Artists away from the noise

Artists, like everyone else, work better when they're well-fed. So say Jane Isakson and Jennifer Walden, two painters with solo exhibitions at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Artists, like everyone else, work better when they’re well-fed. So say Jane Isakson and Jennifer Walden, two painters with solo exhibitions at the Yukon Arts Centre.

The topic arose on opening day because Isakson’s From the Outer Edges and Walden’s The Land at the End of the Sticks were begun during artist residencies in remote geographic locations.

Both painters regularly spend time in the wilderness. But it’s difficult to go out to remote locations and paint.

“Usually you’re going out with a group of people, and you’re hiking through,” says Isakson, a Whitehorse-based painter. “You can get inspired, but at a residency you have a focused time in a set place to paint. And you’re supported in doing it. Your meals are looked after and you can lose yourself in the work.”

Walden agrees. “When I go out near Yellowknife, where I live, I need my lunch and the canoe I’m moving around. I’m lucky if I can squeeze in a pencil sketch.”

In contrast, when Walden was invited to the Dechen La Wilderness Retreat in late summer 2012, her gear was mostly paint and equipment – not food.

Playfulness aside, the paintings in these exhibitions are deeply considered large-scale works. Both artists offer emotionally thoughtful translations of remote locations that few people can see first-hand.

From the Outer Edges displays Isakson’s works inspired by time in three national parks: Gros Morne in Newfoundland (2008), Ivvavik in the Yukon (2009), and Gwaii Haanas in Haida Gwaii (2010).

The paintings are grouped in the gallery by their geographic locations. Isakson’s attention to subtle colour shifts is sophisticated. She differentiates the silky grays of West Coast mist against cedars from the purple-hued fogs of East Coast haze against steep rocks. In paintings from Ivvavik, low-angled yellows of northern sunlight form pale highlights against the rich greens of the Mackenzie Delta.

The skies are always surprising in Isakson’s works in this show. She builds angular planes of distinct colour in the landscapes below, and then forms triangular and lozenge-shaped masses of muted colours in the skies.

At times the shapes tease: an angled blue sky form first looks like a mountain peak, then a patch of cloud, then a temperature gradient change in the air. It could also be a splash of water coming up from the foreground. The total effect combines the pleasure of turning a kaleidoscope with the thoughtful experience of watching cloud formations that will affect your hiking or canoeing plans later in the day.

Isakson, a former Albertan, spent close to a decade as a member of the Canadian Biathlon Team, participating in the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. Subtle distinctions now found in her art between snow, snow-shade, horizon and sky would have once been tools for competition.

Retiring from skiing, Isakson decided in 1998 that it was time for a fine arts degree. Halfway through studies at the University of Alberta, she moved to the Yukon and completed the degree from a distance. That’s when landscape painting took over.

“In a way, the sports career gave me the courage to do the art,” she says. Professionals in both fields had advised her that she wasn’t cut out for the work. “The moral of the story is, you have to be careful about listening to anybody! But what sport taught me is that it’s a matter of putting in time. If you put in the work, you will go someplace.”

Caribou were a main feature of Walden’s experience at the Dechen La Lodge and Wilderness Retreat. The family-run lodge is between the Selwyn and Mackenzie mountains, in the Northwest Territories near the Yukon border. A partnership with the Kaska First Nation, it takes its name from the Kaska phrase for the area, translating as “The Land at the End of the Sticks.”

Walden spent her eight days there going for long hikes, taking more than 2,000 photos and making small paintings on her portable easel. Back home, she spent 18 months turning those compact images into large canvases.

“Every time I went to put together a composition, I had my own photographs to go to,” she explains.

“And there’s such a difference. Instead of looking at someone else’s photography, this way there’s a direct emotional contact. You were standing there. I found that made an incredible difference in how I was able to express myself on canvas.”

Born in Ottawa, at age 13 Walden moved with her mother to East Africa and then South India. The international years gave her an early appreciation for lush colours and nearly-pristine animal habitats.

As a young adult, she studied in Cuzco, Peru, with a painter named Marcos Ramos. She learned about natural pigments from the forest, but she also saw how he used art-making to involve youth in environmental issues.

On her return to Canada, Walden earned an education degree and then moved to Yellowknife in 2002. She started an art program at an elementary school there and kept painting, focusing mostly on wildlife. After her first solo show in 2007, she turned to painting full time.

The “powerful experiences” Walden drew from the Mackenzie Mountain Barrens now burst out into vivid, rhythmic canvases for The Land at the End of the Sticks. In particular, there are three three-panel paintings in the exhibit that are 10 by 12 feet. The towering canvases immerse the viewer in Walden’s fascination with texture and colour.

The triptych Cotton Grass Haven, for example, shows dramatic mountain peaks in its top third. But the foreground, filled with bas-relief stalks and puffs of cotton grass, also offers plenty to linger on. So does the mid-ground, where bands of red and green grasses stream across the canvas at about waist-height.

“Rarely am I trying to capture ‘the mountain,’” she comments. “What I’m really trying to do is capture the wind, the light, or how I felt at that time of day. The mountain becomes a vehicle to express something else.”

The Land at the End of the Sticks and From the Outer Edges are visual documents of gratefulness for pristine wilderness areas. They can be seen at the Yukon Arts Centre until February 22, 2014.

In a time when Canadians face challenging questions about land use – from pipeline proposals to watershed protection – the emotional thoughtfulness of these landscape paintings offer a welcome addition to the conversation.

Meg Walker is an artist and writer in Dawson City, Yukon.