Whitehorse artist Leslie Leong applied for a residency at the Ted Harrison Artists Retreat to work towards a large show at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery in the fall of 2019. But she had lots of other ideas to work through first, both larger and smaller.

At the artists’ retreat, on Crag Lake, she was able to think big thoughts and, on a smaller scale, make gorgeous pieces of art jewelry, now on display at the Yukon Artists @ Work Gallery at 4th and Wood.

Leong had lots of little ideas that were plaguing her, mainly designs for jewelry inspired by the natural world. And she had big realizations about human impact on the natural world, from her trip on a tall ship to Svalbard, Norway, 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, that she had to come to terms with.

Leong sailed from Longyearbyen, in Norway, to the Islands of Svalbard, with 28 other artists on a tall ship, last June, crossing the 80th parallel. They sailed to the northernmost point of the archipelago, “really just rocks in the sea,” said Leong.

“On the one hand, it was very exciting; but also, it was not, because the only way we could get there so easily was because of the lack of sea ice,” reflected Leong. “Climate change is really doing stuff.”

Looking over the water, she realized, as the crow flies, she was only about 4,000 kilometres from Whitehorse. Then she thought about the 15,500 kilometres she had travelled to get there, flying via Vancouver, Halifax, Paris and so on.

Leong had always known that she was part of the circumpolar community, but living in a city like Whitehorse, it seemed to her that we were too comfortable to really claim such a citizenship. On this trip she came to accept that role, which means, to her, having more of a responsibility to take care of the circumpolar world and to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change.

From the tall ship, she collected a lot of garbage (it floats around freely in the sea!) and shipped it back home, which was expensive.

So, for her first month at the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat, Leong was “downloading and unpacking that experience,” both literally and figuratively. She realized she was experiencing “climate change depression,” and that wasn’t very helpful. Her realization that the planet is broken, kept her from taking any action at all.

Then Whitehorse poet Clea Roberts, attending a writing conference in Dawson Creek called Words North, put out a call for artists to respond to poems. A poem by Helen Knott explored the Japanese idea of kintsugi, golden repair, where broken ceramics are repaired with gold.

On the Svalbard trip, two of the other artists, Adam Kuby and Shohei Katayama, took photographs of metallic emergency blankets laid into the crack of a glacier. This evoked the idea of kintsugi for Leong. She had kintsugi in mind for the gold-embellished landscape print she made in response to Roberts’ call. She’s keen now to make artwork that embraces the planet’s brokenness, to repair it in a way to make something new and beautiful.

For the jewelry, she “had all these things hanging around” in her brain. Sometimes an idea strikes but you don’t have time to do it. Leong made sketches, invested with the promise of the artwork to come. Some of these ideas date back past 2013. Some of them are extensions of jewelry lines she already makes regularly and displays at the Yukon Artists @Work Gallery. And they will clear out her mind to begin to work on her larger format, the Yukon Arts Centre show! Leong finds it very satisfying to bring these ideas to completion.

Precious, Leong’s show of jewelry, opened with a reception on Friday November 9. The installation uses a wide variety of reclaimed and found materials, as Leong is well-known for. The gallery-style presentation of jewelry reminds me of galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can enjoy the show until November 28.

Leong gave an artist talk reflecting on her Svalbard experience during Culture Days, at the end of September. Watch out for another one in Whitehorse in January.