Ken Kirkby: A Painter's Quest for Canada

a biography by Goody Niosi

Prologue

I had not intended to become engaged in the telling of this story. After a lifetime of living it and recounting this or that part of it to what became a blur of audiences, telling it yet again was the furthest thing from my mind. It has for me become simply the story of a promise made and a promise kept.

At this stage of my life all I wanted to do was go and live at my favourite place, a small village near a stream on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Most of all, I wanted to live an ordinary sort of life which had so far eluded me, a life where I could sleep when tired, eat when hungry, fly-fish whenever it pleased me and paint all those paintings that had become stored up in me like water behind a dam constructed by the events told in this book.

It was out of frustration at how some were mangling this story that convinced me to give it to Ms. Niosi, an author and journalist, who became a friend during the marathon of Friday mornings it took to recount. For the reader it is probably just a book. For me it was an exorcism since much of what is spoken of here I had kept to myself.

The events and conversations are true–as I remember them. Some were told to me and some happened to me but most were of my own doing. With the passage of time they have melded into each other like a myriad of tributaries dissolving into a river. I cannot with any certainty tell you if every detail is accurate. What I can say is that the story is true.

– Ken Kirkby

Synopsis

When Ken Kirkby unveiled his painting, Isumataq in Parliament on March 28, 1992, he had to make do with a 25-foot model and the first four panels of the painting itself. The original, at 152' long and 12' high would not fit into the building. But even the model brought tears to the eyes of the 301 members of Parliament and senators gathered there.

Isumataq is an Inuit word meaning, "An object in the presence of which wisdom might show itself" and refers to the manlike monuments of stone called Inuksuit that the Inuit have erected for generations to serve as travel guides and markers of good hunting and fishing. Kirkby's hope was that the enormous painting he had been working on for ten years would open people's eyes to the beauty of the north and to the plight of the Inuit in that far land. Kirkby describes Isumataq as "the portrait of the soul of a nation."

In the speech he made to parliament that day, Kirkby said, "Isumataq is my tribute to Canadians. It is my homage to the Canadian Arctic and its peoples who inspired me to paint it. Isumataq is made of years of personal effort and millions of individual brush strokes–as Canada has been made of the efforts of millions of individuals. Isumataq is an invitation and it is a demand. Let's join each other and be worthy of this place."

Ken Kirkby: A Painter's Quest for Canada is the story of a remarkable man who was born in England during the Second World War and grew up in Portugal under the tutelage of an old fisherman who filled his head with visions of a land of snow, icebergs and polar bears–a land of adventure and freedom. The young boy grew into a man who was determined to see that country.

For more than four years, Ken Kirkby lived with the Inuit on the land. From them he learned how to live in harmony with the earth. He travelled across the north from Alaska to Baffin but it was in the eastern Arctic, in the place now called Nunavut that he first encountered an Inukshuk. For Kirkby, these majestic stone cairns became the symbol of all that was good and true and noble about these people and their way of life.

When he finally left the Arctic with the images of snow, brilliant skies, towering icebergs and unspeakable suffering engraved on his soul, he was determined to help the Inuit gain their rights and freedom. He had not seen democracy at work in that land. Government there consisted of the RCMP, the clergy, and the factor of the Hudson's Bay Company.

His tribute to them was Isumataq, which may well be the defining work of Ken Kirkby's life. But like the painting, Ken's story is larger than life. This book is a story of passion and dedication to art, to Nunavut and to a country called Canada.

Excerpt

From Chapter 1: A Painter is Born

It was a late blustery morning: March 28, 1992. A lone man walked slowly along the sidewalk, the wind whipping last fall's dead leaves around his feet. The man was oblivious to the wind, the chill and the crows scolding from the lampposts overhead. He was aware of only two things: the intricate texture of the curved wrought iron fence that he was running his fingers along as he walked and the visions swirling through his mind.

The Houses of Parliament loomed ahead. Soon he would open the doors, walk across the stone floor and make the presentation he had dreamed of and worked toward for what seemed his entire life. To arrive at this place he had covered five hundred and seventy linear feet of canvas with thirty-nine thousand, three hundred and sixty ounces of oil paint applied by millions of brush strokes during six thousand eight hundred and forty hours of painting time spread over almost twelve years. The end product was Isumataq, the largest portrait in the world–a portrait of the Northwest Passage against a sky fired by the Northern Lights with two Inuksuit standing guard. Today he would reveal the painting in Parliament–today he would address Canadians and tell them his dream–his reason for pouring his soul into this work.

But Ken Kirkby was thinking of far more than the painting and the sheer audacity and will that had brought him here. His mind drifted to the women he had loved and who had helped shape him and his vision. He thought about his father and most of all he thought about Francisco, the old fisherman who had told him tales of the Arctic when he was a young boy. His imagination had fed on those stories. Through all the events of his young life, the dream of the Arctic never died–it took him to Canada's far north and to adventures most people never imagined.

He thought about his heritage–the Viking blood that flowed through his veins but perhaps most of all he thought about the people of the Arctic–the grandmothers, the men, the women and children and the orphans. Isumataq was for them–for their dignity, their freedom and their own land.

"In March of 1992 Ken Kirkby unveiled his painting, Isumataq, in Parliament, a moment that brought 301 Members of Parliament to their feet."
– Thora Howell

About the Author

Goody Niosi was born in Karlsruhe, Germany and immigrated to Canada when she was five years old. Passionate about books, she had decided by age ten that she would be a writer when she grew up, although her first career was as a film editor in Toronto and Vancouver. Goody writes for Business Vancouver Island, Fraser Valley and other publications. She also directs, produces and edits videos. She lives above a stable in the country near Nanaimo BC with her dog, Abby.

Goody's published books include Magnificently Unrepentant, The Story of Merve Wilkinson and Wildwood; Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives; Nanaimo, The Harbour City and The Romance Continues, The Art and Gardens of Grant Leier and Nixie Barton.

Praise

"Ken Kirkby is a Canadian original. As passionate about life as he is about art, his is an amazing story about a man whose creative soul was shaped by the Arctic barrens and who has spent much of his life capturing that fierce beauty on canvas. Now living in a sea side cottage on Vancouver Island, where he shares his studio with a roving family of otters, he has turned his eye to the windswept landscape of the West Coast for inspiration. An outspoken champion of conservation, he uses his art both to reflect and preserve the natural beauty of the world."

– Mark Hume,
author of River of the Angry Moon,
and National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail

"Ken Kirkby's story is a story of an artist who entered the world of the Inuit and was transformed by the experience. One of his famous paintings is an Inukshuk standing guard over a majestic Canadian flag. In March of 1992 he unveiled his painting, Isumataq, in Parliament, a moment that brought 301 Members of Parliament to their feet.

Goody Niosi captures the remarkable story of Kirkby's life with the Inuit. She paints the picture of the world he found, the overwhelming beauty of the northern lights, the pain of snow blindness, the danger of the hunt for food and most of all the transformation of Kirkby that allowed him "to walk through a golden door" and become part of a culture very different from our own; one in which people are non-possessive, non-intrusive, non-violent, supremely philosophical and live life with a quite sense of humour.

Kirkby has used his astonishing talent as an artist to change Canada's perception of the Inuit. In this beautifully written book, Niosi relates Kirkby's story from his youth in Portugal to his work as an environmentalist."

– Thora Howell
Bookseller and Librarian