Daughter reunited with late father’s painting from Chesterfield Inlet residential school

Cinthia Alaralak imagines her late father, John Illupalik, was longing for home when he painted a team of sled dogs resting beside two igloos, with an inukshuk on a mountain in the distance.

He was perhaps eight or nine at the time, at the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet in what is now Nunavut, where he would spend much of the 1960s.

“I believe he was really homesick for igloos,” she said.

Now, 60 years later, the painting has returned to his daughter in Igloolik. It came home after Valerie Ipkarnerk, who has had the painting for years, launched a search online for its rightful owner.

“He would feel happy, great about it. He would talk about it — I know for sure he would talk about it, how he painted it, when he painted it,” said Alaralak, imagining how Illupalik would react to having the painting home.

Illupalik passed away in late April 2021. Alaralak recalls him telling her about that painting — he sold it for $20, which felt like a lot of money for a young boy in the 1960s.

John Illupalik, left, with his daughter Cinthia Alaralak. (Submitted by Cinthia Alaralak)

For years after that, it hung in a room at the old St. Theresa hospital in Chesterfield. That’s where Ipkarnerk remembers seeing it for the first time as a little girl.

“We used to go to the hospital and go visit the patients there, and every time I would use the phone, there was a little room for the phone and the painting would always be in there,” she said.

“I knew it had a special meaning or something.”

Years later, when Ipkarnerk was helping with the sale of all the items left in the hospital before it closed, she decided to buy two of the paintings that hadn’t sold. One of them was Illupalik’s artwork.

“That painting always caught my eye,” she said.

Finding its creator

Ipkarnerk said at first she didn’t think about who painted it. Then, in 2012, her late cousin Bernadette Niviatsiak spotted it and exclaimed that she knew its creator.

“She said, ‘Well, I should take this painting with me — I know the person that made it!'” Ipkarnerk recalled with a laugh. “But it seemed like I had a connection, a bond to that painting, so I kept it.”

John Illupalik painted this while at the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet 60 years ago. (Submitted by Cinthia Alaralak)

Niviatsiak passed away in January. 

“I was thinking about her and I was thinking, I should maybe try to find the person who painted it,” she said.

The search, once it began, was over in an instant. Ipkarnerk posted to an Iqaluit Facebook page, and within minutes, Cinthia’s friends had tagged her on the post.

“I’m just so happy that Cinthia and her siblings are able to keep the painting, and I hope she will treasure it,” Ipkarnerk said.

Alaralak said being reunited with the artwork of her ataata, her father, brought a mix of emotions. The painting arrived in Igloolik before the first anniversary of Illupalik’s death.

“I was happy, I was emotional. I had them mixed at the same time, so I couldn’t cry — I was just happy about it when I received it,” she said.

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