Portraits of Clay

Harreson Tanner and his wife drove up to the Yukon from Vancouver in the summer of 2002. It rained all they way up, but once they got to the Yukon, the Northern sunlight broke through the clouds and put on a show.

“We thought the Yukon sure knows how to welcome us,” says Tanner. This has set the tone for his entire stay in the Yukon.

Tanner is happily working as a local artist.

“I do portraits of people, generally elderly people, and my work is intuitive and interpretive,” he says.

Tanner does not do traditional portraits – he makes masks. He takes photographs of people’s faces and from these photos he moulds a likeness of their face out of clay.

Once the clay has been moulded, the mask is fired in a kiln and then glazed. The final product is richly textured and startlingly lifelike, a beautiful rendering of the subject.

Many of his masks are of First Nations people. Notably, he has done a bronzed portrait of Annie and Joe Henry, renowned Yukoners who were married for almost 81 years.

“It was one of the highlights for me as an artist,” Tanner says. The portrait now rests up on the Dempster Highway at the base of Blackstone Mountain.

Also, he has been planning on doing a mask of Skookum Jim for a couple of years now, but he hasn’t got around to it yet.

“[I’m a] flakey artist,” he says, perhaps sarcastically. “I don’t manage my time very well.”

Since arriving in the Yukon, Tanner has worked diligently to foster artistic opportunities for himself and others. He was instrumental in the creation of the Yukon Artists @ Work Co-operative, an organization aimed at providing artists with space to display their work.

“I was approached by two other artists and asked if I knew how to set up an artists’ co-operative. I said, ‘Sure.'” (Tanner admitted this was a little white lie, but he is not a man who is intimidated by uncharted territory.)

He dives into such projects with childlike enthusiasm, guided by an unapologetically optimistic world view. “I believe if something is good for the community and good for artists, it will happen.”

Cynics love to pounce on statements like this. Its naïve and foolish, they say. The problem is, Tanner makes a cheerful habit of proving this maxim right, on a fairly regular basis.

Tanner set about making contacts and rallying the local art community, and in October of 2003, Yukon artists had a self-run gallery to showcase their work. The gallery was a converted ATCO trailer, a creation that is a quintessential example of Yukon ingenuity.

Since its inception, the Yukon Artists @ Work Co-operative has expanded onward and upward from its original 12 members. It has moved out of the ATCO trailer and now occupies 2,600 square feet in the McCrae Industrial Area.

In 2005, it was picked by Travelocity as one of 15 North American “hidden treasures, secret places”. All this has Tanner bubbling with enthusiasm.

“We are taking control of our own artistic destiny,” he says of local artists.

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