Helen Kalvak was born in 1901 in a camp at Tahiryuak Lake in the interior of Victoria Island, east of Holman, Northwest Territories. Throughout her childhood she along with her father Halukhit and her mother Enataomik, moved from winter camps along the coast to camps in the interior during the summer. Her father was a respected angakuq [shaman] who passed much of his special knowledge and abilities to his daughter. Following the traditional ways, Kalvak's drawings are rich with the stories that she learned from her parents. Of particular interest, in both the drawings and later the prints, is the transformation between angakuq and his or her animal spirit helpers or guides.
Kalvak began drawing using graphite on paper in 1960, shortly after the sudden death of her husband the same year, while she was living at a coastal outpost camp. She portrayed traditional life and dress in these early drawings. At the same time she sewed sealskin kamiks [boots], parkas and mitts for the Co-op in Holman and several of her drawings were used as designs for sealskin tapestries.
One of the founding members of the Holman drawing and printmaking Co-operative in 1961, initiated by the Oblate missionary Father Henri Tardy, Kalvak's drawings were used for experimental sealskin stencil prints in 1962. Between 1965 and 1985 over 176 of her drawings were translated into stencil and stonecut prints, the largest body of published work by a Holman artist. She created an estimated 2000 drawings between 1962 and 1978 before Parkinson's disease limited the use of her hands.
A respected elder and important figure in her community, she possessed a strong link to her past. Her intimate knowledge of traditions and beliefs hunt, shamanism, the drum dance and transformation is a legacy, a visual history from an oral tradition. Helen was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1975 and received an Order of Canada in 1978.
Helen Kalvak died on May 7, 1984.