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Winnipeg Art Gallery



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Jessie Oonark, “Una,” OC, artist (born 1906 in the Back River area, NWT [now Nunavut]; died 2 March 1985 in Churchill, MB). Jessie Oonark was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1975, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984. In 1987 the Art Gallery of Ontario presented a major retrospective of her work and her largest work, Untitled (1973) (a wool and felt piece, four by six metres) has hung intermittently ever since in the foyer of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.


Jessie Oonark’s family were members of the Utkusiksalingmiut people, a semi-nomadic people who lived a traditional life dependent on fishing and caribou hunting. Utkusiksalingmiut means “the people of the soapstone pots.” Oonark was influenced by her father Helaquarq who is said to have been a shaman. She was named after her paternal grandfather and throughout her life she was called “Una.” Oonark had a largely traditional upbringing, learning many skills such as the processing of caribou and seal skins, and how to sew clothing and parkas out of these materials. Declines in the caribou population and the global demand for Arctic fox furs in the late 1950s culminated in her people settling in Baker Lake. Oonark “Una” herself was married at the age of 12 and had 13 children, eight of whom survived to maturity. She was widowed and settled in Baker Lake in 1958 with her surviving children. Initially she supported herself by working as a janitor, until a biologist working in Baker Lake, Dr. Andrew Macpherson, recognized her artistic talent and gave her first set of drawing materials.


Jessie Oonark - A RetrospectiveStory
Jean Blodgett, Marie Bouchard 1987
softcover, 156 pages,


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