Celebrating Jim Robb’s Yukon

Take a little poetry and some prose; add some music and a video, artist Jim Robb, a dash of Yukon history and stir well. What do you get? A fine afternoon of entertainment. 

Take a little poetry and some prose; add some music and a video, artist Jim Robb, a dash of Yukon history and stir well. What do you get? A fine afternoon of entertainment.

On Sunday, Sept. 28, a special event at the Old Fire Hall featured the release of the catalogue of the Yukon Arts Centre Exhibition titled “Jim Robb’s Yukon.” It was part of Culture Days, a weekend-long celebration of local arts, heritage and culture.

There are few people who have as passionate love of Yukon history and have captured the spirit of the Yukon the way that Jim Robb has through his art. His work was celebrated last year in a display at the MacBride Museum and more recently in a retrospective exhibition of his artistic creations (May to August of 2014) curated by Jessica Vallenga at the Yukon Arts Centre.

As well, one of the Arts in the Parks programs in August was constructed from the performances of several Yukon musicians who were inspired by the work of Jim Robb. And, of course, there was the event at the Old Fire Hall.

What made this last event so interesting and so special was the coalescence of several different forms of expression of Jim Robb’s work. The focus was the release of the exhibit catalogue, which is a small, glossy 36-page booklet, containing photos of the artist and of some of his most iconic works, a narrative explaining the curatorial intent of the exhibition, a brief biography, and a commemorative essay.

The Sunday celebration included the screening of a 10-minute film documentary jointly sponsored by the Yukon Arts Centre and the Yukon Film Society. The film, which is available on the Internet at http://vimeo.com/103866270, is titled simply “Jim Robb’s Yukon.” It consists of the artist talking about his life and work as he moves through the exhibition at the Yukon Arts Centre, looking at an assemblage of more than a hundred of his works in water colours, black and white photographs, and on moosehide.

He reflects on his style, which he describes as “the exaggerated truth,” and refers to his influences, including Emily Carr, and world-renowned Yukon artist Lilias Farley. The “Colourful Five Per Cent,” which has become a hallmark of his work, came about in 1971 because a catchy title was needed for his column in the Whitehorse Star.

He describes Whitehorse as he knew it when he arrived in 1955 with scattered buildings and unpaved streets. Whiskey Flats and Moccasin Flats were interesting to him artistically. People like Wigwam Harry, Andy Hooper and Buzz Saw Jimmy were one of a kind, and it became Jim’s purpose to preserve the memories of these characters. Says Robb: “You don’t see this kind of people anymore; it’s mostly bureaucrats these days.”

Later, when Robb got up to speak, he modified his remarks about bureaucrats when it was pointed out that some of the artists who performed at the event worked for the government. But what really came out in his brief speech was his absolute love for the history and people of the Yukon.

Several local writers and musicians reprised their performances from the heritage-themed Arts in the Park event earlier in the summer. Susanne Hingley read an essay prepared by Jerome Stueart, who was not present to read it in person. The essay was a humerous piece about Whitehorse in the year 2356, rather reminiscent of David Macaulay’s delightful picture book The Motel of the Mysteries. Whitehorse is now an archaeological ruin, and the only thing that has survived intact is Jim Robb’s art. The tentacled, multi-eyed aliens who inhabit this future world attempt to reconstruct Whitehorse as a heritage village based upon Robb’s work.

Following that, Hingley read one of her own compositions, a poem about Buzz Saw Jimmy and his wood-cutting machine. Andrea McColeman and Brenda Lee Katerenchuk performed a stirring number entitled “Lamp of the Poor,” a reference to moonlight, followed by Sylvie Painchaud who sang her song in French, while accompanied by Chick Callas on violin.

They were followed in turn by Chick Callas and Dan Halen, who performed two numbers, the first titled “Good Old Days,” about Jim Robb the artist, followed by “Whiskey Flats,” which was inspired by a Robb paintings of the same name.

Remy Rodden reminisced about his first visit to the Yukon as a nine-year-old, and then performed a number with delightful lyrics about the “Colourful Five Per Cent.” “Be truly free and different,” he advises, “in the land of the midnight sun.”

Vocalist and recording artist Fawn Fritzen closed off the set by comparing Robb’s work to W.O. Mitchell’s classic book Jake and the Kid, another example of the exaggerated truth. She said that this was the first time that she had met Robb in person (a confession made by some other performers) and accompanied herself on piano while she performed her own composition titled “The Unvarnished Truth.”

After the performances had concluded, the musicians crowded around the star of the day and posed for a group photograph. Robb reciprocated by giving each of them one of his prints, which he obligingly personalized with his autograph.

This was a remarkable event where history crossed paths with the performing arts. Musicians and singers were challenged to compose songs inspired by Jim Robb’s visual creations. Authors and poets did the same. A short documentary was produced, and of course, woven throughout is Jim Robb’s evocative art work, inspired by the places and people that have made the Yukon such an interesting place.

Jin Robb’s painting of a cabin on Black Hills with a spruce tree growing out of the roof is one of my favourites. In 1981, he was sponsored by Territorial Gold Placers to go out into the gold fields and paint what he saw.

Later that same summer, the same company asked photographer Richard Hartmier and me to record the historic remains found scattered throughout the Klondike gold fields. That project sparked us to continue recording the rapidly vanishing historical remains of the early days for the following two decades. I had the opportunity to visit the very same cabin on Black Hills Creek that was painted by Robb; a print of that picture now has a prominent place in our living room.

If you did not attend this event, you missed the exclamation mark at the end of a summer-long statement about the work of the Yukon’s most beloved resident artist. It was a fine blend of art, music and history.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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