Jessie Oonark was born in the area of northern Canada known as the Barren Lands, north and west of the present-day village of Baker Lake, Northwest Territories, where she settled in the late 1950s. Her childhood and young adulthood were spent in the traditional pursuits of an Inuit woman: dressing caribou and sealskins, and making parkas and other items of traditional clothing. Oonark began her career as a graphic artist in 1959, when a Canadian biologist working in Baker Lake gave her art supplies. Her talent was immediately recognized, and she was soon making drawings for sale. A selection of Oonark's drawings were sent from Baker Lake to Cape Dorset, the only Inuit settlement issuing prints at the time.... She was the only outsider ever included in the Cape Dorset print program.
Oonark was a major force in the development of the graphic arts program at Baker Lake in the 1960s and 1970s. Her singular talent was rewarded by an art advisor at Baker Lake who gave Oonark her own studio and a small salary to allow her the freedom of full-time artistic creativity. (She had previously been working as a janitor at the local church.) Between 1970 and 1985 more than 100 of Oonark's drawings were translated into prints and issued in the annual Baker Lake print editions.
A strong, bold graphic sense informs all of Oonark's work. Traditional dress, women's facial tatoos, and shamanistic themes are common in her art, yet they usually appear as isolated, fragmentary forms, shaped into a graphically bold image rather than a comprehensible narrative. Oonark is also well known as a textile artist, whose wool and felt wall-hangings reveal her as a master of color and form.
She was married to another Inuit at a young age, but in approximately 1953 was widowed with two of her eight children still dependent on her. During this period, the annual caribou migration - on which the Caribou Inuit in the Kivalliq Region depended - shifted away from the area where she lived, leaving many Inuit to starve. Unable to support her children through hunting under such harsh conditions, she moved to Baker Lake in 1958. There, she started drawing, inspired by her children's efforts at the mission school in Baker Lake. Her first prints were published in 1960.
Despite a late start - she was 54 years old when her work was first published - she was a very active and prolific artist over the next 19 years, creating a body of work that won considerable critical acclaim and made her one of Canada's best known Inuit artists. Her style is marked by her bold use of large areas of flat colour and the attention she paid to shapes rather than to line styles. Although her medium was wall hangings and prints, her technique drew largely on traditional styles used in Inuit sewing and clothing manufacture.
Following surgery in 1979, she lost much of her manual dexterity and produced only a few more pieces afterwards. Her career had lasted roughly 19 years, but its impact on Inuit art - and on the perception of Inuit art in the larger world - is considerable.
In 1975 she was elected a Member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and in 1984 she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. She died in 1985 in Churchill, Manitoba and is buried in Baker Lake.