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Novel Yukon women

Portraits of 50 women are spread across two glossy pages. It's a multifaceted group. But here, in this new book, they represent a whole: Remarkable Yukon Women.

Portraits of 50 women are spread across two glossy pages.

It’s a multifaceted group. But here, in this new book, they represent a whole: Remarkable Yukon Women.

“There’s a power in the whole of this, but there’s a strength in the individual,” said Valerie Hodgson, who painted the 50 profiles.

“It’s not that they represent a sector, they don’t represent a milieu or a genre, each of them stand alone,” said Claire Festel who wrote the 50 profiles that accompany the oil-on-canvass prints in the book.

The project will also fill the walls of the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery, while audio interviews with the women play through the speakers.

The public art exhibit started the whole thing.

“It was really a lightening shot,” said Hodgson. “It just was one of those things you wake up in the morning and you go, ‘Oh, of course, this is what I am going to do.’”

Hodgson floated the raw idea at her Thursday lunch group - the 15, or so, women have met every week for 40 years.

There, the idea started to take shape.

It wouldn’t just be a 50 over 50 piece, it would be about women, and their companionship and community.

Hodgson and Festel actually met through that network. They realized that, together, they could create something bigger than their individual parts.

“I have an interest in Yukon people and how fascinating the lives that we actually live up here are,” said Festel, a former CBC journalist. “In the Yukon, even today, the median stay is seven years. There’s always an option to leave. I’ve always been fascinated by Yukon people, what brings them here and why they stay.”

It’s an international community, which is intriguing, said Festel, who comes from small town Quebec.

But until this project, she’d never explored the female population.

“I think I learned as much about myself as I did about the women,” she said. “I’ve been a professional for most of my life, working out there in the man’s world and, for 11 years, lived in a mining town. Working with these women has brought be back into the world of women and in a way that I’m really comfortable being in the world of women again. And that’s a gift.”

Both women started with only about three people in mind.

From there, the participants were encouraged to invite more.

“They didn’t just invite their friends,” Festel said, noting one woman nominated someone she often saw from her office at Yukon Electrical. The woman, who had “such an interesting face,” was an elder who often had visitors, both young and old.

The woman wanted to know more about the native elder, who turned out to be Pearl Keenan.

Hodgson challenged herself to complete each portrait within a day.

The women came to her Whitehorse studio for a two-hour sitting. The next eight hours, she was alone with their photos and the echoes of their short chat in her head.

Envious of Festel’s detailed interviews with the women, Hodgson usually zoned in on one prominent trait.

“One truth, well said,” she explained, describing what she wants people to take from her work. “I want them to go in there and get the sense of power that 50 portraits of 50 women can give you, and the significance of the people behind them. In the sense of the whole, I hope they get the undercurrent of women’s connections and women’s friendship and women’s support.

“Then when the viewer looks at the individual portrait I hope that they will feel - even in the people that they don’t know - that they know something about that person.”

Festel’s interviews lasted as long as an hour and, with the exception of one, they all took place at either the woman’s home or her own.

“With women, their home is very revealing about who they are and what they value,” she said. “The women told their stories so honestly and so openly and they really shared who they were and what they loved about this place.

“To have had them share what their struggles were and what their challenges were and what their joys were and, sometimes, their sufferings, it just made it so alive to me. What some of these women have overcome and the positive way that they look at life because of what they’ve been through is really humbling.”

Each profile was restricted to 800 words, said Festel.

It allowed each profile to mirror the painting on the opposite page.

The 50 women represent artists, politicians, activists, athletes, mothers and teachers.

All are unique and strong, said Hodgson.

The cover of the book is Hodgson’s portrait of Norma Shorty, but both the artist and Festel left that decision up to the publishers.

“How could you pick just one,” said Festel. “They all say something.”

The launch of Remarkable Yukon Women will take place this Thursday, June 2 at 5:30 p.m. It will be at the Yukon Arts Centre, and will also be the premiere of the multi-media exhibit Yukon Women, 50 over 50.

There will also be a book signing on Saturday June 4 at Mac’s Fireweed Books at 1 p.m. The exhibit will be at the arts centre until August 27.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at