Osuitok Ipeelee, master of his craft, dies at 82

“The best of his generation”


As the last hours of the old year ebbed away, so did the life of Osuitok Ipeelee, the man who many say was the best stone carver of his generation in the eastern Arctic.

Osuituk, 82, died of old age Dec. 31 in Cape Dorset.

“It was very hard for anyone to copy him,” said Jimmy Manning, the manager of the arts division at the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset.

Osuitok was born at Niulijuktalik, a camp on the south Baffin coast. He learned how to carve by watching his father, Ohota, who made cribbage boards out of ivory from walrus tusks. In the early 1950s, Osuitok learned to make miniature ivory carvings to trade with Roman Catholic missionaries.

Manning said he thinks this is how Osuitok learned to do the delicate work in stone that won him the admiration of art collectors and other carvers — he could do things with serpentine that no other carver dared to try.

“He used to tell me that his father, Oqota, trained him to work in ivory. You need special tools to do good work in ivory,” Manning said.

In 1955, Osuitok was commissioned to carve images on the famous mace produced for the Legislative Council of the Northwest Territories, the forerunner of the NWT legislative assembly.

He also made a carving of Queen Elizabeth in stone, whalebone and copper, which was presented to her.

“Osuitok was one of the most notable sculptors in the Eastern Arctic,” Manning said “I would agree with many that he was the best of his generation,” Manning said in an obituary written by Leslie Boyd Ryan of Dorset Fine Arts and Patricia Feheley of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto.

Working with his old friend, the late Jim Houston, who died this past April at 83, Osuitok made two of the images used in the first Cape Dorset print collection, released in 1959.

After meeting Houston, who was then an area administrator for the federal government, Osuitok worked for Houston as a guide and assistant for many years.

The two men were the first to start making prints at the Cape Dorset craft shop, after Houston used a Player’s cigarette package and its embossed picture of a sailor to demonstrate how lithography works.

But Manning said Osuitok preferred to carve, and that he did not do any work on prints after that time.

Osuitok was also a master at the art of evaluating stone for its use in carving, and led many quarrying trips to Andrew Gordon Bay, the source of most of the serpentine he used in his stone carvings.

Terry Ryan of Dorset Fine Arts, the Toronto-based wholesale arm for the West Baffin co-op, said he knew Osuitok for 46 years.

“He was one of the preeminent carvers of his generation,” Ryan said. “I think he had a style that was very much his own. He had the ability to transmit his feelings for the subject.”

Osuitok was famous for doing realistic representations of caribou and birds, but Ryan said he especially admires the imaginative carvings that Osuitok produced at a later stage in his career — dream-like creations suggestive of shamanism and the spirit world.

Ryan said Osuitok suffered a lot in his life: the loss of a son to suicide, the loss of his wife, and other problems.

“I’ve always admired him. He had a lot of upsets in his family, but he was always very stoic. He was a survivor. He was very strong,” Ryan said.

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