There’s the man who survived three polar bear attacks; the families constantly on the move across the Barrenlands, following the caribou that sustained them; the father chipping through seven feet of ice with a pick to jig for fish to feed his family—and the mother taking over when he fell ill.
Gerald Kuehl’s voice is hushed in reverence when relaying the stories elders in the Kivalliq have told him about what life was like before they lived in settlements. “This is what we talk about—about struggle, about hardship, about triumph and about resiliency,” he says.
His admiration comes through in his detailed and lifelike pencil portraits of the Inuit elders he’s met over the last 15 years. Kuehl, a self-taught artist, had been drawing player portraits for the Winnipeg Jets, when a man on his rec hockey team invited him to do a portrait of his father. This opened a door and Kuehl began documenting stories of Ojibway, Cree and Dene elders across Manitoba. As word spread, Kuehl was invited to Rankin Inlet in 2002 for a portrait and has since crisscrossed the Kivalliq many times—including 15 visits to Baker Lake.
Kuehl spends as much time with his portrait subject as he’s granted. He’ll head out on the land for a hunt or hang around a family gathering to learn whatever he can. He asks how life used to be and takes photographs of his subject—both of these resources will guide his hand. Back in a corner of his basement home-studio in Winnipeg, Kuehl will then spend anywhere from 70 to 100 hours on the portrait.
Over the years, his work has been shown in galleries throughout the country and overseas. He’s preparing to launch two books in the next year—Portraits of the North and Portraits of the Far North. Kuehl’s oeuvre can be found in homes across the Kivalliq too. There are 27 framed portraits in Baker Lake’s community hall alone.
Kuehl estimates 90 percent of the Inuit elders he has drawn have passed away. “They are the last generation to be born and live on the land before moving in the 50s and 60s to communities,” he says. Presenting portraits to family members is often an emotional time—there are tears of sadness over a loved one recently deceased and tears of gratitude for the tribute he paid to their life.
Kuehl was in Chesterfield Inlet for a week and was told if he paid for gas, he could tag along with Casimir on a caribou-hunting trip. Three days of lousy weather followed. And then one day he got a call: “You better be ready. Nine in the morning we’re going.” Casimir and his nephew took Kuehl out on a hunt. They climbed a stony lookout where Casimir scanned the horizon for caribou—and where Kuehl took the photo that inspired this portrait.
Magdalina Naalungiaq Makitgak,
Magdalina told Kuehl about her family surviving periods of real hunger when she was younger and the caribou did not arrive. She lived to be more than a hundred years old, witnessing great changes over the course of her life. She was born on the Barrenlands, just five years after the first flight in Canada, and by the time Kuehl met her—in the airport terminal in Churchill, Manitoba—air travel had become the most important transportation mode in the Kivalliq. Magdalina passed away last year.
Kuehl recalls a harrowing story John and his wife Uluta told him about a time they were dogsledding. John felt his lead dog wasn’t driving hard enough, so he got off the sled to deal with it. “He didn’t realize all the rest of the dogs had circled him,” says Kuehl. “Uluta yelled out, ‘John! John! The dogs!’” Thinking fast, and knowing it was a game of intimidation, John straightened up and looked every dog in the eye, before slowly walking out of the circle and back to the sled. Uluta told Kuehl, “If one dog had attacked, they all would have.”