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Canada’s North seen through Bowser painter’s work in new book

Ken Kirkby’s North shows the results of his love for Canada’s colder places
Painter Ken Kirkby shows his new book, Ken Kirkby’s North, commemorating his work on and love for Canada’s North, next to the large, wooden viking that stands guard at his Bowser home. — Adam Kveton Photo

Bowser painter Ken Kirkby’s interest in Canada’s North began early in his life, when an old man named Francisco told Kirkby of having found the place “at the centre of all things.”

A whaler and commercial fisherman who lived in a shack in Parede, Portugal, Francisco became perhaps the most important teacher in Kirkby’s life.

“He told me that he’d found a place on the planet that was the place at the centre of all things,” said Kirkby from his home by the water in Bowser. “‘It’s in a fjord in Baffin Island, and if you ever get there, you will know why,’” he was told.

“So it became an absolute obsession to find this place, which I did, and I did know why. That was the beginning of my utter love affair, obsession with the north and the North people,” Kirkby said.

The painter looks to commemorate his journeys in Canada’s North, and the results of those journeys — many paintings of the place, its people and Inuksuit (the plural of Inukshuk), and his effort to have Canada’s North, its people and Nunavut in particular recognized — in a book of paintings.

Kirkby will be selling Ken Kirkby’s North via emailed request to

He has plans for creating and selling more books in a similar fashion.

Kirkby spent five years in the 1960s travelling in the Arctic, including to that place on Baffin Island that Francisco had described.

“The stories that the old man Francisco told me sounded so beautiful that they were just a fairytale,” said Kirkby.

“I didn’t really believe that it was all true. But the old man had never steered me wrong, ever, once. And I just wanted to see what he had seen. When I got there, even he, with the beauty of his language and stories, had not painted it perfectly enough,” Kirkby said.

“Nothing that we have in our towns and cities and local landscape exists up there. So you have sensory deprivation, but there is everything else up there. And the place is so vast. And silence is so silent, to the point where you hear this terrible sound in your head, and what it is is the rushing of blood in your ears and your veins. You hear yourself. It’s a welcome to yourself. And then the meeting with the people… these people are the only people on this Earth that I’ve ever encountered who live to their code.”

That means they don’t lie, cheat or steal, and if someone, even an enemy, is sick, they help, said Kirkby.

The Inuit also eventually regarded Kirkby as an Inuit as well, despite the obvious difference in appearance. Kirkby was told it didn’t matter, he said.

“We see them as welfare cases,” Kirkby said. “These people, we wouldn’t have survived without them, and they’ve been there for thousands of years, and yet we go up there and tell them what to do.”

After leaving the Arctic, Kirkby worked to bring attention to the Inuit and the land, in large part through his painting. But Canadians weren’t much interested in paintings of the Arctic, he said.

Eventually, though, Kirkby said he worked to bring international attention to the plight of the Inuit, who had been misgoverned from afar, made wards of the state, and had their social structures disjointed by relocations and residential schools.

This effort garnered some attention, especially with his 12-year project, Isumataq — a 3.7-metre by 46-metre oil painting of the Arctic landscape.

He managed to have a portion of his painting unveiled at Parliament on March 28, 1992. A plebiscite in October, 1992, saw a record turnout of voters pass the Nunavut agreement by 84.7 per cent, according to Library and Archives Canada.

“All I can hope for is that I and those who laboured so long (for Nunavut to become a territory) had some effect.”

If so, Kirkby said, that’s the one painting he’s ever done that he would call art.

The book, Ken Kirkby’s North, is Kirkby’s way to celebrate, he said.

To find out more about purchasing the book, email Kirkby at