A simple thank-you gift spawned a new direction for visual artist Blair Thorson.

Nearly five years ago, he and his wife Linda took a trip to Skagway with some friends. When he insisted on contributing to offset travel expenses, the friends protested.

Originally, he’d meant to create a gift consisting of a photograph from the trip, simply framed, beside a map of the region. But after matching a drawing and the map up on a light table, he discovered a new canvas.

“I don’t sit there and look at the map and say that I’m going to make it part of the picture. I try to make the picture local to the area or meaningful to the map,” Thorson says of his watercolour images painted directly onto maps.

“And so, when you work with it, sometimes the geographical features of the map can end up looking like it was planned that way.”

From caribou to grizzly bears, First Nation hunters and paddlewheelers, Thorson combines imagery of activity, on the land, with geographical diagrams. The style is reflective not only of his career as a hydrometric surveyor, but also of his love of nature, his own First Nation ancestry and his general penchant for geography.

His new show, fittingly titled All Over The Map, opens in the Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery on Sept. 10. It features over a dozen paintings that merge the mapping details with Thorson’s meticulous brushstrokes.

One piece, Cape McClure Spear Fishing, shows how the actual map markings develop the imagery. The blue water detail on the map acts as a soft sky and surface surrounding while Thorson has painted two figures on the white span of land mass. It creates the effect of the duo standing on ice while they break through the surface to capture their prey.

Another piece, Braeburn Lake Fox, demonstrates Thorson’s attention to detail through tiny, opaque strokes of colour that construct the textured coat of the amber-hued animal.

And while Thorson’s exhibition is both unique and beautiful, things didn’t exactly start out smoothly. A few years ago, his wife was determined to net him a solo show for his 50th birthday.

“She’d made a number of submissions to galleries, in town, and we got rejection letters saying that my stuff was basically all over the map … that there was no theme, nothing that was a common thread,” he explains.

“I’d been led to believe, all through the years, that I had to hoard my stuff in order to show versatility and how diverse I could be.”

But out of the criticism came direction as the adjudicators remarked on the strength of the map paintings.

Now, Thorson has worked on a number of commissions, participated in group exhibitions and just nabbed a gallery-showing in Dawson Creek for early next year.

He’s also gone on to incorporate dimension in the pieces. In the painting, Betalamea Lake Grizzly, Thorson has cut life-sized bear paw prints that are recessed right into the matting.

Watercolour is more of a recent addition to Thorson’s repertoire. He spent about six years as an editorial cartoonist, in Fort St. John, creating upwards of 800 cartoons.

“I started off with pen and ink, a lot of black-and-white stuff; and that’s where the cartoons kind of fell in. They were something that could be done quite quickly,” he says.

“When I started painting, it wasn’t just that I was learning how to paint, but it was learning to be patient.”

He admits he struggles with being identified as an emerging artist at his age; however, he has carved out a niche for himself. And his colleagues at Environment Canada, and others, seem to be noticing.

“I walked into the office and they had a roll of maps sitting on the counter. They were going to the dump and suddenly the office manager said, ‘Blair draws on maps. Do you want them?'” he explains with a laugh.

“And I’ve got maps coming in from Alaska. I have, literally, a stack of maps that is almost a foot deep, sitting at home.”

The opening reception for Blair Thorson’s exhibit, All Over The Map, will be at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. The show is on display in the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery until Oct. 4.