Culture
Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers: The Artist

Germaine Arnaktauyok, one of this country's great artists, lives here quietly and creatively

In honour of Germaine Arnaktauyok's gorgeous and captivating biography/career retrospective, My Name Is Arnaktauyok, winning the first Yellowknife Reads competition, we present our profile of the Yellowknife based artist, first published in March, 2015:

A long time ago, when everything had spirits, you didn’t need a dog team to cross the frozen tundra of Nunavut’s Melville Peninsula. You’d be in your igloo dreaming of travel, and whoosh, the igloo would soar into the sky and sail through the darkness to your desired destination.

It’s a surreal scene that Germaine Arnaktauyok, a long-time Yellowknifer and one of Canada’s best-known Inuit artists, has drawn many times in her nocturnal blue and black inks. Like much of her work, it’s rooted in the stories her father told her as a child.

, 2008, etching

“Who knows if legends are fantasy. Maybe it was real one time, I don’t know,” she says with a mischievous smile.

Germaine was born near Igloolik in 1946, and raised on the land, travelling by dog team, living in igloos and sealskin tents and eating beluga blubber and fermented walrus meat. She came by art from her mother, a carver and a sewer, and began drawing at age seven.

At age nine, she was taken to residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, and later to high school in Churchill, Manitoba. It was in Churchill, in 1968, that George Swinton, a well-known artist and the dean of the University of Manitoba School of Fine Art, noticed her artwork and invited her to attend university in Winnipeg.

She spent two and a half years at the University of Manitoba, and a year studying in Pembroke, Ontario, becoming one of the first Inuit artists formally trained in European-style painting. When she moved back to Iqaluit to work at the Frobisher Bay Arts and Crafts Centre, she started exploring the northern legends that have became the hallmark of her work.

She has called Yellowknife home, on and off, since 1976, and made a living selling drawings, etchings and lithographs and illustrating books. Her richly narrative work has won praise high in the art world and beyond. In 1999 she was commissioned by the Canadian Mint to design the two-dollar coin commemorating the creation of Nunavut, and the National Film Board is currently working on an animated film based on her art.  She has also recently finished an illustrated autobiography, “My Name is Arnaktauyok,” that was released earlier this month by Inhabit Media.

Life as a Northern artist hasn’t always been easy; “You’re always broke,” she says, and relationships with southern dealers can be challenging. Still at 69, Germaine looks back proudly at her achievements:  “I kind of lived the way I want to live, I don’t really follow anybody. That way you’re happier, because you dream what you want.” 

What are your first memories of Yellowknife?

Well it was smaller, and that was in 1976 when I first moved here. At first I worked for education, illustrating schoolbooks. I didn’t do a lot of artwork on my own. I did a few here and there. Actually, I think my favourite place is Yellowknife. It’s friendly. People are very easy to get to know. I have some friends for many years who are still living here.

What is your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

I think we have everything, food, things you need. And it’s small enough… though not any more. It’s pretty easy for me to live anywhere, but I think I like Yellowknife the best because I can walk to where I want to go. It’s not huge distances. Of course I’m not going to walk to Walmart, too far. But it’s easy to walk here [to Javaroma]. I could have moved to Iqaluit, but I’d rather be here. Somebody urged me to move to Iqaluit, but I said no. I don’t know anybody there. I find Yellowknife friendly and you have a few galleries here. I’d rather live here where everything is close.

What is your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

I don’t know. Better restaurants, that would be nice. What I really want is a little store with Inuit traditional country food. I was watching this news and they have one in Ottawa, you just go in there and buy muktuk, tuktu, fish. Beluga skin, that’s my favourite. A lot of white people don’t like that stuff, like I don’t like blue cheese. So it will be like forcing me to eat blue cheese, if I force you to eat beluga blubber. It has a very strong taste to it. And I also like fermented walrus meat. Tastes fantastic. Little green particles, just like blue cheese, very, very strong. I don’t think they make that much anymore because it’s not as cold as it used to be, because you’d have to dig earth where there’s permafrost. You dig it and then put the walrus meat, inside the ground with the fat on it, and it’s there half a year. Blueish, greenish. My favourite!

What do you do in the summers?

Actually I don’t do anything. I do my artwork, that’s about it. Or I also like to do sewing. I got into sewing since I’m trying to retire. I don’t make clothing, I hate doing clothing. I just do my own stuff, my own designs. It’s completely different from my paintings. I like to do flowers and designs, flowers that you never saw before. I make them up. Right now I’m using a lot of pearls and trading beads. It’s 13 inch by 12 inch, using probably 17 or 18 or 1900 beads. It’s on wool, thick wool. Just flowers, every flower is different from each other, because I don’t like doing stuff the same, one after another, it gets boring.

What do you do in the winter?

It’s the same, pretty well the same. I don’t have weekends, I don’t really change from winter to summer. I try to work everyday. Probably up to 15 hours sometimes, and then I don’t want to do art for days and weeks after that. Then I don’t want to look at it.

What kind of opportunities have you found here in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?

For many years the people I deal with lived in Iqaluit and I lived here, back and forth. I don’t work with anybody in Yellowknife. I don’t really mingle with other artists; I’m kind of a leave-me-alone type of person. But you get your [art supplies] easier in Yellowknife [than in Iqaluit]. Even though I have to get my papers from Edmonton because we have no good papers in Yellowknife. I think they used to have some before, but it seems you don’t find them anymore. A friend of mine, who’s a doctor comes here very often, so they get me some papers or whatever I need. I wish there were some good papers, good inks [in Yellowknife]. You can’t choose in front of you, and there’s so many paper differences that you have to choose. You can’t even get different coloured inks up here.

Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?

What do you mean a Yellowknife lifer? That I live and die here? I’m in Avens already. That is my last stop. When I first moved here, I said this is my last stop.

My Name Is Arnaktauyok is available online and at the Yellowknife Book Cellar.