Inspiration From the Northern Seas

Glaciers calve into the ocean.

A polar bear lounges and stretches.

The rigging creaks as the canvas sails fill with wind.

One walrus surfaces.

And every night lasts 15 minutes longer, while dawn and dusk stretch on for hours.

Whitehorse artist Jane Isakson digests these experiences, which she will develop into large-scale acrylic canvases over the winter. Every couple of years, Isakson tries to “shake things up” by exploring a new landscape. This fall, she took a voyage on a sail boat off the coast of Norway.

Two years ago, a friend who knew her childhood love of sailing suggested she might be interested in the Arctic Circle Residency, an arts residence aboard a sail boat. Isakson applied, and was offered a place the following year. Fellow Whitehorse artist Joyce Majiski heard of the residency and was accepted to join the same expedition.

Twenty-five artists from all over the world flew into Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway to board the traditionally rigged Barquentine tall ship with its Dutch and German crew. The group sailed into international territory administered by Norway, September 25 to October 13. The artists participated somewhat in the actual sailing of the ship, but were allowed mostly to focus on their artistic investigations.

Isakson spent the trip gathering information and getting a feel for the place. She made some installations along the way, exploring themes connected to the history of navigation in the North.

For example, she recreated the Great Bear constellation on the land at night. The Greeks called Ursa Major Arctos, meaning the bear. As it’s only visible in the North, it gave the Arctic its name.

Isakson also used strips of canvas to collect impressions of rope and anchor chain on the ship. She loved being tied into a safety harness to go out along the bowsprit to put canvas along the furled sail there while the ship was underway.

Their ship sailed to within 600 miles (966 kilometres) of the North Pole, where part of the ocean remains open because of the Gulf Stream. Historically, Europeans mined and whaled extensively here, until the whales were almost gone.

Very few plants grow on the islands the group visited. Isakson walked gingerly over the lichens, respecting how long it took them to grow. Lime green and ochre moss grew in an old whale processing area, nourished by the discarded whale bits left behind.

Isakson enjoyed the company of the other artists, which included painters, photographers, installation artists, sculptors, musicians, videographers, performance artists and writers.

The artists cooperated to help with each other’s projects. Isakson found the diverse points of view interesting. For her, Majiski, and one other woman from Finland, the Arctic landscape was familiar in some ways, but more extreme. For others, including an artist from Brazil, it was utterly new.

“If you get up above tree line, it was similar to that, except more extreme,” she says. “It took everything to that next level of solitude and stillness.”

Isakson, being used to a certain freedom, found herself hemmed in with the group. They had to stay together because of the presence of polar bears.

She will develop this experience into a body of work at another artist residency in Banff this winter, from mid-January through the end of February.

In the meantime, you can see work she created at the Yukon Art Centre, along with work she created while being an artist-in-residence at three different National Parks. The show, called From the Outer Edges, includes works created in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Ivvavik National Park on the Yukon’s North Slope, and the Gwaii Hanas National Park Reserve in Haida Gwaii — inspiration from the shores of Canada, from sea to sea to sea.

You can see From the Outer Edges from November 28 to February 22 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

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