It was never Nathalie Parenteau’s intention to be an artist. Although she’s had a successful art practice for decades, she still views her vocation as something she stumbled upon.
“It was not the plan,” she said. “You just fall into things. It still kind of feels like it’s a hobby. I still feel like, okay, I need to get serious.” And then she laughed.
Even though she said that making art for a living was not a conscious choice, Parenteau admitted that she’s always had an aptitude for the visual arts.
“It’s always been easy for me. So, since kindergarten, I’ve always been the teacher’s pet in craft class.
“It was a natural tendency that became more and more prominent. And now it’s a career, I guess.”
Originally from Montreal, Parenteau first arrived in the Yukon 39 years ago as a volunteer in the youth organization Katimavik.
“I stayed, did the whole hippy thing, the bush hippy thing,” she said.
She also made art. Parenteau’s work is ubiquitous in the Yukon. She incorporates her engaging, stylized interpretations of the natural world into pieces ranging from charming Christmas cards, to large-scale murals.
Parenteau said that the cards were first created on a whim, “just for fun, but now people ask, every year, if the new card is out.”
The whimsical cards have included Rudolph kayaking amidst ice floes, Santa ski-joring with a husky and the three wisemen riding musk ox under the aurora borealis. Parenteau’s work, no matter what the scale, typically includes animals of some kind.
“All the critters I paint—I feel like they’re my little babies.”
Like all parents, Parenteau finds it hard to let her “babies” go. Fortunately, she can always go visit them because many of these critters find their way into large, dynamic murals installed in public spaces.
The earliest mural can be found in Carcross on the Community Centre. Created in 1987, the vibrant tableau features winter and summer scenes on Bennett Lake—people playing on the ice and snow, and flying kites on the beach. The swirling night skies, dotted with stars, are repeated in Parenteau’s subsequent work, although her landscapes become more stylized and symbolic and less identifiable as a specific place.
The latter is true of Parenteau’s most-recent mural, Rhythms of a Northern Town, which was installed on the exterior of the Takhini Arena last fall. The huge painting, which measures 64 feet by 12 feet, represents Whitehorse, but we know that not because of a faithful depiction of the city but by the artist’s inclusion of white horses swimming in a river, and by the presence of a sternwheeler. Parenteau captures the essence of the “Wilderness City” with a few simple symbols.
While Rhythms of a Northern Town is dynamic and full of action, Parenteau toned down the mood for Our Seasons, Our Stories, the large mural she created for the atrium of the Whistle Bend Continuing Care facility. Filled with sweet critters and gentle folks, this beautiful work exudes kindness and peace.
When creating public art, she imagines what her audience will respond to and what will appeal to them emotionally.
“Art is the language of the emotions,” she asserted
As an artist, Parenteau has never been particularly drawn to realism. She is more interested in being faithful to her inner vision and responding directly to her creative instincts.
“I want it to come strictly from my guiding light,” she explained. “That’s been working well for me.”
Parenteau has never had a teacher, never gone to art school. She does, however, like to visit museums and study the work of other artists. She will observe paintings closely and try to figure out how the artists accomplished them and what decisions they made. And then she likes to return to her studio and explore new techniques and approaches.
“Some visions that I’ve had, I’ve never expressed them,” she said. “Now is the time to give them priority.”
One piece that she painted, in response to these visions, is more abstract and expressionistic. Breathless Approach is a shattered glacial landscape devoid of any of her beloved “critters.” But it’s typical of her previous work in that it’s full of dynamism and movement.
Her latest visions are of “things that have no boundaries.” The abstract pieces are more challenging for the viewer and require “kind of a leap of faith” on Parenteau’s part, to bring them into being. Still, she feels a responsibility to bring them into the world.
“I feel like there’s a momentum inside. I also feel like the ideas come from somewhere else. I feel like I’m the ‘hired help.’”
Because her impulse to create seems to come from a greater force, Parenteau has confidence in her ability to accomplish large-scale public projects, as well as more-challenging abstract pieces.
“The design itself is where the energy is,” she said. “I never doubt it.”