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Artist strives to preserve fast melting glaciers

‘I’m not a scientist.”Jan Kabatoff makes the statement during a discussion about global warming while sitting in the second-floor…

‘I’m not a scientist.”

Jan Kabatoff makes the statement during a discussion about global warming while sitting in the second-floor studio of the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat.

“There’s enough info out there, we’re all aware of the problem,” she said.

“I’m just trying to honour an ancient global entity.”

A global entity that is fast disappearing — melting to be more specific.

Kabatoff is working on a project about glaciers and their disappearance.

She has travelled the world documenting the melting through sound recordings, video, photography, mould impressions and rubbings.

“I don’t take or leave anything, I try not to impact the glaciers anymore than they already are.”

Her installation, which is slated to show in 2009 at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, will include sounds from each of the seven continents.

Kabatoff plans to mix the audio together, creating a global chorus of glacier voices singing their own lament.

Before travelling to the Yukon, Kabatoff spent a month in Mongolia where she saw a glacier that was shrinking four metres a year.

The surface was visibly melting and was full of rivulets and streams, which trickled and sang for her microphone.

Buddhist prayer beads clacked on his wrist as she spoke about the trip.

A half-painted flower print lay on the table; large close-up shots of a nearby landfill were piled on the ground and 10 small blank canvases were lined up on the wall, waiting to be painted.

Kabatoff began painting as a young girl, growing up on a Doukhobor colony in the Kootneys.

The Doukhobors are pacifists who opposed militarism and the Russian Orthodox Church.

They destroyed their weapons, became vegetarians and tried to live a peaceful country existence.

Persecuted in their homeland, 7,000 people left Russia en masse in 1898 and migrated to Canada.

The exodus was partially funded by Leo Tolstoy, who sympathized with the group and gave them all of the royalties from his novel Resurrection.

However, the persecution followed them to their new home.

In the late 1940s, after refusing to integrate, many children were forced into residential schools.

“They were literally abducted; RCMP officers snatched the children right out of their beds,” said Kabatoff.

“I was not taken; for some reason they couldn’t locate me.”

She lived the next three years without any playmates her own age, always in fear of being dragged away from home, she said.

“I had a lot of alone time, and began to develop as an artist.

“Instead of learning the three Rs, I was drawing and painting.”

Some of Kabatoff’s previous work has served to help her come to terms with this past.

A recent body of work dealt with ethnicity migration and displacement of people — in particular, name change during migration.

Many displaced people have their names changed in their new country, sometimes by clerks who find the old names difficult to pronounce.

Kabatoff recreated four ship’s manifests. Some are faded and frayed to represent assimilation and loss of cultural identity.

The artist has mixed feelings about the enforced assimilation.

“Part of me yearns to be in isolation but the other part of me needs to stay connected to community, and now, more then ever, I’m connecting to a global community and realizing that we are a global family of humanity.”

Over her two months in the Yukon, Kabatoff will be experiencing a healthy mix of isolation and community.

She spent August absorbing the history of the Yukon, taking several trips, and generally exploring.

She also took a weeklong rafting trip down the Alsek River to visit the Lowell Glacier.

“Unfortunately its dangerous to get too close. It was calving and creating large waves, the river was filled with icebergs.”

When the rafters reached shore and began setting up camp, a “thunderous roar” reverberated throughout the valley, she said.

A large chunk of ice had broken off and crashed into the river creating tsunami-like waves that inundated the rafts on the shore.

“It really sent us scurrying,” she said.

It was a little more than the trickling melting sound that she had hoped to record.

During her second month at the retreat, Kabatoff will enjoy more private time to work.

She plans to fill the 10 blank canvases with a wax painting of Lowell. She also wants to do some reading.

“I’m really interested in First Nations’ beliefs about glaciers,” she said, showing one of the books she’s been reading.

Glaciers are more than inert lumps of ice; First Nations legends view them as living entities and life-giving forces.

“I’ve always been interested in nature,” she said walking out onto the deck that overlooks Crag Lake.

“As a child I lived in the country, played by dried creek beds and crushed up rocks into powder.

“Now, I work with wax and dried up mineral pigments.”

The mountain views from the retreat are similar to those in Canmore where she lives. These views inspired much of her work.

 “The more I learned about the environment and the effects we have on it, the more I felt moved to participate in something that would speak to that.”