The Recognizable and the Rare

For those who have never ventured above the 60th parallel, the Yukon can encompass a sense of mystery and awe. A territory where the sun either rarely sets or rarely rises, where history is rooted in gold and where vivid colours dance upon the evening sky.

And, for some, these instances are thus represented through stories, photographs and artistic renderings.

Furthermore, some might say that no one captures the majestic beauty of the sprawling land quite like Ted Harrison.

“Yukon caused a revolution in my style of painting and my outlook on life,” writes Harrison in an artist statement for the latest exhibit of his work at the Yukon Arts Centre, Painting Paradise.

“Canada and its people are both my inspiration and motivation for which I am profoundly grateful.”

A vast collection of Harrison’s work spans two large spaces within in the YAC Public Art Gallery. The exhibit begins with a brilliant-red wall adorned with a piece, Lone Woman with Ravens, that hangs solo.

The 1991 painting is part of the YAC collection and is one of many of Harrison’s works that display his strong use of colour, shape and vivid imagery to bring this Northern territory to life.

In the piece, a woman walks in solitude toward crooked multicoloured houses while ravens escort her along the path. The land is but a small portion of the painting as the sky takes full authority with Harrison’s familiar touches of dancing colours and expansive swirls.

The deep, bold colours lean toward a sense of whimsy and cartoon-like aesthetics. And while that playful result is employed in most of Harrison’s works, Painting Paradise also provides a glimpse of a different approach.

Two portraits in the exhibition demonstrate a more-realistic and textured style in the artist’s portfolio. Lucy (Portrait of a Girl in Orange) and Virginia are paintings, from 1968, that feature an attention to detail not explored in Harrison’s more-familiar works.

The images depict a simplistic head-and-shoulders capture of these two young women, each with solid, soft background colours and quiet, natural lines.

A 1971 acrylic painting, titled Carcross, makes use of a slightly different colour palette. Gone is the rainbow of bold pastel hues in the sky and, in exchange, the artist used a muted peach-like tone complemented by a small burning sun.

The minimalist figures in the image remain the same, but Carcross perhaps provides a peek at what Harrison was exploring before he hit his colourful stride.

The England-born artist spent his early days studying and teaching art, but shortly after moving to Alberta, in 1967, a teaching position took Harrison and his family to Carcross. Only about a year after that, he held his first Canadian exhibition in the Whitehorse Library, in 1969.

Perhaps one of the most-memorable uses of Harrison’s works for territory dwellers and those from the outside, alike, are his illustrations for the Robert Service poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

Both sets of illustrations are included in Painting Paradise to showcase what gallery director Mary Bradshaw calls “a huge part of our Yukon heritage”.

Each series depicts Harrison’s iconic skies filled with ribbons of colour and speckled with dotted stars. They capture his block-coloured characters frolicking amidst pastel mountains and terrain. And they incorporate crooked, façade houses – and even Whitehorse’s own S.S. Klondike.

Although it’s not difficult to find some of Harrison’s most-familiar artistic offerings around the shops, bookstores and libraries of the territory, Painting Paradise acts as a welcome combination of the recognizable with the rare, from public and private collections.

And the exhibit is also a celebration for a new biography written about the artist.

Author Katherine Gibson has combined stories and artwork to develop a full retrospective, on Harrison’s explorations as an artist, also titled Painting Paradise. The book will launch in Whitehorse at the Yukon Arts Centre, on August 26, with Ted Harrison in attendance.

Painting Paradise is on display until August 30 in the Yukon Arts Centre Public Art Gallery.

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