At Colin Alexander’s Northern Icons exhibit in the Rah Rah Gallery, you would be forgiven if at first you thought you were looking at old, blown-up photographs. But the eyes boring into yours are charcoal and watercolour. They were human, once. Then they were photographs. Under Alexander’s hand, they are something else again.

“These are all people from the Yukon Archives,” he says, waving a hand at the wall of faces. “They’re all gold-rush figures, generally from the 1890’s to around the 1920’s. It’s a period that I’ve always been absolutely fascinated with because of its independent spirit and self-sufficiency. When I look at these I can imagine a movie about them sometimes, or a novel.”

Colin Alexander has two art exhibitions in Whitehorse right now: the portrait show at Rah Rah Gallery runs until May 21, and his show of portraits, landscapes, and abstracts created by torching copper sheets for colour and adding acids and rusts for darks, runs until June 8.

Alexander’s portraits at the Rah Rah Gallery are pencil on paper with the depth of emotion. Many of the faces on the wall have stories already, like Skookum Jim or the Courtesan of Dawson. Some of the stories are lost, leaving only a photo and a generic description. It is this space for engagement that fascinates Alexander.

“We have total mysteries like Young Alaskan Native Girl,” he tells me, pointing to a small, dark figure. “It’s about the haunting look. There is something compelling, and maybe a little disturbing about meeting her gaze. (Looking at the Yukon Archives’ portraits),their silence speaks volumes. If I look at them long enough they seem to speak to me or something in their character, something in their eyes is trying to say something to me.”

This is Alexander’s first gallery exhibition, but most of you have seen his work before. Several of the murals downtown are his work, like the Chocolate Claim mural and the Dana Naye Ventures building. Although he has been drawing since childhood, Alexander feels that his real growth came during years spent in Ireland.

“I supported myself with street portraits, like 10-minute sketches of people in tourist towns like Galway and Killarney,” he says. “That really honed my craft. There’s nothing like having to create a very accurate likeness in front of 10 or 12 people, or you don’t eat that night. You get good really quickly with that kind of practice.”

In portraiture, the accuracy of the likeness isn’t simply a matter of recreating a person’s face. The real trick is to decide where to place lines. All of the portraits in this collection emphasize a different aspect of their subject.

“You really need to bring out the human qualities in them,” Alexander says. “You need to leave out certain details and focus in on the things that matter. There’s something about that primal act of drawing, just pencil on paper that I cannot get away from. And so, it’s important to me that we interpret the photographs, even if that means projecting some characteristics on them.”

Once a piece is started, it can be difficult to know when it is finished. The temptation to add, or second guess, can be very strong. For Alexander, that end moment is tied up in one of the face’s key features.

“I’ll sometimes ask my wife Christa what she thinks, because I can get pretty involved and a little too close up,” he says. “A lot of hours are spent just looking and deciding how much is really necessary. When you get a certain look in the eyes, when you hit that little highlight near the iris, something comes to light.”

Alexander admits that it is hard on some level to put them on public display.

“You spend so much time on these and you have to empathize with each person, and you have to find what’s beautiful about them or strong or dignified. So for someone to look at it, and even just to critique it on a technical level can sometimes be difficult. You want to say ‘leave him alone!’ or ‘how dare you say that about her!’ It’s hard to put them out in the world and have them knocked about.”

Northern Icons will be on display at the Rah Rah Gallery until May 21. His show Copper Apparitions, using the firecolour technique, will be on display at Gallery 22 until June 8.