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Kenojuak Ashevak, a 78-year-old artist, recently designed her first stained glass window. - NNSL file photo

Dorset artist helps light shine through

Jennifer Geens
Northern News Services

Oakville, Ont (Nov 15/04) - The first stained glass window by an Inuit artist was officially unveiled last Tuesday.

Celebrated Cape Dorset artist Kenojuak Ashevak designed the window for the John Bell Chapel of Appleby College, a private school outside Toronto.

The stained glass window, entitled Igalaaq -- Where the Light Comes Through, features one of Ashevak's trademark owls and an Arctic char. - photo courtesy of Appleby College

"It's just beautiful," said Anita Griffiths, Appleby College's manager of marketing and communications.

The window is entitled Igalaaq -- Where the Light Comes Through.

Ashevak visited the school in the spring and spent a few days on campus, talking with students through an interpreter, when she was in the process of designing the window.

It was inspired by the Bible story of Jesus feeding many people with a few loaves of bread and fish. It features one of Ashevak's trademark owls with an Arctic char swimming beneath it against a backdrop of brilliant blue, which happens to be the school's colour.

"She really likes blue," said Sue Obata, a stained glass artist from Toronto who helped Ashevak with the technical aspects of her design.

"Her art is graphic and linear and lends itself well to stained glass," said Obata.

Obata, along with Norbert Sattler of Sattler's Stained Glass Studio, travelled to Cape Dorset.

With them they brought a seven by 13 foot sheet of paper, which Ashevak drew a life-size pattern of the window for them to work with.

"She was very warm and gracious about working within limitations," said Obata.

Ashevak also did a sketch of the colours she wanted.

The pair left the North with the full-size drawing and turned them into templates. They chose sheets of hand-blown coloured glass from Germany based on Ashevak's sketches.

Then they put the patterns on the sheets of glass and cut out the required shapes. The glass pieces were then stuck up on a clear sheet of glass, shading paint was applied according to directions provided by Ashevak, and the glass was fired in a kiln. Then the glass was put together with lines of lead, called came, and the joints were soldered.

Sattler's studio put the finished window together in Nova Scotia first, then took it apart and shipped it to Oakville for its final re-assembly.

Ashevak attended a morning service on Nov. 9 at the college's chapel -- led by the Right Reverend Andrew Atagotaaluk, bishop of the Arctic -- to celebrate the new window and the chapel's anniversary.

Bishop Atagotaaluk dedicated the window first in Inuktitut, then in English. The ceremony took place almost 75 years to the day that the John Bell Chapel was originally dedicated.

Ashevak was born at Ikerrasak camp, about 150km east of Cape Dorset in 1927.

She began making beadwork in the 1950s while she was hospitalized in Quebec, being treated for tuberculosis. On her return to Baffin Island, she continued working with sealskin and beads and sold her crafts through Alma Houston's craft program. She began drawing in 1957.

Her print Rabbit Eating Seaweed was included in the first Cape Dorset print collection in 1959. Her prints would be featured regularly in the collection for the next 45 years. Ashevak settled permanently in Cape Dorset in 1966.

Through her colourful and imaginative prints, Ashevak has become one of Canada's best-known contemporary artists.

Her work has appeared on coins and stamps and she has received the Order of Canada and a spot on Canada's Walk of Fame.

Her print The Enchanted Owl sold for $58,650 at an auction in 2001, breaking the record for a Canadian print.

Obata hopes the first stained glass window by an Inuit artist will help broaden people's vision of what stained glass can be.

"We have a problem with stained glass in that a lot of people think of it as medieval," said Obata.

"It's no different than any other art and it's exciting for me to see another contemporary artist work in stained glass.

"It's quite versatile and you can do a lot with it."

Ashevak's window, which is located in the northwest corner of the chapel, is the last window to be installed in the chapel.