At her cozy, neat-as-a-pin apartment in a Yellowknife seniors’ community, Germaine Arnaktauyok sits almost motionless at her kitchen table. Before her is a 22x30 inch sheet of Arches fine art paper, in her hand is a fine-tipped Rapidograph pen, delicately jabbing tiny dots and squiggly thin lines of azure-blue ink to painstakingly build the sky on her latest work.
It’s her depiction of an Inuit legend of the Moon Man and Sun Mother—a personal piece she’s been at, on and off, for almost two years. It will take many more weeks to complete, but she’s in no hurry.
“It’s very monotonous work. I have to stop every so often, otherwise you go crazy. I get carried away, doing it for hours,” says Arnaktauyok, the 75-year-old icon of the Inuit and Canadian art world. Her unparalleled career as a printmaker, author, illustrator and collaborator ranges in media as varied as animation, stage production and stained glass.
Her life today is, like many of her generation, totally removed from her childhood in a traditional family camp. She grew up at Maniituq, 90 kilometres from Iglulik on the Melville Peninsula in central Nunavut. As the seasons dictated, her family lived in sod houses, tents made of seal skin, and igluit built during winter trips. She is the third-oldest of six children; six others did not survive.
Drawing came naturally, almost instinctively, to the young Arnaktauyok—even in a remote camp. “We didn’t have any paper. Just little pencils that you use for ages until they are just little stubs.” She was persistent about securing art supplies. If her father was travelling to IgluIik, she’d ask him to pick up provisions. “Sometimes I would write the priest, and he would send me some crayons,” she says. Arnaktauyok would doodle faces from her imagination on whatever paper scrap—like chewing gum wrappers—was at hand.
And she had plenty to feed her creative mind. “My father told us stories when we were all in bed. Because we were little, we would end up going to sleep in the middle of the story. But somehow, I would stay up and listen.”
When Arnaktauyok was nine, Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet became her institutional home for the next seven years—except for summer visits back to the Maniituq camp.
“In school, we weren’t allowed to think about how we lived or the [Inuktut] language. We had to learn everything about how the white people lived,” she says. “For many, many years after, I just lived the way white people lived.”
To this day, she doesn’t remember much from Chesterfield Inlet. “I know there’s something there, but I can’t recall anything. I had a hard time knowing what was going on, with the sexual and physical abuse. I vaguely remember a lot of noises in the middle of the night, and I was wondering, were they having a party? But I didn’t know.”
If she was—and still is—able to shut out the memories, those years at the residential school had devastating consequences. After many years of suffering terrible nightmares—“like something in the house, ghosts doing things at night”—her doctor suggested she may have had depression since she was a child at the school.
But there was one bright, transformative event for Arnaktauyok at Chesterfield Inlet—a nun she remembers as “kind of liberated and free-spirited, who played the guitar” led a small group in painting classes every Saturday. Arnaktauyok sold one of those paintings, of a family at their iglu, when she was eleven. “That was how it started.”
She carried on to the vocational high school in Churchill, Manitoba. There, George Swinton, a visiting university professor, saw her work and encouraged her to pursue fine art training in Winnipeg. A year later, she enrolled, living with a white family in a big city.
But she found it tedious. “After taking fine art for almost three years, I got bored. Models, painting, still life, lettering… I asked someone, what do you do in the fourth year? Well, we do the same thing. That’s when I decided to leave.”
She wasn’t quite done with school yet. She went to study commercial art in Ottawa, after an instructor hinted that she might be able to make a living with her talent. But after just one semester, that, too, proved boring and she abandoned commercial art for good.
That summer in Ottawa, she got her first real job as an artist, illustrating children’s books for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs which ran the education systems in the North. Then she moved to Iqaluit, returning to the North for the first time since residential school. It was 1968 and she was 21, working at the Frobisher Bay Arts and Crafts Centre, where she helped design the Canadian contingent’s bright red parkas for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics, as well as a private commission to design posters for EL AL, Israel’s national airline.
She soon moved west to Yellowknife for work, creating educational illustrations for the newly minted NWT government. There, she met her husband and they had a daughter. When their only child was three, they moved south to British Columbia. In 1989, after the marriage ended, Germaine was back in Yellowknife, where she took the first steps in her renowned solo career, adding the intricate techniques of etching, lithography and screen-printing to her grounding in fine and commercial arts.
“I started going back to Inuit art because that’s what I know. That’s when I started looking into those Inuit legends,” she says, recalling her father’s nightly storytelling from her childhood.
“I remember looking at carvings, how smooth they were. I started doing my artwork like that, fluid kind of artwork. That is where I got my own style.
“I don’t follow anybody,” she says. “I don’t copy anything. I find that extremely boring.”
Darlene Coward Wight was entranced with Arnaktauyok’s print creations—the painstaking detail, the refined techniques—from the moment she first saw them on a visit to Iqaluit in the mid-1990s. Wight, the Inuit art collection curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, persuaded Arnaktauyok to have a feature exhibition at the WAG back in 1998. “I don’t think there’s anybody who has that kind of focus in her work,” she says. “She really is quite extraordinary. It’s her God-given gift.”
While Arnaktauyok’s style opened up doors in the fine art world, the business of big art was not kind—agents took advantage of her. “It was bad. I’m not good in business, money. I had a bad time for many years, dealing with people as my agents. I lost so much but, eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore. It was so frustrating. That’s when I decided to break off. I was willing to lose everything to not have to work for anybody.”
Her breaking point came after a show of some 30 original artworks, priced between $300 and $4,000 apiece, through an agent at a Toronto gallery. Arnaktauyok didn’t see a cent out of two years’ work. She was so disheartened that she even turned down a lawyer’s pro bono offer to get what she deserved. “I decided to forget about it. Don’t let me hang on, it’s past now. I could leave it alone. It’s not worth getting angry about. You just have to leave it alone and keep going.”
Somehow, everything worked out, she says.
Arnaktauyok resolved to never again put her career in the hands of managers or agents, vowing only to work on contract assignments. It was an arrangement that suited the emerging Iqaluit-based publisher of Inuit culture, Inhabit Media, and its co-founder, Neil Christopher.
Her classic, formal art training is a huge asset to Inhabit Media, says Christopher. “She understands the process,” he says, adding it works best when she tells Inhabit what she wants to do. “It would be foolish to direct her—that’s part of her genius. How can you not love that?”
The relationship began in 2015, when Christopher asked if she would collaborate on a book about her career. My Name is Arnaktauyok was the result—a 134-page, richly illustrated autobiography that charts her life and depicts a selection of significant works, in Arnaktauyok’s own words. It was published in 2017.
She has been busy ever since. In early 2020, Unikkaaqtuat (The Old Stories), based on Arnaktauyok’s telling of Inuit legends, merged breathtaking acrobatics by 11 performers from Iglulik’s Artcirq troupe and Montreal’s 7 Fingers collective, with her art projected onto a giant backdrop. The show toured Canada, making stops in Ottawa, B.C., Alberta and Yellowknife—where Arnaktauyok took a bow in the audience before the captivating performance.
Her most recent print exhibition, Piujut Arnaqsiutit, was staged at Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit in early 2020. It showcased her fine, detailed etchings of traditional Inuit tattoos (tunniit) and ivory combs. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife will host the exhibit from December 2021 to May 2022.
And the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which boasts 26 Arnaktauyok prints in its extensive Inuit art collection, will host a gala showing in January 2022 of Arctic Song, a five-minute animated film of her works depicting five creation myths from Iglulik culture. The film, two years in the works, is co-produced by the National Film Board and Inhabit Media. It will also feature the voice of Iqaluit singer Celina Kalluk.
Arnaktauyok’s prolific output and influential style have not gone unrecognized. Earlier this year, following a nomination by Wight, she won the Governor General’s prestigious Award for Artistic Achievement in Visual and Media Arts, for her innovative work and role as an ambassador for Inuit art.
Wight says audiences continue to be fascinated by Inuit art, noting that many Northern artists had not seen styles or techniques from different countries before producing their works. “It just came from their own backgrounds. It’s very authentic. It speaks to a unique culture that the south didn’t know much about.” The interest is only growing, she says, pointing to the young, urban Inuk creators—such painter and illustrator Megan Kyak Monteith—coming into the spotlight.
As for Arnaktauyok, taking a break from her latest project at her kitchen table, she is characteristically humble when reflecting back on how it all started. “I didn’t have to think about what I was going to do when I grow up. It was there all the time.”