Kenneth Michael Kirkby was born during an air raid on September 1st 1940 in London, England. The timing of the event might have been a foreshadowing of the warrior-painter he was to become.
Ken Kirkby first exhibited at the age of sixteen in Lisbon, which was sold out at the opening and received critical acclaim.
In 1958, Portugal, where he grew up, was in the grip of revolution. Realizing his dream to move to Canada, he found work in northwestern British Columbia and gradually migrated northwards and spent the following 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 “Inukshuk” 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 signposts of the North.
Kirkby’s first Canadian success came in the 1960’s and 70’s, when The Alex Fraser Gallery showed his paintings of Western Canadian landscapes. Despite his success, Kirkby 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 quickly 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’ high by 152’ long. Thirty-eight panels were constructed from 1,976 feet of double-kiln-dried, custom cut, bevelled 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 1 ton of oil paint. The giant painting of the Arctic landscape and its “Inukshuk” 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 problem of the depletion of the salmon stocks and the destruction of their habitats in BC 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.