993 the Academy honoured him with a special medal and a publication to mark an exhibition of his work in Toronto which they organized. In 2004 he received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for the arts.
Leslie Boyd Ryan
Dorset Fine Arts
Feheley Fine Arts