The Inuit Art Foundation is saddened to report that Okpik Pitseolak (1946–2019) has passed away. Okpik was a long-time member of the IAF Board of Directors and a fierce advocate for Inuit artists.
Okpik Pitseolak was born in Kimmirut in 1946, but spent most of her life in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. She began carving in the late 1960s, initially assisting her father-in-law, the great camp leader, photographer and artist Peter Pitseolak (1902-1973). Learning from careful observation, she developed a unique detailed carving style. In 1967 she sold her first artwork, a carving of a mother carrying a child in an amauti. Motherhood is a theme that the artist would revisit countless times over the course of a career that spanned over five decades.
“I either make what I experienced in my life or from stories that I’ve heard,” Okpik explained in a 2003 interview. Many of her highly polished, evocative sculptures are self-portraits, sometimes showing the artist with her children. Engaged in everyday activities like sewing clothing, carrying water and breastfeeding, Okpik’s women are strong, empowered and often smiling widely. And, tended to depict women in motion with dynamic, curving lines.
Delicate strands of beads dangle from some of Okpik’s most unique pieces. “My grandmother used to do beadwork when I was young and I learned from her,” Okpik once explained. She applied beadwork techniques learned from watching Simatuq, her paternal grandmother, and used them to decorate the hair and garments of her figures, punctuating the dark, rich stone with pops of bright colour.
Okpik attended several workshops organized by the IAF throughout the 1990s and attended Nunavut Arctic College where she took courses on jewellery making. As a member of the Board of Directors for the IAF, Okpik advocated for artist safety and encouraged young people to take up carving, including her son Jamasee Pitseolak, who like his mother has developed his own unique carving style.
“My art is not just for my own benefit,” Okpik once said, contemplating her ambition as an artist. “It is of value to our relatives, our children, our grandchildren. I am confident that what I do as an individual is of great value to the others.”
In 1999 Okpik, alongside Pootoogook Qiatsuk, completed a tuberculosis memorial in Kinngait. Her sculptures can be found in the Government of Nunavut Collection, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, QC, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, ON, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Quebec, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Manitoba.
We celebrate Okpik Pitseolak for her dedication to Inuit art and offer her family and community our sincerest condolences. We thank Okpik for being a dedicated member of the Inuit Art Foundation Board of Directors for over twenty years, where she advocated for artists rights and safety as President and Vice-President.