Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Lisa, Kanuti"

"Its the great big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forest where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that fills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace."

~Robert Service, excerpt from "The Spell Of The Yukon"

"Lisa, Kanuti", 24"x 18",oil on panel, was inspired by my recent pack rafting/hiking trip with Ed, Lisa, Dan C and Dan P to Kanuti hot springs in the Alaskan Interior. We had traveled 4.5 hours north of Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway. It was very remote. There wasn't a soul around for miles, perhaps a hundred miles or more. The day was amazing. We had bushwhacked over a mile uphill and then traversed the smaller peaks near Caribou Mountain. The fall colours were our in full force and painted the landscape a variety of reds, ochres, whites and greens.

As we crested the top of a hill I took some shots of Lisa. I particularly enjoyed the quality of light all through Alaska, how it played upon objects and people. It was pure, clean, was immediate and true. The interesting thing about this painting is that I had set up a couple of other small moments to take photos for a painting of Lisa earlier on in the trip...However this one, shot quickly and candidly, was the one that captured my interest. The mountains on the horizon, the reds of the foliage around her, and Lisa's pacific expression all served as inspiration.

We had heavy packs on and our water was precious up there as we had long left the Kanuti river that we had pack rafted down to the hot springs. I have never painted a backpack before but that lent an authenticity to the piece for me. I don't like posing really and try to keep my compositions as genuine as possible, with utilitarian objects included that are just as important to the narrative.

I wanted to convey Lisa as accurately in the moment as possible. She has since moved away from Alaska and I thought about that while I painted this piece. I wondered if it might serve as a little reminder of one of her last treks in the vast Alaskan landscape before she moved on. She has a beautiful personality and energy to her and I hope that it is evident here.

While the hills in the distance are rolling and seem innocuous, make no mistake. It was serious business hiking through that back country. There were times that my body wanted to give out but I knew that only my own two feet would carry me onwards. It was very humbling, very intense and the difficulty of it made its resolution all the sweeter. 

On a side note, I have been painting on wood panel more lately. I enjoy the look of the brushstrokes on the surface more than canvas. I find that the brushstrokes get a bit lost in the texture of canvas sometimes. I would like to experiment with different supports and surfaces but panel is definitely my preferred material to paint on currently. 

You can read more about my adventures at Kanuti on my other blog, Heather's Paintings And Musings. 

"Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." ~John Muir

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Testing My Limits in Alaska: Kanuti Hot Springs

"We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey." ~John Hope Franklin

My second week in Alaska a small group of us traveled to Kanuti Hot Springs. You won't find these hot springs in any travel brochure or tourist website however. Aside from my friend Ed's blog and a government site, there is very little mention of Kanuti Hot Springs...anywhere. Needless to say it was quite remote, four and a half hours north of Fairbanks and 14 miles away from the highway along the Kanuti River. I wondered how Ed found it in the first place!

Dan C's Car packed with five people, one dog, five rafts, five packs, gear and a lot of miles ahead of us!

Ed and his friends did this trip last year around the same time. Five of us went on this trip, plus Sky, Dan C's beautiful dog. The plan for the trip was to drive the 4.5 hours north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway, camp by the river on the first night and paddle 14 miles down the Kanuti River the following day. Then we would camp at the hot springs the second night and hike about 12 miles over Caribou Mountain and the surrounding peaks back to the truck.

I thought it would be difficult: I had no idea how difficult it would be.

The previous week I had hiked with Ed out to Bus 142 on the Stampede Trail. That hike was about 20 miles each way with two river crossings, but the trail was unmistakably there as it is used by dog mushers and ATVs quite regularly. The Kanuti trip had no such path for us to follow, which made it all the more exciting.

The landscape north of Fairbanks, especially with the sun going down, was rather eerie and disquietingly beautiful. There were no lights except from the sun and thus the land seemed ready to swallow the sky in blackness. It felt quite alien, as though I was on another planet.

Crossing the Yukon River

Once we arrived at the spot by the river where we were to camp the first night, Dan P, Lisa and myself drove about 10 miles further to reach the Arctic Circle. It was hard to believe that the sun had set at midnight. The Dalton Highway has quite a history and is frequented by truckers and intrepid travelers alike. The Alaska pipeline ran parallel to a good portion of the highway. Quite a sight to behold. The land seemed endless, with distant horizons and crystal clear air.

The official sign indicating The Arctic Circle. We made it!

The next morning we headed out in our packrafts towards the hot springs. Ed said that the previous year they had rounded a turn in the river and had seen a mother bear and her cub. Fortunately we did not encounter any bears on this trip but their presence were always in the back of my mind. We each had a little Alpacka Raft, the secret weapon that enabled Ed and I to get to Bus 142 the previous week. We inflated our rafts and set them in the water awhile before we left as the cold water would cause them to deflate slightly. Once we tied our packs to the rafts and broke camp we were off, heading away from the highway, and civilization.

Here you can see where we set out from on Kanuti River in the rafts. The Dalton Highway and the Alaska Pipeline are in the background.

Away we went. At the start of the rafting the water was nice and deep. However as the day progressed and we came across more rocks in the river, I had to continue to get out of the raft and carry it across barriers that I could not get around. This led to much shaking of my fists, gnashing of teeth and testing of my patience, but I did it. Ed said that the year previous the water had been about six inches higher, which would have made the paddling quite a bit easier on this trip.

The scenery was stunning and the knowledge that there was no one around for who knows how many miles, was humbling, intimidating and exhilarating. I had never before been so acutely in the middle of nothing and everything at the same time.

The view down the river from the raft with my pack fastened to the top of it.

These trees seemed ready to fall on us as we paddled past.

Our tent in the meadow by Kanuti River.

We arrived at the end of our paddle at about 9:30pm and made our way to a meadow next to which the springs run. There was wild onion all through the lea that we enjoyed the aroma of.This was due to the ground being heated by the hot springs. Thus we didn't need our super warm sleeping bags due to the more temperate climate. I slept like I had never slept before in my life, knowing that the hike the next day would be extremely challenging.

Here you can see the mist rising from the hot springs. Everyone else went in the hot springs after dinner but I was so tired that I went to sleep straight away.

You can see the meadow with the hot springs as the small green smudge below the darker trees. We headed out the next morning and bushwhacked for about a mile uphill, over dead trees, with packs (and rafts in those packs) on! I had never done anything like that before and I quickly became aware of how much more conditioning I needed!! My body wanted to give out very quickly but my will never did.

We traversed a succession of smaller peaks and eventually over Caribou Mountain. We encountered miles of tussocks which are designed to twist one's ankles I am convinced! The landscape was breathtaking and the fall colours were out in full force. To see 360 degrees of wilderness was unbelievable.

Climbing Caribou Mountain. We actually saw a caribou on the mountain. Sky took off after it but was left in its dust as the large buck took off across the taiga.

Sky was in her element out there. She didn't like the Alpacka rafts very much but when we were on foot she was thrilled to experience the hike with us.

A beautiful contrast of colours blanketed the landscape. We feasted on bearberries, crowberries and blueberries as we hiked.

Here we were about to enter the "saddle" portion of the hike. This saddle of land was composed of the dreaded tussocks, plants with the frustrating growth habit of being structured like wobbly cylinders that makes walking across them virtually impossible. Ed enters a race each year where they sprint across miles of tussocks. Yes, I am convinced that he is superhuman.

We came over the last rise of land and saw miles of beautiful ochre coloured earth below us. The entire hike took us about 7.5 hours. I remember looking around and breathing the pure air unblemished by pollution and seeing the blue atmosphere reflected perfectly in the small lakes below. The entire palette of colours in Alaska are forever locked in my memory....the hunter green of the river, the cranberry and white mountain and surrounding hills, the ochre-filled descent back to the truck and the cerulean hued lakes and sky will be a part of me always.

Beginning our descent.

These lakes were like saphhires on a necklace below us.
You can see the Alaska Pipeline here hugging the Dalton Highway which continues north all the way to Prudhoe Bay at the Arctic Ocean.

After we reached the truck and packed ourselves in there was one last stop before returning to Fairbanks. The Hot Spot, an eclectic assortment of signs, personalities and food is a popular rest spot along the highway. Stopping at the Hot Spot is a Kanuti tradition and to my delight I discovered that they actually had a vegan option!

The famous Hot Spot diner.

This sign hangs directly below the window where you place your order.

The Hot Spot seems to offer a bit of everything.

Looking back on The Kanuti River trip now I realize just how much it really did broaden my horizons as a human being and an artist. While I did not go on this rafting trip to gather reference for paintings, I went to see if I could do it and enjoy the experience of that effort. While I was very frustrated at times, I used this discomfort in a positive way. I knew that if I could do this, I could do anything.

Kanuti tested me physically and mentally like nothing ever had before and it helped me see what I am capable of. It is acute and intense challenges that define us more than anything I believe. The challenge does not have to be on a mountain or down a river, but it can just as well be an inward precipice that we have to surmount. As with everything in this life, it is all relative, personal, subjective. While I am the first to admit that I have feelings of doubt about myself and my work occasionally, this trip taught me to "bring it to the table" as my friend Conrad says. There is no time like the present...

"It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it." ~Charlotte Bronte

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Fairbanks Bus 142"

“It seems that almost anything manmade, that endures in time, acquires some qualities of the natural. Bleak shapes grow into a kind of magic, that once seen cannot easily be ignored.”~Ansel Adams

Here is the first painting that will form the body of work surrounding my time in exploring the Alaskan Interior this past summer. "Fairbanks Bus 142", oil on canvas, 36"x24", came together quickly, due in large part to my enthusiasm surrounding this very important project. When you love what you do, neither food nor rest are required. I did work on this piece while working on some other paintings but the bus kept beckoning me to it, to trying to render it as faithfully as I could.

While painting it I was taken back to that day, which was wonderful and bittersweet too. I remember Ed and I turning the corner and seeing Fairbanks Bus 142 at last, back lit by the drooping sun, crouching in the fireweed in the clearing. We were tired and elated, well, at least I was tired-Ed does this sort of thing very often and hiking the Stampede Trail was probably a piece of cake for him! For me, it was arduous at times but worth every wet step.

I tried to capture how intensely blue the sky can be in Alaska. With an absence of particulate pollution and smog, it brings vision into sharp focus and creates crisp outlines, even at the perimeter of ones field of vision. The atmosphere was so pure that it felt as though we were peering into a giant cerulean fishbowl above us.

The original painting has sold, but high quality reproductions of the piece are available here!

This painting will be the only Stampede Trail painting that I execute for a few months. I first have to finish my Newfoundland paintings, which are just as exciting in many ways. However, the Newfoundland show will arrive before I know it and thus the rest of the Alaska paintings must wait for the time being. They are there though, inside of me, just waiting to get out. It will test my patience, but hopefully "all good things come to those who wait" will be a tenet that comes true in this case. I aim to have upwards of 15-20 paintings for the show.

Chris McCandless was on my mind when I worked on this painting as much as he was when I was actually at the bus. Fortunately I took a lot of photo reference which helps to bring the emotions and memories back in a flood. I thought of the 113 days he spent at the bus, what he might have thought about, the windows he looked through, the reflections he saw within himself as much as through the panes of glass. This painting is the beginning of my own journey by examining where he experienced the last, fateful part of his own odyssey.

"There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms."~ George Eliot

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


"Pictures must not be too picturesque." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Knives" was painted in my final year at Sheridan College. Our assignment was to do a still life painting. Classmates and friends assembled all sorts of interesting things together for their projects. There were vases and fruit, clothing and shoes, action figures even appeared in one or two paintings. I wanted to paint something that interested me as well...something that would be fun and challenging to render. I decided to paint my knife collection.

My grandfather collected knives and you can see some of his collection in the painting "Grandmother With Knives". My father also had a small collection of knives and I had built up my own collection too. In fact the straight razor was my father's from when he was a teenager and there is one of my throwing knives in there too.  My friend Scott lent me his katana to complete the grouping. I lay out the knives on a white sheet to best show their form and contrast and away I went. 

Looking at this painting now I realize how differently I applied the medium back then. There are still some similarities of technique but I do paint more expressively now, with more evident brushstrokes and almost no blending on the canvas, as I had done in the "Knives" painting. It is all about learning what works best for you, how you best accomplish your goal of rendering a subject matter to your satisfaction.

I enjoyed trying to capture the craftsmanship in each knife. I like how each knife has its own story, its own maker who took pride in its creation, its own travels that had brought it to my studio. This is one of my favorite paintings for the reason that I have a connection with these objects, have held them in my hands and studied each one. They are works of art in and of themselves.

 It serves a good purpose I believe to look back at older works that you have done, to re-asses your technique and see where you have come from academically, intellectually and emotionally. Through simple observation you can mark your progress and see areas where you might improve. 

I do occasionally still paint still life subject matter, for they have as much of a story as a person does, in many ways. In fact, commonplace objects can reflect so much about a person. Again, objects are just that-objects. However they can also be much more than that. It is energy and emotion, nostalgia and attachment that we place upon these things that imbue them with a greater sense of their place in the world. 

"Painting should never look as if it were done with difficulty, however difficult it may actually have been." ~Robert Henri

Monday, October 6, 2008

Artistic Integrity

Sunset in Wesleyville, Newfoundland

"Doing things the way you see it, going by your own heart and soul, that is pure artistic integrity. Whatever the hair is six or sixty inches long, the eyes have make-up or not, the riffs are in 'E' or 'F' sharp, the amps are Marshall or not, all those things don't matter if you are not doing it for the right reason, which to me means doing it for yourself." ~Lars Ulrich, musician.

Being a full-time artist has its challenges, as does any job or path in life. The sporadic income and lack of a good medical insurance plan are two minuses I can think of off the top of my head but the pros far outweigh the cons for me. Setting your own hours, doing work that means something to you and sharing that message and those ideas to others are just a few of the wonderful things about being an artist. Seeing your paintings change in technique over time, catching patterns of inspiration that emerge, some conscious and some unconscious, is a joy that I never take for granted.

Integrity. There are many types: Intellectual, Moral and Artistic to name some. It is important to cleave to what you believe in, live your truth in your work and not sell out. In an ideal situation you create a painting that resonates strongly with you or means something to you and people purchase that work. I never want to paint things simply because I think they will sell. I have been very fortunate that up to now people have enjoyed what I produce and I have been able to make a living at it. I have also told people on more than one occasion that I am determined not to be dead to make a living as an artist. So far so good.

The Alaska and Newfoundland paintings are starting to come together. It is wonderful to see work come off the easel and be placed on the wall. I know many painters who will still work on pieces once they have finished them...I almost never do this. Otherwise I would drive myself crazy with touching up and reworking. It is also important to be your own worst critic and knowing what NOT to paint is just as important as knowing what to TO paint.

These two groups of paintings come from different sides of the continent yet are so very important to me and will evolve right next to one another in the studio. The stories behind each body of work is something I hold close and cherish. These paintings are something that I simply must do, as sure as I breathe, that is why a creative person creates. If you believe in what you do, if you do not deviate from that resolve, you can never go wrong. There may be naysayers, detractors and skeptics but if you believe in it, it will happen and happen with authenticity. If you hold fast to your vision then the paintings will follow. Even the most mundane of objects can be made interesting depending on how the piece is composed and how the paint is applied. If you believe in what you are doing, if you are INTERESTED in it and curious about getting to know it better through painting it, you can never, ever lose.

"Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around."
~Henry David Thoreau

Paddling down Kanuti River, Alaska. 4 hours north 
of Fairbanks and 14 miles into the middle of nowhere. 

Kanuti trip, climbing Caribou Mountain, Alaska.