Have Brush, Will Travel

Nicole Bauberger knows her way around a colour wheel, and these days she’s also navigating her way around a fair chunk of Canada’s highway system.

In early May, the Whitehorse painter embarked on her third major paint-by-truckside road trip, stopping every 50 kilometres or so between her chosen destinations to paint a version of the view.

She began sequential paintings working with intervals over distance in summer 2006 for a Montreal show called Goldensides, and then evolved that approach into three substantial journeys.

The first full-on kilometrage was from Whitehorse to Inuvik (2008); the second was from Edmonton to Whitehorse and then on to Skagway and Fairbanks (2010); and this summer’s trip had three starting points.

Three beginnings? An Ontario-based curatorial collective called the Trousseau Society is selecting works by Bauberger for a November-December show called Get There From Here at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC).

“They’re interested in artists who explore migration within Canada, so I chose three places that have been home to me – Peterborough, Toronto and Montreal,” she says.

“So I painted my initial painting in each of those three cities. You can think of it like spurs on a railroad line.”

When we spoke by phone, Bauberger was buoyant because she had completed 75 paintings – the number she assigned herself before leaving.

She was catching up on emails at the Prairie Art Gallery (Grande Prairie, Alberta) and heading to Dawson Creek the next day to paint the beginning of the Alaska Highway, since she had painted its tail end last summer.

I asked about conversations on the road, about the road, and inside her mind in the hours between.

“In the cities pedestrians came up and spoke with me. The ability to paint and hold a conversation is a skill I definitely developed in the Yukon where we have this fabulous culture of having paid demonstration opportunities for artists,” she says.

“And I think too that is part of why Yukon is such an interactive community between people who make art and people who appreciate art – because the person making art isn’t a weirdo, isolated on their own.”

Given the speed of trucks on highways, and the pushback of wind from semi-trailers cruising by, Bauberger says she was grateful for people stopping to check on her.

This included a police officer who seemed confused that Bauberger was parked and painting with the canvas taped onto her steering wheel, since the rain was coming down too hard; and a pair of Manitoba road workers who were genuinely curious and then brought her an orange visibility vest.

“It’s interesting too because I’m taking up a space that’s legal but unconventional,” she notes.

Bauberger says she began thinking of painting as an extended listening project when she made a series of works “to” the Italian Early Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

“I wrote to her as I did those paintings, and then I did the Listening to the Mountain series as well, so the notion of painting as the process of listening – as an extended process – has been something I’ve thought about for a while.”

Bauberger reveals that she felt the urge to make it every 100 kilometres for this summer’s trip.

“I tried to justify that to myself, I really tried. But for the southern Ontario parts of it, if I had done every 100 kilometre of it … the resolution would have been too wide. It wouldn’t have caught much sequentiality in those smaller southern areas.”

The pattern of observing at intervals is something she also picked up from biologists, who count spiders or caribou or lichens in certain areas at regular intervals up a mountain or across the tundra, she says.

“Biologists and other scientists have been my closest colleagues working up in the Tombstones so their patterns of work have influenced me.”

Roads are a pronounced visual part of our landscapes now, and they are also an investment we collectively contribute to.

“Part of why I’m painting the roads is because it’s a common ground – it’s our commons, both in the sense of being public space and that we pour a lot of common money into it,” she reflects.

“Highways and roads are part of how we’re changing the world to live in it, so it seems like it’s something worth looking at with fresh eyes.”

Apart from the upcoming YAC show, Bauberger hopes to exhibit the works to people all along the roads she’s painted.

“People love it when you paint their world, it makes them feel like they’re being paid attention to,” she remarks.

“There’s something about paying that much attention to something that is slightly earnest. It’s part of what makes postmodern theorists struggle with it – it’s not extremely ironic.”

You can ask Bauberger more about her work at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival this weekend, where she offers two encaustic workshops (painting with beeswax and pigment).

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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