Nunavut artist’s sudden death “devastates” family, art community
Tim Pitsiulak's drawings told meaningful stories, say colleagues
On Dec. 19, Nunavut artist Tim Pitsiulak picked up the phone to call his long-time art studio, Cape Dorset’s West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative.
He spoke to his friend, cousin and co-op studio manager Joemie Takpaungi; Pitsiulak was sick at home and needed some drawing paper.
“He called me telling me that he has pneumonia and that he will send one of his sons to pick up a drawing paper,” Takpaungi recalled.
That was the last time Takpaungi spoke to his cousin and friend. Four days later, on Dec. 23, Pitsiulak died of the severe lung infection. He was only 49.
His sudden death has sent shock waves through the community and the wider world of Inuit art. It marks another difficult Christmas in the arts-driven Baffin community, which lost two other renowned artists during the 2015 holiday season.
The West Baffin Coop is “devastated” about Pitsiulak’s passing, Takpaungi said.
“His presence at the lithograph studio will be greatly missed by everyone who works [here] and by the people who come in and out of the studio,” he said.
Timotee or Timoon Pitsiulak was born in Kimmirut in 1967 to Napachie and Timila Pitsiulak.
The young Pitsiulak first tried his hand at drawing and later began carving and making jewellery.
“My inspiration to be an artist comes from my aunt, Kenojuak Ashevak, because she is the oldest and the best,” Pitsiulak once said. He later relocated to Ashevak’s hometown of Cape Dorset.
Like so many Inuit artists, Pitsiulak’s innovation was fueled by the hours and days he spent out on the land and from the Arctic wildlife he harvested to share with family and friends. The elusive bowhead whale served as a major creative influence.
“Tim’s art stood out because they were detailed and realistic drawings, and had meaningful stories,” Takpaungi said.
“One time he told me that he likes to draw caribou, or what he hunts and eats [and] shares the meat with people,” he said. “Timoon was a provider to his family and to the community, he hunted and shared his catch with the community so I’m pretty sure he is already missed.”
To a southern and international audience, Pitsiulak transmitted those images in detailed, large-format drawings and prints.
Many of those images were rendered with coloured pencil, like his bowhead whale drawings, with Inuit symbols etched into the animals’ bodies.
Other prints of Pitsiulak’s conveyed a more rudimentary style and subtle humour, like when he portrayed wildlife wearing clothing.
His work reached a global audience, with pieces in galleries across the world. In recent years, Pitsiulak had worked on major commissions including a coin design for the Royal Canadian Mint and a large-scale drawing for the foyer of the Toronto Dominion Bank’s head office.
When Pitsiulak began a project, fellow artists and colleagues recall the man hunched over his drawing table for hours at a time in a T-shirt and baseball cap.
“I’ve never seen someone work that hard,” said Anna Gaby-Trotz, the technical director of Open Studio in Toronto, which hosted Pitsiulak as part of a creative residency last year.
That’s where Pitsiulak worked with local printmakers to create silk-screened versions of his famed bowhead whale and polar bear drawings.
“He would want to get going before we even opened in the morning,” Gaby-Trotz said. “And I’ve never seen anyone so committed to the line work. I never saw him pick up an eraser.”
What impressed Gaby-Trotz even more as she grew to know Pitsiulak in Toronto, and later during a visit to Cape Dorset, was his deep connection to the land, to his wife Mary and his seven children.
“His death totally bowled me over,” she said, “but also the absolute love he had for his whole family.”
Following his death, Gaby-Trotz created an online fundraising page to support the Pitsiulak family, to which people can donate here.
The pain of the sudden loss has been swift and sharp for Pitsiulak’s grieving family and community, Gaby-Trotz noted; less clear is the longer-term impact Pitsiulak’s absence will have on the Inuit art scene.
“He was always learning and watching and pushing,” she said. “I can only imagine [him] having more time to develop his work.”