In the 1960s, artist Ken Kirkby spent five years in the Northwest Territories living with Inuit families and taking in the landscape
Two years ago Kirkby, who now lives on Vancouver Island, donated a collection of 21 Arctic paintings made during that time to Vancouver Island University. These works are now on display in VIU’s View Gallery until Feb. 23.
“I was kind of blown away because he is a nationally recognized artists,” View curator and art professor Justin McGrail said of receiving the paintings.
The exhibition is called Kirkby: Written in Stone, a reference to the prominent Inukshuks featured in the pieces. McGrail said the paintings are significant because they recognize the indigenous presence at a time when that was not common.
“For him bringing all this back and showing it to southern Canadians, it really was a big step in Arctic awareness,” he said.
“When Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson painted the Arctic, they just painted the icebergs, just the land. And so I would suggest that part of [Kirkby’s] contribution was to paint the landscape with the human element represented by the Inukshuk.”
McGrail said the symbolic cairns are a nod to the survival and endurance of the land and its inhabitants.
“The ‘60s was the period where the beginning of the recognition of indigenous cultures began to change in Canada, so I like to think that this is an early contribution,” he said.
“It’s like this is Group of Seven with Indigenous people’s presence acknowledged. So in that way it builds on the landscape tradition of Canada.”
WHAT’S ON … Kirkby: Written in Stone runs until Friday, Feb. 23 at The View Gallery. During the spring semester the gallery will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Thursday.