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Five Finger Rapids as captured in art

The Yukon River sustains life, whether by transporting materials during the Gold Rush or providing harvests for First Nations communities today.

The Yukon River sustains life, whether by transporting materials during the Gold Rush or providing harvests for First Nations communities today.

For the last 18 months, one of the most treacherous areas of the river - the Five Finger Rapids north of Carmacks - has been inspiring art that is now on show at Yukon Artists at Work.

The Five Finger Rapids Collective’s exhibit features embroidery, thread paintings, pottery and watercolour paintings.

It also includes two collaborative works. A large plywood circle with pictures of salmon hangs in the middle of the wall. There is also a set of nine 15-square-centimetre tiles with work inspired by the area’s lichen and moss.

Each member of the three-artist collective works with a very different medium. Sally Sheppard is a fibre artist who embroiders by hand and machine and does thread painting, using her needle as her brush to draw pictures on fabric. Rosemary Piper paints, and Lynne Sofiak makes ceramics.

Despite their differences, the trio discovered a common interest in the Five Finger Rapids and its history.

The water’s unique green-blue-grey colour often attracts artists, said Sheppard. She had drawn landscapes of the area before the group formed. Piper had wanted to paint the area for years, but hadn’t until she began working on this project.

And while Sofiak has lived in the Yukon for 40 years, she had never spent time on the rapids herself.

“It’s just a real mesmerizing place,” Piper said. “And when you start to explore, it kind of grows on you, and you find a comfort level.”

The group secured funding through Yukon Arts Fund and Culture Quest to help their exploration. They spent time at the Yukon Archives and made many trips to the river, individually and as a group. A First Nation guide took them in a motorboat through the rapids.

While many sternwheelers were ruined in these waters, the women had no worries while travelling, they said. They saw a coal mine and “Sam McGee’s ashes”- piles of volcanic ash left from an eruption in Alaska hundreds of years ago. They also visited fish camps and saw how First Nations dry and fillet the fish, cutting them so they look like little chocolates, said Sofiak. They held a three-day demonstration at Coal Mine Campground in July 2011 and worked through the pouring rain, said Piper. Last month they had shows and workshops in Carmacks and Pelly Crossing.

Working on the project allowed each woman to try new things. One of Sheppard’s pieces, “Lichens in the rock,” took nearly a month. The piece, one of her three tiles, contains several thousand stitches, many of them bullion, ornamental fringe of gold or silver. The needle is brought up, the thread is wrapped around, and then goes back down through the material to make a ridge. “It isn’t quick,” she said.

She wasn’t the only one who had to spend a lot of time on some of her pieces.

The subject material “is not really conducive to ceramics,” said Sofiak, who has been working with clay since 1979.

Normally, she just goes out to her potters’ wheel and works, she said. This time, while the other women in the collective appeared to be jumping right into their projects, she didn’t always know what to do, she said.

So she made a sign that read, “Just work.” And she paced.

It worked. Sofiak made her first fountain for the show. She used volcanic ashes as part of the piece.

She may make more fountains in the future, she said.

The exhibit also brought new life to Piper’s work.

There’s a “new freedom in these pieces,” she said. She’s particularly proud of how she incorporated prints of wild mushrooms into some of them, spraying over the spore prints with paint to capture the “organized chaos” of the area’s land cover.

While each of the women enjoyed their time putting the show together, they have no plans yet for future exhibits. The current show runs until Sept. 25.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at