“When I carve, I am giving part of myself. I put so much energy and passion into the carving that I am working on that I am physically and mentally drained when the carving is finished.”
Cape Dorset - Kinngait
For Jutai, making art was an essential act - an attempt at balance in a world off-kilter too much of the time. He was a mystical soul whose work often depicts human figures in the midst of transformation with spirits, animals, and other humans. He imbued his work with his explorations of issues around power and protection. Jutai spoke eloquently about the power of the spirit world, which he felt was more closely linked to our temporal world than we might imagine. He asserted that the Spirits are always with us, like veins under the surface of skin, imparting their power and protection to human beings in times of need.
So it is then that the strength of the landscape and power of the sea reveal themselves in Toonoo’s paintings and drawings. In classic Jutai manner, he painted large with pronounced gesture. Stormy Sea (2010), with its undulating waves that splash against a northern shoreline, presents a view of his world indicative of the dynamic nature of northern Canada. Heaving waves involve the majority of the bottom two thirds of the image, which abruptly encounter the rocks of the virtually concealed shoreline. The depth of the stormy sky and distant horizon lends a sense of the infinite to this work.
Like Jutai’s sculptures, his paintings are both minimal and expressionistic. In a gesture that is as contemporary as it is traditional, the artist often boldly inscribes text directly onto his sculptures stone's surface; by turns witty and thoughtful or waspish and discordant, these messages are themselves significant acts of communication extending the impact of the sculptural forms. In keeping with his predilection, he titled, dated, as well as signed this watercolor along the bottom edge of the painting. The painting is imbued with the representation of speech thereby submitting lasting evidence that cannot be (re-)constituted into the brushstrokes on its surface. They remain.
Jutai challenged the perceptions and notions of art in a global sense. He also belonged to the middle generation of Inuit artists who hover somewhere between the old and new worlds of the Arctic, negotiating an identity that is at once introspective and worldly. Jutai appreciated the role that carving, printmaking and painting plays in helping the Inuit maintain their cultural identity through the blending of traditional and modern themes. He gave expression to traditional Inuit narratives about the land as a source of sustenance, spirituality, and interconnectedness. Yet, his was also a criticism of the reality of Northern life with its harsh climate and social challenges of abuse, addiction and poverty. With Stormy Sea Jutai voiced not only his own reverence and disquiet but also that of his community.
Jutai Toonoo was a commanding ambassador of contemporary Inuit art, creating works that rarely conform to traditional assumptions about the style and substance of Inuit sculpture. He was a member of that generation of Inuit artists (Tim Pitsiulak, Shuvinai Ashoona, and Annie Pootoogook) who extended the narrative of The North; those remaining of that group are growing and evolving, while remaining deeply tied to the uniquely resourceful spirit that permeates the Arctic.
Jutai Toonoo lived and worked in the Inuit settlement of Cape Dorset (Kinngait), and had lived in Iqaluit. He was born in an igloo on a cold December morning in 1959 just outside Cape Dorset. He was the son of Toonoo and Sheojuke, and the brother of artists Samonie Toonoo (1969-2017) and the renowned Oviloo Tunnillie (1949-2014). He often recalled the traditional way of life of his family and learned by watching his father go about the daily tasks that enable the family to survive. Jutai did his first carvings when he was seven years old, learning his techniques from his father. By 1982 carving was his major source of income. Jutai was an accomplished sculptor, painter, and jewellery maker who came back to carving in the 1990s after leaving the discipline to pursue an administration career. He passed away suddenly from a heart attack in 2015.
Toonoo's work is found in many private and public collections in Canada and abroad.
“Instead of depicting the traditional Inuit way of life, or even that life in transition, Toonoo has taken on a universal theme: the human condition. At the same time, his art is extremely personal. "I try to give power to my work," he says. "Lots of times, my tongue gets tied and I can't really say what I'm thinking." The silent stone gives him eloquence.”
Derek Norton and Nigel Reading, Cape Dorset Sculpture, Vancouver: Douglas&McIntyre, 2005, 43.
Robin Laurence, “Inuit Artist Makes Silent Stones Speak” Straight.com, 25 August 2005, Arts.