She came. She saw. She swooned. She painted.
The beauty of the North long ago captured the attention of Ontario-born artist Wendy Whitemore.
Even before she became a resident of the Yukon, she had been captivated by the majesty and vastness of the Dempster Highway following a drive from southern Ontario.
“It’s as if it’s on top of the world and you can reach up and touch the sky,” she said.
That enchantment is the focus of her latest collection — a series of Dempster-inspired paintings.
In only a couple of weeks, the series will fittingly be premiered at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, the northern terminus of the Dempster Highway.
Lined up behind Whitemore in her Whitehorse studio is a row of her watercolour portraits. Laid flat on her painting table lies another in a later stage of preparedness.
Each one is a depiction of a longstanding northern artist, many of them First Nations. A main concentration of the festival this year is ‘elders,’ a theme well captured in the portrait series.
The paintings are prepared with respect for the individuals depicted. Because of their spiritual beliefs many of the elders were uncomfortable with being photographed or even portrayed.
“It’s a little tricky sometimes, gaining access to their person,” said Whitemore.
The watercolour works stand out with candour.
“Watercolour is probably one of the most challenging of the mediums to learn … the challenges are there but the rewards are just amazing,” she said.
“It’s a very premeditated medium — there’s very little room for error; there’s a lot of truth in a watercolour rendering.”
Surrounded by works of acrylic, watercolour and sketches, it is clear that Whitemore doesn’t hold particular allegiance to any one medium.
“The medium doesn’t matter — it’s the end result. In any form, art is a visual expression of passion,” she said.
Whitemore’s father was extremely artistic, a professional illustrator who flourished in the heyday of commercial art — the 1940s and 1950s.
He concentrated on furniture illustration, but he had a home studio, and would often bring Whitemore along on his “fishing trips” — in reality just excuses to go painting. Very few fish were actually caught.
Whitemore remembers spending her evenings at her father’s home studio peering over his shoulder at measured brushstrokes.
In spite of his artistic leanings, he father discouraged her from entering the domain of professional artistry.
“He knew how tough it would be for a woman in a big city environment to survive as an artist,” she said.
Whitemore doesn’t deny that he had a point.
After getting started in commercial art, Whitemore left the profession soon after the introduction of the computer.
“I’m a very hands-on person. I need that one-on-one relationship with the end of my brush,” she said.
“(The computer) is too passive an implement — it’s almost as if you’re giving away your talent and sending it out into cyberspace.”
Of course, the lion’s share of Whitemore works at the upcoming festival will be her Dempster series.
In a transitional journey to overcome personal problems, her first drive up the highway was a means for her to explore who she was and what she wanted from her life.
“I was awestruck by what I saw along the Dempster Highway — the richness and the diversity of this country is just incredible,” she said.
On one painting, bright patches of orange glisten off a mountainside.
On another, a herd of caribou moves through a bright green valley as white wisps of clouds dance overhead. One caribou strays behind the herd, pausing to gaze at a distant ridge.
A smaller painting stands out. Far from the semi-whimsical bright colours of the others, it portrays a foreboding landscape of dark greens and greys.
Next to it, a small canvas breaks the tension with a stylized polar bear gazing curiously at the viewer.
Though Whitemore is surprised by the suggestion, her Dempster paintings do appear to carry a type of surrealism similar that found in the works of Emily Carr.
Whitemore shies away from being typecast into any one style of painting.
“It’s really critical for me to explore when I paint; it’s through exploration that you grow … you find that when you’re a more advanced artist.”
Whitemore described herself as being very tied to the environment, nature and the land — both in her life and art.
A well-worn camper sits in her driveway, copies of Canadian Geographic are laid out throughout her studio and a stereo in the corner stands ready to play selections ranging from whale sounds to Native American chants.
She lived in Eastern Europe for a spell during the 1980s and afterwards the beauty of Canada stood out more clearly than ever, she says. She recalled “kissing the ground” at Toronto International Airport upon her return.
“It’s not a happy sociological sphere to be in,” she said.
She described seeing gypsies leading a blind bear through the streets on a chain, pilfering through garbage cans for mouldy bread.
“It was a very poignant reminder of how wonderful this country is and the opportunities that are here and how free we are,” she said.
Wendy Whitemore will be showcasing her work at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, NWT. The festival runs from July 11-20.