The Inuit Art Foundation is saddened to report the passing of Iglulik-based artist Lukie Airut (1942–2018), an immensely talented sculptor known for his intricate and multi-dimensional sculptures. Airut was born in an outpost camp on Baffin Island’s Alanarjuk Lake and later moved to Iglulik to study carving with artist Pacome Kolaut (1925–1968). Although skilled at working in stone, Airut eventually shifted his focus to whalebone and walrus ivory—media in which he excelled and that allowed him to create highly detailed works in increasing scale. Airut also made jewellery, having completed a course at Nunavut Arctic College in jewellery making.
Airut’s unique use of incised detailing earned him international recognition. Over the span of his career, his works have been exhibited in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Japan. His sculptures are also part of several prestigious permanent collections across Canada, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. In 2009 several of his small-scale pieces were included in the exhibition Treasures at the Canadian Arctic Gallery in Basel, Switzerland, and more recently his work was included in Antler, Bone and Stone: Recent Sculpture from Igloolik (2017) at Feheley Fine Arts.
In addition to his notable skill as an artist, Airut’s contributions to his community established him as a significant social figure in Iglulik. “Lukie was revered in the community for his knowledge,” explains Sonia Gunderson, the author of “Lukie Airut: Igloolik’s Carving Wizard” (IAQ 21.3) who spent a great deal of time with the artist between 2007 and 2008 while researching cultural preservation initiatives in Iglulik. Gunderson lived with the Airut family for several months and came to know him as an honoured figure in the community. “All the hunters would consult with him. He was very respected for [his] traditional knowledge and skill.”
A keen hunter, Airut’s understanding of and relationship with Arctic wildlife were often reflected in his work as he carved scenes of hunting and daily life on the land. “He had great integrity, and his artistic work stems back to a deep intelligence,” Gunderson continues. “He was hardworking [and] intelligent, always working on various projects. If he wasn’t out hunting, he would be at home building a sled or doing some kind of project there. But he was very often out on the land.”
Airut was also a part of the co-op system and primarily distributed his work through Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP). RJ Ramrattan, the showroom manager and buyer at CAP, worked extensively with Airut. The two developed a close friendship and a deep respect for each another. “I remember how happy Lukie was when I visited him at his home in 2012,” Ramrattan shares. “His face lit up and his smile told me I was welcome at his home. He was such a gentle and humble man.”
When Ramrattan visited Airut at his home in Iglulik in 2012, Airut’s passion for his artistry was also palpable. “He was so eager to take me to his studio to show me what he was working on at the time. He was so proud of his work. He was a brilliant artist and an ambassador of the Inuit art world.”
Some of Airut’s most imposing pieces feature numerous scenes rendered in the cavities of massive whale and walrus bones. Airut’s carvings Inuit Life in the Arctic (n.d.) and Celebration (2013), created from walrus skull and whalebone, respectively, are exceptional examples of this practice. His inspiring work and his passionate worldview will be sorely missed.