If it’s true that artists force a culture to come to terms with itself, then few people have helped define the Yukon more than Jim Robb. We all know his work: the billowing drifts of snow, the wispy chimney smoke, the happy huskies and, of course, the cabins – canting outward from their base.
Robb calls this style “the exaggerated truth”, and that seems to nail the central paradox in his work. Sure, his paintings and sketches are caricatures, but they accurately capture something deep within the Yukon’s collective psyche … something undeniably true.
His insight was not acquired overnight; rather, it is the result of an extended love affair with the Yukon’s history and its people.
When he arrived here, in 1955, he came to escape the cities of southern Canada. “I didn’t like big populations,” Robb explains. “I like small communities.”
Robb was already interested in art at that point – he had studied a few years in art school – but something about the Yukon inspired him to develop the style that he has since made iconic.
“[My technique] was mostly developed in the Yukon by drawing pictures of Whiskey Flats,” he says. It was here, along the Whitehorse waterfront, that he found buildings bursting with meaning and history.
His imagination was gripped. “I used to spend days and days wandering around Whiskey Flats, making drawings,” says Robb.
Another element of his unique artistic representation was cemented after a few trips to Dawson City. “In Dawson, I found old, tilting buildings that were leaning due to permafrost, and that encouraged me more,” he says.
With this discovery, the essential elements of his style began to take shape, but Robb had yet to settle on a primary medium. His experimentation started with sketches on moose rawhides.
The result was an authentically Northern creation. But as rawhide artwork gradually became less feasible, he switched to the medium of watercolour, which he is now famous for.
Robb’s work gives him the chance to document the Yukon’s past in his own personal fashion. “Yukon history makes me tick.
“I like all of Yukon’s history, from the Gold Rush, to mining, First Nations history, to the construction of the Alaska Highway.”
Robb is not only concerned with capturing the physical nature of his subject matter, but also with illuminating the emotional resonances that his subjects create.
“I’m recording what’s out there. I’m recording feelings and thoughts.”
In this way, Robb’s art captures another dimension of the Yukon’s history – a dimension easily overlooked.
His artistic vision has also tended to bend toward those who reside slightly off the beaten path. His passion for history (and for the people who make history interesting) converged when he began drawing and photographing a column for a local newspaper in 1971.
“I was looking for a name for my column,” says Robb, “and I came up with The Colourful Five Per Cent.” Of course, this name is now instantly recognized in households throughout the Yukon.
“I focus on people who are unique in some way, people who are unique because of their accomplishments or their way of life, or their outlook on life,” Robb says about the subjects of his column.
Though there is definitely humour in Robb’s work, he nonetheless believes that art has a serious role to play. “Artists of the past – that’s who created evidence of culture and civilization – that’s how the Yukon will be judged.”
In this respect, Robb is very encouraged by what he calls “the art explosion” that is going on in the territory, right now. And, though he enthusiastically supports the work of younger artists, he is not ready to pass the torch.
“I’m going to keep making art as long as I live.”