The Rise and Fall of Annie Pootoogook

She shot to fame, then vanished just as quickly. What happened to Nunavut’s greatest modern artist ?

MY SEARCH FOR ANNIE POOTOOGOOK begins at Feheley Fine Arts, an elegant red-brick gallery in downtown Toronto that deals in high-end Inuit art. The owner, Patricia Feheley, is a veteran in this business. Slight and stylish, she has the refined air you’d expect of a gallery owner. She became one of Pootoogook’s most fervent champions as soon as she laid eyes on the artist’s ink-and-crayon drawings in Cape Dorset more than a decade ago. She recalls going “absolutely crazy” for them: “It was the base honesty. She was drawing exactly what she wanted; she didn’t care what other people were doing.” The images offered a blunt, sometimes jarring, portrayal of modern life in an Arctic settlement: Ski-Doos and Coleman stoves, TV and sex, alcohol and domestic abuse. The style was fresh, uninhibited, modern. There were no dancing bears; none of the trite themes that the Inuit art industry has long relied on. Giddy with her discovery, Feheley left Cape Dorset with half-a-dozen of Pootoogook’s drawings, which she showed in an exhibition called “The Unexpected.” The pictures were a hit and all of them sold. Over the next few years, Pootoogook’s work would catch the eye of the contemporary art world and rocket the young artist to fame.

But now, walking through Feheley’s sunlit gallery, passing images by other Dorset artists, Pootoogook’s drawings are conspicuously absent. Feheley hasn’t seen her since those heady times, and contact by Pootoogook has been sporadic and from always-changing phone numbers. Feheley puts it kindly: “She’s not focused on her art right now.”

Revered for her raw depictions of contemporary Arctic life, Pootoogook hasn’t actually lived in the North in years. Five years ago, after winning one of Canada’s biggest art prizes, the Sobey Award, she took her $50,000 prize and headed south. The last Feheley had heard, Pootoogook was living in Ottawa. Second-hand accounts reveal that she bunks with friends or crashes in shelters. There have been reports of benders and bad relationships, but also fleeting moments of creativity, when she holes up somewhere and draws, influenced now not only by the Dorset milieu, but scenes from her urban life. “Annie has always said that she draws only what she knows,” Feheley says. “Drawing is such a big part of who she is, so I have faith that she’ll be back.”

As a former Northerner and longtime fan of Inuit art, I followed Pootoogook’s path to stardom, and was intrigued by her mysterious disappearance. I could only guess at why she broke from the art scene: her sudden rise from obscurity to it-girl, the exhilarating money, the ongoing hardships of living in a difficult place. While the modern art world was ready to usher in a new era of Inuit art, Pootoogook herself may not have been ready. I hoped to find her and ask her myself.

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KINNGAIT STUDIOS is Cape Dorset’s printmaking centre, part of the long-running art cooperative that is the community’s economic lifeblood. It was established in 1959 as the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op, the culmination of government efforts to encourage an Arctic handicraft industry and create an economy for the newly acculturated Inuit. Today, it supports as many as 200 graphic and sculpture artists, and has turned out some of the biggest names in Inuit art, like Kenojuak Ashevak and Kananginak Pootoogook, Annie’s uncle. When I call the studio, I’m put in touch with See Pootoogook, one of the stone-cut printers and Annie’s older brother. Over the clamour of background noise, See tells me he usually hears from his sister every couple of weeks. “She’s supposed to call me next Thursday,” he says, vowing to pass along my message. He’s kind and accommodating, but I don’t hold out much hope. Even if he remembers to tell her, even if he hasn’t lost the scrap of paper where he scrawled my number, there’s no guarantee she’ll call.

From what I’ve seen of her in books and documentaries, Pootoogook, 43, is a small woman, with almond-shaped eyes and a face roughened by life. She speaks in basic, broken English, which she picked up while travelling in the south. She was born in Cape Dorset in 1969, a decade after the art co-op was founded. Unlike her three brothers, all of whom draw or carve, Pootoogook came to art late, when she was already 28. She had a turbulent youth, spent too much time with the wrong guys, and followed one of them to Nunavik briefly. When she returned to Dorset in the late ’90s, she was encouraged to try drawing, which seemed to run in the family.

Annie’s grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona, who died in 1983, was renowned for her drawings documenting both life on the land and the early settlement years. Annie’s father, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, was a printmaker and carver, and her mother, Napachie, was also a respected graphic artist who inked scenes depicting the rapid changes in recent Inuit history. Napachie’s later works became increasingly dark. She was forthright about the grim realities of pre-settlement life: infanticide, forced marriage, starvation. Her candid style is often credited with inspiring her daughter to depict her own hard realities, not on the land, but in modern Cape Dorset.

Domestic abuse is a prominent theme in Pootoogook’s work, chilling scenes of a man raising a bat to a woman, or a husband kicking his wife in front of their children. But Pootoogook wasn’t the first to capture the discord and ugliness of modern Arctic life. As early as the 1970s, artist Pudlo Pudlat was drawing scenes that mixed helicopters with muskox. Later, Ningeokuluk Teevee, also of Dorset, addressed modern issues like climate change: Her “Sedna by the Sea” shows a haggard sea goddess smoking a cigarette amid a polluted, ravaged coastline. But it was Pootoogook who became the poster child for contemporary Inuit art, thanks mainly to good timing and the vagaries of the art-world appetite. Critics and collectors were taken with her almost caricature-ish style, in which every scene, however mundane or horrific, is presented in the same understated tone. Images of her family sharing seal meat are given the same weight as the shocking true-life scene of an RCMP officer being shot.

As much as the art world took to Pootoogook’s direct and divergent style, the nurturing role of the co-op and the marketing prowess of southern dealers like Feheley were essential in launching her career. At first, her drawings weren’t considered saleable by Dorset Fine Arts, the co-op’s Toronto marketing arm, which distributes art to retailers and coordinates a yearly catalogue of limited-edition prints. “Annie’s work was considered a bit too edgy for the print collection,” recalls Bill Ritchie, the studio manager at Kinngait. In those early years, he encouraged Pootoogook to draw what she knew, and helped her with some of the technical aspects of drawing. When Patricia Feheley arrived on one of her twice-yearly trips to Dorset, it was Ritchie who urged her to check out the brimming shelf of a new artist named Annie Pootoogook.

Feheley is a regular in Cape Dorset; she’s been going there since she was 16, when she first accompanied her father, the late Budd Feheley, an advertising executive who fell in love with Inuit art in the early ’50s, just as it was being introduced to the world. He helped establish the Dorset co-op and later opened Feheley Fine Arts, which Patricia took over in 1992. Like her father, Feheley holds a deep respect for Inuit art and has worked, along with a few other dealers, to lift the genre beyond souvenirs and the tired traditional themes that the industry was built on. Her approach has been to apply to Northerners the mechanisms of the southern art world, cultivating individual artists and promoting them with expertly curated shows. It’s the main reason Feheley goes to Dorset so much: Visiting Kinngait Studios keeps her on the pulse of undiscovered talent. By the late ’90s she’d begun to feel that, if Inuit art was going to survive in the contemporary art market, it needed a star.

After “The Unexpected” show, which proved to Feheley that Pootoogook’s drawings had commercial appeal, they got to work introducing her to the world. “Moving Forward: Works on Paper by Annie Pootoogook” ran at Feheley’s gallery for a month in 2003, enjoying strong reviews and sales. Two years later another show followed, featuring Pootoogook and her mother, Napachie.

It was around this time when I saw my first Pootoogook drawing. I was in Yellowknife, working for Up Here, when the catalogue for the 2005 Dorset print collection landed on my desk. It included a Pootoogook print called “Briefcase,” a Warhol-esque checkerboard of colourful men’s briefs, which, in the context of the collection’s predictable Arctic imagery, was delightfully out of place.

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As a writer who’d covered Northern art for several years, I’d been exposed to a lot of the greats: Kenojuak Ashevak and her famous owls, the masterful carvings of Kiawak Ashoona, the bold graphics of Jessie Oonark. Their work was inspired by a distant time on the land with its myths and animals; Pootoogook drew public housing and the frozen-food aisle at the grocery store. For Feheley, this modern, in-your-face aesthetic had the potential to invigorate not only Inuit art but also to shake up the contemporary art world.

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Savvy and well-connected, Feheley had the ear of important people, including Nancy Campbell, one of the curators at Toronto’s prestigious Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Campbell took to Pootoogook’s style and in 2006 launched a momentous solo show. Pootoogook’s exposure to a contemporary art crowd sparked wider commercial interest and an unstoppable momentum: an artist-in-residency in Scotland, the Sobey Award, a National Gallery acquisition, a travelling solo exhibition that culminated at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. In 2007 Pootoogook was invited to Documenta, a quirky but acclaimed expo of global contemporary art hosted every five years in Kassel, Germany. There, her drawings showed under the banner of modern, not Inuit or “native,” art, which was unprecedented for an Inuit artist, advancing the notion that Inuit art could be contemporary, even avant-garde. Her works appeared in slick catalogues and were discussed in high-minded critiques. Here, it seemed, was an Inuit artist being taken seriously. “Annie had all the boxes checked: she was a woman, she was Inuit, she was young and articulate, she was doing contemporary stuff,” says Ritchie of Pootoogook’s sudden appeal.

Pootoogook’s most recent solo exhibition took place in Kingston, Ontario in 2011. But, says Ritchie, it featured “all old stuff.” By then — seemingly as quickly as she’d exploded — “Annie had dried up.”

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SO FAR, THE CLOSEST I have come to Pootoogook is flipping through her unfinished drawings in the Ottawa townhouse where she sometimes comes to draw. Feheley led me to this place, a sort of halfway house and makeshift studio for Inuit living in Ottawa. It’s owned by Greg Kangas, an autobody tradesman with a hulking frame, military-short hair and an obsessive reverence for Inuit art. He discovered it only two years ago, and now buys, trades and collects carvings like hockey cards. Kangas is the person who’s had the most contact with Pootoogook lately. “Pat [Feheley] asked me to look up Annie,” he says. “She comes to the house to draw once in awhile, and when she is in despair I try to encourage her.”

Behind a dresser in his bedroom, Kangas stores Pootoogook’s recent drawings: four in her usual theme of Dorset life, and one unfinished scene of three carvers in a field with a generator. The field is a two-minute drive from Kangas’ house; the carvers are Pootoogook’s brother Pauloosie, the late Mark Pitseolak, also from Dorset, and the renowned Manasie Akpaliapik from Arctic Bay. A few times a week, they grind soapstone in the overgrown swath of grass Kangas has taken upon himself to rent for this purpose. (They used to carve in his driveway until the neighbours complained.) Through his oddly devoted relationship with these artists, Kangas has become my only promising link to Pootoogook.

After a few days spent leaving messages at her usual hangouts, Kangas finally gets a call from Pootoogook. She’s been in Wakefield, a Quebec village 20 minutes from Ottawa. He offers her $100, and Pootoogook agrees to come to the house the following morning to finish her drawing and speak with me. My elation is weighed down by the knowledge that this is all very tenuous. If she didn’t show up — if she avoided the media, if she dodged all the questions — I could hardly blame her.

It’s apparent from her drawings that Pootoogook has been beaten down by life, and that she’s used her art to deal with past trauma. She once said she’s able to “throw away” a painful experience when she puts it on paper, and that drawing “really helps my life.” The accompanying fame has also altered her: “I was nothing, but today I am something,” she said in the 2006 documentary, Annie Pootoogook. “I know now that I am important to people. It is a very big thing to me — [being] an artist.” In the film, Pootoogook throws around the word “artist” a lot, as though it has just occurred to her that she is one — that this is what people in the south call you when they like your drawings.

“It was an interesting lesson for me to see what happens when you become the darling of the art world,” Feheley says of Pootoogook’s rise. “Suddenly she’s in a documentary, she’s going to the Basel Art Fair, there’s books and a film, all in five or six years. I often wonder if we hadn’t done this, would it have been better for her?” Bill Ritchie has wondered the same thing. “No one could have seen it coming. I think it was just the perfect storm,” he says. “She won a lot of money, people said her name a lot; it was her Andy Warhol moment. But she was young and alone and she had problems.” The sudden wealth, too, must have made it easy to leave. Dorset is a small, sometimes claustrophobic community, where Pootoogook has lived most of her life. The south is alluring, different — an easier place to walk around with a lot of money, and perhaps an easier place to spend it.

Ritchie still uses Pootoogook as a “cautionary tale” when other Dorset artists fantasize about becoming an art star in the south, or of leaving the safety net of the co-op to see if they can make it in the big city. On the other hand, for them, Pootoogook’s success has illustrated that they can become capital-A artists who have their own shows, win awards, get rich and famous. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also shown that they can work outside traditional Inuit styles, and can be freed from what was once a narrow genre.

The day after Pootoogook agrees to meet with me, I wait at a friend’s house for Kangas to call and let me know she’s arrived. But the day passes without word from her. I stare at my phone like a love-struck teenager. And I must have called Kangas a dozen times to see if she’d called him.

I decide to change my train ticket to buy another day, on the slim chance that Pootoogook is running late. The next day, however, is the same — nothing. Kangas is overly apologetic, as though he’s let me down. I wonder if Pootoogook has simply forgotten or, worse, if she’s in no state for an interview. I’m reminded of one of her early drawings, called “Old Life; New Life,” which depicts two versions of the same woman standing side by side. The one on the left has a black heart, a tiny devil hovering at her shoulder and a rose wilting at her feet. On the right, the woman has a red heart, an angel at her shoulder and a blooming rose – a rather literal portrayal of a saved woman. If this refers to Pootoogook’s own experience, I can’t help but wonder which side she would say she’s on.

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