Jessie (Una) Oonark was born near the Haningayok (Back River), Nunavut and was named after her paternal grandfather, Una. Oonark lived the first fifty years of her life in Utkusiksalingmiut camps throughout the region. She pursued traditional tasks, such as processing and sewing caribou and sealskin to produce clothing. The aesthetic qualities of this work would later influence her depiction of Inuit life in drawings and tapestries.
In the 1950s, Oonark and her family settled in Qamani'tuaq (Baker Lake) due to a decline in both Caribou populations as well as the market for Arctic fox furs. Oonark first began making drawings in the late 1950s . Her works quickly caught the attention of members of both the Qamani'tuaq and Kinngait (Cape Dorset) art communities. A few short years after beginning her drawing career, several of Oonark’s drawings were included in the Cape Dorset Annual Print Collections of 1960 and 1961, notable, as she did not reside in Kinngait .
From her home, and eventually from a small studio in Qamani'tuaq, Oonark’s complex and vivid visual world unfolded. She employed bright colours in her depiction of humans, spirits and animals, creating vibrant works that draw the viewer in through pictorial storytelling. Often Oonark’s visual narratives focus on Inuit women, conveying their strength and power within traditional depictions of domestic activities . Discussing one of Oonark’s early drawings, Robert Enright describes “the whimsical, awkward gestures the figures make", noting that, "the colours in the drawings speak unequivocally about Oonark’s uncompromising celebration of Inuit life” . An apt description of Oonark’s work, which can be applied to her oeuvre, in general.
The central figure in her drawing, Big Woman (1974), takes up the entirety of the page. The woman’s amautik, or parka, is represented using striking colours and geometric patterns, complementing the design of her traditional facial tattoos. Two ulus, or woman’s knives, protrude out of either side of her head and seated on top of her head is a second, relatively small figure . Oonark, who was once described as speaking very poetically, said that she depicted her dreams; the realities of Inuit life and the dream-like world she imagined are both present in Big Woman.
In addition to drawing, Oonark produced wall hangings, one of which hangs in the National Arts Centre (NAC), Ottawa. The tapestry commissioned by Bill and Jean Teron was unveiled in May 1973; it hung in the foyer of the arts centre until 1994 when it was removed to be included in Oonark’s travelling retrospective . When it returned to the NAC, the tapestry was put in storage until 2013 when it was restored and re-hung for public display. Oonark was elected as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1975 and was inducted as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984.
1977: Honorary member of the Canadian Crafts Council.
1973: Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a wall hanging by Oonark during her visit to the Northwest Territories during her Canadian tour.
1973: Commissioned to make a wall hanging for the lobby of the National Art Centre.
1972: Illustrated I Breathed a New Song, an anthology of Inuit Poetry edited by Richard Lewis.
1969: Wall hanging presented to the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly, now a permanent feature of the Assembly's Chamber in Yellowknife.
1965: Participated in an experimental graphics workshop in Qamani’tuaq, NU.
1. Sarah Milroy, “Flashback: Jessie Oonark,” Inuit Art Quarterly 30, no 3 (Fall 2017): 85.
2. “Jessie Oonark”, Feheley Fine Arts, accessed January 29, 2018, https://feheleyfinearts.com/artists/jessie-oonark/.
3. Judith Nasby, William Noah, Marion E. Jackson, Peter Millard, Qamanittuaq (Where the River Widens): Drawings by Baker Lake Artists From the Collection of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre (Guelph: MacDonald Stewart Art Centre, 1998)
4. Robert Enright, “The Art of Jessie Oonark: Ceremonies of Innocence,” Inuit Art Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1987): 3.
5. “Inuit Art,” Winnipeg Art Gallery, last modified in 2016, http://wag.ca/art/collections/inuit-art/display,collection/61317.
6. “The National Arts Centre celebrates the return of the magnificent Oonark Tapestry,” National Arts Centre, accessed November 17, 2016, https://nac-cna.ca/en/media/newsrelease/6120.