In Portals, artist Dee Bailey finds safety, comfort in whimsical landscapes

The exhibition opened at Arts Underground on July 3

Whitehorse’s Arts Underground gallery is hosting its first new show since COVID-19 forced it to close its doors to the public in March.

Portals, opening July 3, is the brainchild of Yukon artist Dee Bailey, who specializes in depicting natural scenes by combining oil painting and sculpture, layering clay and occasionally other materials on top of her brushstrokes to add a 3D element to her work.

The exhibition was originally scheduled to open in May, but, like many aspects of life, was put on hold due to the pandemic.

Bailey, in a June 29 interview, described her pieces in Portals as “gateways into nature” but with a “fantastical” twist. She’d originally started working on the exhibition in September 2019 with the idea of creating pieces “more based on the love of natural places and trying to get people interested in nature again and helping people reconnect with nature,” but as the reality of COVID-19 hit the Yukon, her work changed too.

“The pandemic definitely brought in the theme of safety and security,” Bailey said.

“… I think because of the time we’re in, the way I dealt with it was kind of looking to more whimsical scenes that deal with themes of safety and security and respect for our land and our people and the love of natural places.”

That manifested itself in the addition of features otherwise not typically seen in Yukon landscapes — doors, locks, windows and keys are embedded in mountainsides, a reminder of the isolation Bailey said she felt as she made art at home, while thinking of the places in the wilderness where she can reflect and feel safe.

At one point during the spring, she said, she was working on 10 pieces at the same time, bouncing back and forth between images because she was having a hard time focusing.

The results, of which there are more than 30, look like they’d be at home in a children’s fantasy picture book; distinct, swirling lines of brightly-coloured clay give an ethereal feel to otherwise familiar features in artwork inspired by Yukon scenery.

The landscapes depicted in Portals are all real places that Bailey said are among her favourite in the North; they include views from her trip to the Llewellyn Glacier in northern British Columbia, as well as from Paddy Peak, Windy Arm and Conrad in the Carcross area. There are also multiple scenes of the Yukon’s Tatchun area, which Bailey said she has a “really strong connection with.”

Some of the pieces feature items embedded into the clay that Bailey said she’d collected on various hikes and walks. There are natural components like rocks, but pieces of discarded plastic and metal make appearances as well; the keys, meanwhile, are her grandfather’s, which she found while cleaning up while in isolation.

Bailey said her original theme of a love for nature is still present in the exhibit, and acknowledged that Yukoners, of all people, likely aren’t the ones who need encouragement to get out and enjoy or reconnect with it. Portals, however, was created to speak to a greater audience, one beyond the residents of the territory that is perhaps more disconnected and immersed in a digital world instead.

“I guess I’m concerned with the state of the world and some of the choices being made and just looking at how people are living their lives and maybe not so connected to nature and not spending quiet time outdoors or just appreciating these beautiful places we have,” Bailey said.

“(I’m) kind of looking at it from a perspective of inviting people to the Yukon to see the beautiful nature that we have and how close we are to it… and then with the goal of getting people to fight for nature and protect and get involved, and hopefully pique some interest in some of the amazing organizations that work to help protect habitat and nature.”

For her part, Bailey said she’s a member of CPAWS Yukon, participating in a pop-up art show the conservation organization held last winter, and also tries to leave any space she visits cleaner than she found it.

“I’m always carrying rubber gloves and garbage bags in my backpack and just trying to do what I can while I’m out appreciating,” she said.

Unlike typical exhibition openings at Arts Underground, there will be no opening reception for Portals due to COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings. Bailey said she will instead be offering private tours of the exhibition, creating a guest comments book and encouraging people to email her or post on social media their thoughts and questions on her work. She said she also wanted to hear about people’s own experiences with nature and the memories they’ve created out in the wilderness.

“A big part of the arts community is having these openings and all these conversations and sharing, and I want to continue the idea,” Bailey said. “… I’m trying to come up with creative ways we can continue these conversations.”

Portals will be on display at Arts Underground’s Focus Gallery until Aug. 1. People who wish to book private tours with Bailey can do so via Arts Underground or by contacting Bailey directly.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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