Remembering Jean Blodgett

By: John Blodgett

Jean Blodgett, curator and author of many influential texts on Inuit art, passed away in December 2020 at her home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Below is a remembrance of Jean written by her brother John Blodgett. We have tremendous respect for Jean and her work and will remember her with appreciation and affection. 

Angela Grauerholz’s portrait of Jean Blodgett, 1984, printed 1990, from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

(Ruth) Jean Blodgett—while she occasionally used “Ruth” in formal documents, Jean was her preference and how she was universally addressed—was born on August 14, 1945—VJ Day—in Moscow, Idaho to Ena (Colvin) and Earle Blodgett. The family moved to Prosser, Washington in 1946, and Jean attended Prosser schools except for one senior high year in Israel when her Father, working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, was detailed abroad.

Later, during another UN assignment, Jean spent a term at a school in Greece, where she studied the Greek language and Greek art. Between schooling and travel, in summer 1962 Jean served as Miss Prosser; she rode the city’s float at parades and represented the city at fairs and events throughout the lower Yakima Valley. An avid skier, and interested in art history from her time in Greece, she chose the University of Colorado for her undergraduate studies, graduating in 1967.

After working at the University of Calgary, she undertook graduate studies at the University of British Columbia. There she met an English-born Canadian conceptual artist, Max Dean, whom she later married. In 1974 she completed her Master’s degree in fine arts with a thesis on multiple human images in Eskimo sculpture, presaging her lifelong love of the Arctic, its peoples, and their art. Having become enamoured with Eskimo art, she remained in Canada, pursuing a career of freelancing, museum curating, and writing.

At the Winnipeg Art Gallery, as Curator of Eskimo Art, she organized a number of exhibitions and wrote catalog text, for example: Jean Blodgett, Tuu’luq/Anguhadluq, 1976; Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac, 1976-1977; Karoo Ashevek, 1977; Looking South, a travelling exhibition that toured nine venues across Canada, 1977; The Coming and Going of the Shaman: Eskimo Shamanism and Art, 1978; and Eskimo Narrative,1979. In preparing the exhibitions and catalogs, Jean was an indefatigable researcher. She traveled to native communities in the Arctic to see first-hand the environment and the native cultures and to visit with and interview native artists; she traveled to other museums and galleries; she made innumerable phone calls; and she commissioned travellers to conduct interviews on her behalf.

These activities continued after she moved to Toronto, where she was a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and later to Ottawa, where she turned to independent work. A highlight was her most regarded book, Jean Blodgett, Kenojuak (Toronto: Firefly Books, 1985), which went through six editions. While at the Art Gallery of Ontario, exhibitions which she curated and wrote the catalog included: Jean Blodgett, Grasp Tight the Old Ways: Selections from the Klamer Family Collection of Inuit Art, 1983, an exhibit that traveled from Toronto to six other cities, including Chicago; and North Baffin Drawings, 1986, which also traveled to other cities. During this time Jean also held a teaching position as an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa.

These successes led her to the McMichael Canadian Art Museum in Kleinburg, Ontario, where she became the chief curator. She was involved in numerous publications and exhibitions, including The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, 1965-1990, 1989; In Cape Dorset We Do It This Way: Three Decades of Inuit Printing, 1991; Strange Scenes: Early Cape Dorset Drawings, 1993; and Three Women, Three Generations, 1999, tracing the work of three Inuit artists.

Besides her focus on Inuit art, Jean maintained an interest in the broader, contemporary art scene. While at the McMichael she curated the exhibits The cowboy/Indian Show: Recent Work by Gerald McMaster, 1991, and Painting the Bay: Recent Work by John Hartman, 1993. Also, she contributed an essay to a book featuring a Canadian artist, Tim Zuck: Paintings and Drawings (Altitude Pub Canada, Ltd, Vancouver, 1997). During this time Jean and Max separated, and after Jean left the McMichael she turned to freelancing, traveling to the Arctic to visit Native artists, writing, and serving as a cultural guide on Arctic tours.

Then in 2004 she moved to Fairbanks, Alaska to fill in as a visiting professor in Arctic Art at the University of Alaska while the incumbent was on sabbatical. After completing the temporary teaching stint, she remained in Fairbanks and pursued freelance work, writing and editing Susan W Fair, Alaska Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, Continuity: edited by Jean Blodgett, University of Alaska Press, 2006; and In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun: Sami and Inuit Art 2000-2005, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton,Ontario, 2007, where Jean served as guest curator. This exhibit comparing art of the Scandinavian Sami and Canadian Inuit was an innovative cross-cultural study that not only drew on her extensive knowledge of Inuit Art in Canada but also required travel to Norway for research on Sami Art and gallery collections.

At the time of her death, December 2020, Jean left unfinished a project to collate and edit the photographs of Claire Fejes, an artist, writer, and photographer of Arctic scenes and peoples. Nonetheless, her bibliography (doubtless incomplete) of 35-plus entries includes not only articles and texts she wrote but also the many exhibits she curated and/or prepared catalogs for. Her writings and the exhibits, many of which travelled to numerous venues, exemplify Jean’s endeavors to make accessible and to interpret the Arctic peoples’ art that she so loved.

Survivors include her brother, John, of Jefferson, MD; two nieces, Barbara Briggs of Edmonds, WA and Kathryn of Sacramento CA; and two nephews, Peter and Richard, both of Sacramento. Her eldest brother, Jim, preceded her in death. At present no decisions on scattering her ashes or a memorial service have been made. Waiting out Covid19 and overcoming distances between family members are hurdles. In the meantime, if you wish to make a gesture of remembrance, we suggest a special flower on a windowsill or in your garden this spring—these days the world needs some beauty.

Jean’s personal collection of art, which included Inuit baskets, jewelry, prints and drawings, and sculptures, also prominently displayed two still-life paintings by the contemporary English artist Andrew Hemingway; one depicts an African violet, perhaps Jean’s reminiscence of her Mother’s African Violets on the dining room windowsill in Prosser.

Jean (second from left) in Cape Dorset, July 1988. Photo by Leslie Boyd, published in Jean Blodgett’s In Cape Dorset We Do It This Way, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario, (1991), p. 43.


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