Under the Yukon sky: The nature of joy

The current exhibitions at Arts Underground are of two moods. In the Focus Gallery, there are Natasha Henderson’s brooding skies, dense, lush forests and dark city streets in the appropriately-titled Under the Yukon Sky. In the Edge Gallery, the felt paintings of flora and fauna comprising Bronwen Duncan’s The Nature of Joy evoke that exact response – joy. Each artist uses their medium to create surfaces with rich layers of colour that bring depth, texture and beauty to the work. The result is two distinct aesthetic approaches, both of which are sympathetic to our contemporary experience as we navigate through a time of uncertainty and unease.

Natasha Henderson is a relatively new resident of the Yukon, having moved to the territory from Montréal a year ago. Henderson spent a few weeks in isolation in Whitehorse before making her way to Dawson a few months later. The works in Under the Yukon Sky were conceived as photos and drawings during her early days in the Yukon.

Once she was ready to start painting, Henderson chose the order of her colours out of a hat. She applied the random order in layers of oil in a series of landscapes. As a result, the paintings have an expressionist bent where colours are a bit strange.

“What do these layers mean when they are chosen by randomness, by something other than the artist’s choice?” Henderson asks. “When building up the surface of a painting, this comes even more to light as the community, and potential viewers of the art, recognize places by their representation. They may recognize and reflect more about a place, a site, or landscape in this area with which they are already familiar.”

This is true of Henderson’s streetscapes of Whitehorse, which offer unusual views of the city, and streets that I can’t quite place. In “Yukon Sky (Whitehorse City Alley),” the dark blue and browns of an overcast sky are repeated in a claustrophobic alleyway. A red wall at the end of the alley serves as a beacon perhaps, or a sign of hope.

A second street scene called “Yukon Sky (Whitehorse City I)” features buildings whose forms and details are softened into simple shapes so as to make them unrecognizable. In “Yukon Sky (Lush Riverdale),” the sky overwhelms and dwarfs the street scene at the bottom of the panel, where a lone street lamp emits a barely-perceptible glow. In this and in many of Henderson’s works, the clouds stained with browns and reds are awesome and threatening and gorgeous all at once

Bronwen Duncan’s colours are also gorgeous and her felt paintings are like watercolours made of wool. However, the wool and threads she employs creates texture, character and depth, almost like a relief.

A visit to the Edge Gallery lets us step outside into forests and fields of flowers and rippling streams. We engage with herons and bears and bees and otters, all of whom are given distinct character through careful details. The critters are all so engaging I was hard-pressed to choose a favourite. I gravitated towards a diptych featuring mice amongst rosehips, before being drawn towards the black bear in Spring, which was inspired by a Mary Oliver poem.

Duncan achieves wonderful textures and the pieces have rich, gem-like colours and bright swirls of colours that pop. She employs “miscellaneous threads” to achieve details like mouse tails, foaming seas, and tiny wildflowers. Some pieces – “Busy Bee, Salmon and Busy Beaver” – are wonderfully illuminated, like Monet’s water lilies.

Duncan’s approach to art reminds me of a quote by Henri Matisse: “Art should be something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.” However, for Duncan the armchair might instead be a quiet place in nature, where we might rest from the demands of busy lives and the digital age.

“Too many of us forget joy,” Duncan says. “We run against the clock, we enact our roles, we feel helpless against a world that seems to be going wrong.

“So, step outside. Stop awhile. Let nature still our busy minds. For a heart that is singing – is alive with joy – has the power to love, to create, to heal.”

Similarly, for Natasha Henderson, art offers the possibility for connection: “This work reflects my desire to find that fragile balance and harmony between isolation and the need to reach out to people, to mitigate the loneliness.”

And, like Duncan, Henderson sees the natural world as the place where our confusion ends and creativity begins:

“All this stuff, humans and our wants and needs and interpretations and wishes, it all continues under this glorious [Yukon] Sky. In life and in art, the Sky can be a launching-pad for the imagination.”

Under the Yukon Sky and The Nature of Joy are on exhibit at Arts Underground until August 28.

To view the exhibitions online, visit Arts Underground

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