Kenneth Michael Kirkby was born September 1, 1940 in London, England and raised in Portugal.
Kirkby first exhibited at age 16 in Lisbon, to critical acclaim. The show sold out immediately after the opening ceremonies.
In 1958, Portugal was in revolution and the family's safety was threatened. Asked where in the world he would like to live, Kirkby replied, without hesitation, 'Canada'. One of his tutors, a whaler named Francisco Gonsalves, had told him marvelous stories from his whaling days, about 'Eskimos' and icebergs in the Canadian North and he longed to see them for himself.
Kirkby arrived in Vancouver September 2, 1958 and after working in northern British Columbia, continued north. For the next five years, he travelled from Alaska to Baffin and in the eastern he found what was to become the inspiration for the rest of his career. Walking alone one day on the tundra, Kirkby cam across a huge stone cairn built in the likeness of a human. The Inuit were much amused by his excitement at the discovery; for them, these cairns they call 'inukshuks' were a way of life. For as long as ten thousand years, they were erected on the land as travel beacons, aids to hunting and fishing and landmarks. The inuksuit were truly the language of the Inuit, written in stone on the land.
Excited by his discovery of an ancient Canadian Heritage, Kirkby returned to Vancouver in 1964 and began translating into oils the thousands of sketches he had shipped from trading posts along his trek. To his dismay, few people could be interested in his discovery.
Kirkby's first Canadian success came with his paintings of western Canadian wildlife and landscapes. In this work, he was represented by the prestigious Alex Fraser Galleries and became a friend and confidant of the late Alex Fraser.
Determined to provide a stage for what he believed was his best work, Kirkby devised a project that would involve the media in speaking about art. He gave them the necessary hook; the world's largest oil on canvas portrait, complete with statistics. Twelve feet high by 152 feet long, comprised of 38 vertical panels constructed from 1,976 feet of double kiln-dried custom cut, beveled basswood lumber, 3,952 nails, five litres of glue and 14, 592 industrial staples. Constructed and stretched by the artist himself, the panels are covered in 120 quarts of gesso and consumed over one ton of oil paint.
The plan was to get the media, and through it, the public, involved in the process of art. Once the attention was caught, there was endless material to be considered. The painting he titled "Isumataq", a word in Inuktitut meaning "an object in the presence of which wisdom might show itself". Kirkby would share the stage he had created with other Canadian artists through music, video and Inuit mythology.
The plan was expensive and hard but also very successful. When the drawing of the painting had been transferred from the model to the full-sized canvas, Kirkby invited the media to attend the application of the first brushstroke. They came, reported and followed the project through its completion and unveiling in the Canadian Parliament on March 30, 1992.
The painting was exhibited in 1993 at the Ottawa Museum of Nature and ArtExpo New York. A Larger Exhibition, including the popular music and video presentations was staged at Ontario Place in the summer of 1993. Kirkby returned to his home of choice in the summer of 1993, following the successful exhibit of the project at Ontario Place. Isumataq now resides in Vancouver, awaiting the next venue.