Her name means ‘sea pigeon’ in Inuktitut.
She grew up in the traditional life of hunting, gathering and shamans, part of the last generations of Inuit who lived the traditional lifestyles enjoyed by the North American Inuit for centuries.
She was born in a skin tent, living to hear on a radio that 2 men had landed on the moon. By the 1970’s, she was a world-famous artist with work exhibited across North America and Europe.
She married Ashoona, a hunter, in the early 20’s and they had 17 children, though only 6 lived with Pitseolak until adulthood. Some died in childhood and others were adopted out according to custom and raised by other Inuit families.
She raised 4 of the children herself after her husband died from a viral sickness at the age of 40. The death of her husband was the catalyst that lead Pitseolak to become an artist. Making prints eased her loneliness and she described her art as what made her ‘the happiest since he died.’
Her artwork later enabled her to support her family, and though it was due to painful circumstances, her art reflected mostly positive memories and experiences.
She is recognized as one of the first Inuit artists to create autobiographical works. Her art spoke of traditional Inuit life and contributed to the establishment of modern Inuit art form, while at the same time achieving worldwide popularity and commercial success.
She was a self-taught artist who initially worked at sewing and embroidering goods for sale.
First working with a graphite pencil, Pitseolak later moved on to coloured pencils and felt-tipped pens which became her favourite medium because their rich and vibrant colours best expressed the joyfulness that characterize her work. Her artistic legacy also continued through her children.
Her sons are stone carvers and her daughter is a well- known graphic artist. She is the grandmother of the artist Ohito Ashoona.
Pitseolak was part of over 100 group and solo exhibitions in her lifetime.
Her life and her art are the subject of two books and many academic and magazine articles. Her story was made into a National Film Board of Canada animated documentary. She became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1974, a recipient of a Canadian Council Senior Arts grant in 1975 and received the Order of Canada in 1977. In 1983 her portrait was placed on a 43-cent Canadian stamp commemorating International Women’s Day.
She is now being considered as a woman to be on Canada’s currency.
Pitseolak Ashoona died in Cape Dorset after a brief illness In May, 1983.