Blind Contour Homage “Spectators” Helen Kalvak
Helen Kalvak didn’t begin formally producing art until quite late in her life, when she was in her early sixties. She had spent her first several decades on the land—living in igloos and hunting seal in the winter, fishing and hunting caribou in the summer. By the end of her life, she was one of the few remaining Inuit women who had spent the majority of her years immersed in the traditional lifestyle of her people. Her knowledge and the art she produced therefore offer a repository of knowledge about Inuit customs, giving later generations insight into their spiritual and cultural history.
Born in a skin tent in the Northwest Territories, Kalvak learned skills taught to girls, such as sewing and food preparation, as well as skills normally only passed on to boys. Because Kalvak had no brothers, her father taught her to hunt; when she was eleven years old, she killed her first caribou using a bow and arrow she crafted herself. Her father also trained Kalvak as an angatkuq, a spiritual healer; after achieving difficult accomplishments in the wilderness, her face was inked with tattoos indicating power and beauty.
Kalvak eventually married Edward Manayok, an Inuit singer and drum dancer; together, they raised their children in the same semi-nomadic lifestyle in which she had been brought up. It wasn’t until her husband’s sudden death that Kalvak moved “off the land,” settling in Ulukhaktok (formerly Holman). There, she became one of the founding members of the Holman Eskimo Cooperative, helping a Catholic priest establish a print shop.
Using graphite on paper, Kalvak portrayed stories her parents had told her in her childhood, often focusing on the roles of Inuit women as healers, sorcerers, and transformational figures. Her pictures provided templates for sealskin stencil designs on kamiks, parkas, and mitts, while prints of her drawings—over 150 of them—helped the cooperative survive. She was interested in ideas of spirituality and traditional life, approaching her craft as a spiritual exercise. Artist Leo Bushman recalls that Kalvak began her artistic process by humming or singing, moving “as if she were warming up for a dance instead of a drawing session.” She remained devoted to her art practice until Parkinson’s Disease made using her hands impossible.
Kalvak’s pieces have been sold internationally, and she became a member of the Order of Canada in 1978. In 1979, Canada Post used her piece The Dance on the 17-cent stamp. She is therefore one of the few women whose lifetime straddled distinct periods and societies. Jessica Tomic-Bagshaw notes that Kalvak was “both traditional in her experiences and exceptional in her ability to survive the upheaval of her culture.”
1901 – Ahiryuak Lake, NWT
1984 – Ulukhaktok, NWT
“Helen Kalvak, 1901 – 1984.” Virtual Museum, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Holman/english/artists/index.php3#c9
“Helen Kalvak, Holman Island, NWT.” Quintana Galleries, https://web.archive.org/web/20070911222509/http://www.quintanagalleries.com/htmls/artists/pages/Artists-713.htm
Tomic-Bagshaw, Jessica. “Helen Kalvak: Pioneering Inuit Print-maker.” Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Kate O’Rourke, Lorna R. McLean, and Sharon Anne Cook, McGill-Queens UP, 2001, pp. 60 – 61.