Life and art: Two distinct artists explore melting points in Dawson City

Two exhibitions by artists who see life and art as intertwined are currently on display in Dawson City. Eyes, Water, Fire presents Tomoyo Ihaya’s work at the ODD Gallery, while Tamika Knutson’s Boreal Reverie: Coming Home is up at the Yukon School of Visual Art (SOVA).

Two exhibitions by artists who see life and art as intertwined are currently on display in Dawson City. Eyes, Water, Fire presents Tomoyo Ihaya’s work at the ODD Gallery, while Tamika Knutson’s Boreal Reverie: Coming Home is up at the Yukon School of Visual Art (SOVA).

A passion for lichen led to the design themes for the jewelry in Boreal Reverie. Knuston, a Dawsonite and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizen, takes the tiny details of boreal lichens and turns them into wearable sculptures such as brooches and necklaces. Their forms are intricate without excess, and elegant yet earthy.

“Growing up in Dawson City, I’ve just always loved lichen,” she says. “There are so many layers and textures and shapes, just so much to feed your eyes. I could feast on that for days.”

The brooches are enamel on either copper or sterling silver. What’s unique about her technique? “Different enamels have different firing points, like opaques take a little longer to fire to the ideal vitrification point,” she says.

“I push the enamels past that point. With copper and the copper in sterling silver, there are more oxides than in pure silver. So when you fire it past that two minutes, and you do three minutes, the oxides come through the enamel. And that’s how you get all these crazy different colours.”

The necklaces have clusters of blossom-like shapes, and Knutson hand-forges their silver chains. The link shapes are unique to each necklace, some like rising bubbles and some recalling leaf forms. They are created as part of the overall art piece, Knutson says.

Knutson took her first year of fine art studies in Dawson City, at the Yukon School of Visual Arts. The school has agreements with other art schools in Canada, so Knutson easily transferred to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax.

The move brought surprises. “Going to art school I was like ‘I’m definitely going to be in drawing and painting, classic art school stuff.’ And I did it and I enjoyed it,” Knutson says. “But then I did jewellery at NSCAD and I was like ‘I love this. I don’t even know what it is but you’re making tiny little things and they’re beautiful and they’re precious.’”

The introductory, intermediate and senior students’ studios are all connected in the NSCAD jewellery department. The open concept allows for a free flow of ideas, Knutson says.

“I’m over here learning how to solder a ring, and the senior students will walk through with their big huge pieces and you’re like ‘Holy crap, how do you do that?’ People really push themselves in there and they’re willing to share ideas. There’s a lot of work behind jewellery and everyone’s so helpful. You build a lot of awesome relationships and it’s really supportive.”

Knutson presented the works in Boreal Reverie as her graduating show for her Bachelor’s degree of fine arts in jewellery design and metalsmithing. Now back in Dawson City, she will continue making jewellery with other materials that she’s been exploring too: birch bark, beads, porcupine quills.

In the meantime, one of Knutson’s brooches will tour Ohio and Tennessee from July to next April as part of Alchemy4, a juried student exhibition sponsored by The Enamelist Society. As well, some of her birch bark pieces will show in September at a Toronto exhibition called Crafting the Future.

Over at the ODD Gallery, Tomoyo Ihaya labours at her own and others’ melting points of patience and compassion. Eyes, Water, Fire is her mixed-media exhibit of drawings, two installations and a video projection. The heart of the show grows from Ihaya’s longstanding connections with many people in the exiled Tibetan community and in India.

Originally from Japan, Ihaya earned an MFA in printmaking at the University of Alberta and then moved to Vancouver. But her life has also become deeply joined with Ladakh (often known as “Little Tibet”) and Dharamsala, both in India.

At Ihaya’s artist talk in the ODD Gallery, she described meeting many exiled Tibetans in Ladakh during a 2005 journey to India with her Buddhist meditation group. Because she grew up in Japan, which has different but related Buddhist practices, Tibetan culture felt familiar. She was sick several times, and they took care of her, she says. She has been to India 16 times in 12 years, welcomed as part of the families.

During an artist residency in Puri, India, Ihaya went to check the news at an internet cafe. She found news of a monk who self-immolated in protest of Chinese suppression of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

It was not Ihaya’s first time hearing about this kind of protest, but it was the first time she saw a photograph of it. She felt so much pain that she rushed back to her room and began to draw a figure in white and red.

The slide on view as Ihaya told the story showed her simple room in Puri. Then came the image of that first memorial drawing: a prone red figure (heat) is half transformed into white (purification, peace), and tear-shaped ovals pour onto the figure, also calming it. The delicacy of the inks, the almost translucent colours, the flowing lines seem to contain peacefulness. Yet they also clearly express mourning.

Shortly afterward her time in Puri, Ihaya went to Dharamsala for several months. Each time a protestor self-immolated, she made a drawing of the person the same day she learned about it. She shared the drawings online immediately as a form of peaceful protest and tribute.

“It felt as if the drawings were not drawn by me but by some sort of collective consciousness of the community or minds and feelings of each protestor,” Ihaya says. She also attended and photographed every candlelight vigil held for each protestor.

Ihaya continues that practice now. Sadly, there are more deaths to commemorate. The very day she left Dawson City, a young man named Jamyang Losal set himself on fire and died. Ihaya completed a drawing before morning.

“I want these people to be remembered as if they are close friends or families of ours,” she says.

The other works in Eyes, Water, Fire expand this complexity. Ihaya exhibits in Mexico, Japan, Canada, India and Thailand, and has done artist residencies in all of these countries. Not surprisingly, her concern for human rights is global.

The exhibition is meditative but insistent. Her compositions are spacious and packed with emotion. She offers repeating patterns of tears, flames, and eyes: tears for cleansing and mourning; flames of destruction and resistance; eyes for crying, seeing, and sharing light.

The drawing “Refuge” (2015) shows dozens of people crammed into a rickety boat, waiting for welcome but with no land in sight. An installation of clusters of blue paper feet invokes the chilly, endless walking of refugees seeking safety. A swathe of inky eyes hovers in one corner, a metaphor for crowds of people witnessing both death and resistance.

“This is my peaceful resistance against any body of ‘power’ which focuses on profit and never-ending greed instead of on human rights,” she reflects. “It is one way of activism other than raising slogans.”

Artwork of lament is often literally dark and heavy. War memorials, for example, are often made of stone and cement. In contrast, Ihaya uses materials so fine that they seem to float.

“My drawings, especially those in Drawings from Dharamsala, are a means to transform the pain within myself while feeling pain with other people,” she explains.

“In Tibetan they use the term Ninjye, which means ‘compassion’ or ‘I feel your pain.’ Not giving pity but feeling empathy with somebody’s pain as yours.”

The lightness is part of Ihaya’s goal of transformation. Instead of being paralyzed by the heaviness of the horrors refugees face, she meditates and then acts.

Boreal Reverie: Coming Home is at the Yukon SOVA gallery until June 3. Eyes, Water, Fire is on display at the ODD Gallery until June 22.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist immersed in the boreal beauty of Dawson City.