JESSIE OONARK, O.C., R.C.A. (1906-1985)
a Toronto private collection
Oonark converted to the teachings of the Anglican Church in 1927. She was baptized in 1944 and chose the Christian name Jessie; she and her husband Kabloonak were given a Christian marriage in 1946. Christian imagery began occasionally appearing in her drawings in the mid 1960s. Throughout the rest of her career, Oonark sometimes mixed Christian themes with traditional Inuit spiritual ones, and occasionally created works (primarily drawings) with purely Christian subject matter.
Although devout, Oonark’s knowledge of Christian iconography would have been limited. As with her Inuit supernatural and legend imagery, we sometimes need to speculate. We would suggest two possible themes for this splendid drawing. The first is John the Baptist (left) and Christ, flanking an angel. The second possibility is a depiction of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (represented by an angel rather than a dove). While the figure of an angel is unusual in either scenario, it makes perfect sense if one is familiar with Oonark’s compositional style; furthermore an angel as a stand-in for a bird or bird-woman is also consistent with Oonark’s personal iconography. This drawing is full of lovely touches: the way the figures float on the page; the curious treatment of their hands and feet; the prongs projecting from the angel’s head almost like small antlers; the design and fringe at the hem of the angel’s robe; and the small semi-circular cartouche designed for the artist’s signature. It’s a magical drawing, evidence of Oonark’s devotion to her chosen faith.
References: for a discussion of Christian imagery in Oonark’s work see Jean Blodgett and Marie Bouchard, Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1986) pp. 44-48. The catalogue illustrates Oonark’s 1978 drawing for her famous 1984 print Giver of Life (cat. 79) and other works (figs. 9-11). See also Lot 64 by Oonark.
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