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Artist Ken Kirkby was born during an air raid in London, England in 1940. The timing may have foreshadowed the warrior-painter he was to become.
He grew up in Portugal where he had his first successful exhibit at age 16. In the late 1950s, he realized his dream to move to Canada. He found work in northwestern British Columbia and gradually migrated further north. He spent five years walking, paddling and sledding across the Canadian Arctic with various groups of Inuit.
Becoming very involved with social issues in the North, he promised the people that he would find a way to raise awareness of these issues in the rest of Canada.
Walking alone one day on the tundra, Kirkby came across a huge stone cairn, built in the likeness of the human form. It was an Inukshuk. Kirkby had encountered the primary symbol of the Far North that he had been looking for. Some Inukshuit stand as high as twenty five feet, while others are quite small. They remain unmoved by high winds and blowing snow because they are positioned to remain snow-free and visible to hunters, wildlife and travelers. They are the sign posts of the North.
Kirkby’s Canadian success as an artist came in the 1960s and 70s, with western Canadian landscapes, but he could not interest people in his Inukshuk paintings. Determined to create a stage for what he believed was his best work and fulfill his promise to the Inuit, Kirkby researched contemporary media and communications. He realized that North Americans are preoccupied with numbers… the number of people who died, the number of dollars worth of damage, etc.
He then devised a project that would intrigue the numbers-preoccupied media and help him to get his message out. This project was “Isumataq” – the world’s largest oil-on-canvas portrait.
The painting’s “stats” did catch the imagination of the media. It is 12 ft. high by 152 ft long. Thirty-eight panels were constructed from 1,976 feet of basswood lumber, 3,952 nails, 5 litres of glue and 14,592 industrial staples. The panels are covered in 120 quarts of gesso and consumed over one ton of oil paint. The giant painting of the Arctic landscape and its Inukshuit was a great success, leading to a renewed interest in the North. The painting was exhibited at the Canadian Parliament in 1992 and at the Ottawa Museum of Art and Nature Expo in New York in 1992. In 1993, it was on view at Ontario Place along with a multi-media exhibit attended by more than one million visitors.
Having completed this project and raised awareness of the North, Kirkby turned his “warrior-painter” gaze on the depletion of the salmon stocks and the destruction of their habitats in B.C. rivers.
After a decade of work in this area, Kirkby became the President of the Nile Creek Enhancement Society in 2006. Today, he leads the Society in fundraising, often using his own art and that of concerned fellow-artists, in order to solicit donations from corporations and the public. The Society is actively engaged in projects that are bringing creeks back to life and reviving the kelp and eelgrass beds that are fundamentally important to the salmon’s ocean habitat.
In 1993, Ken Kirkby was awarded the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation. His work is in many important public and private collections, including several members of the British Royal Family, The Hon. Jean Chretien, Pierre Elliot Trudeau and The National Gallery of Canada.