Haines Junction artists breathe easy

Dozens of bottles filled with air from places as far afield as Bali, Tibet, France and Portugal are sitting in a Whitehorse basement, waiting to be opened.

Dozens of bottles filled with air from places as far afield as Bali, Tibet, France and Portugal are sitting in a Whitehorse basement, waiting to be opened.

The bottles are part of the new Arts Underground exhibition, Allow Yourself to Breathe.

Created by a duo of Haines Junction artists, printmaker Martha Jane Ritchie and potter Monika Steputh, the exhibition came about after the pair had created works based on the four classical elements: earth, water, air and fire.

The pair decided to focus on air and the act of breathing, creating an installation comprised of prints, photography and pottery.

The two artists manage to look at such a vast topic in both philosophical and practical ways, making the show entertaining and challenging.

There’s the idea that air is one of the rare things all human beings share, that it is, unlike water or land, difficult to own, monopolize or deplete.

It’s symbolized by the many bottles of air friends have sent Steputh and Ritchie from places around the world.

“I wanted to point out a bit more that we are all connected,” Steputh said.

Many friends went to great lengths to ship bottled air from faraway places, including the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet.

“People are excited about the concept of sharing air and sending air from other places,” Ritchie said.

There’s also a reflection about breathing, how we do it, and what we do with it.

“If you’re all tense, you can’t breathe,” said Steputh.

For her, she sees each breath as an opportunity for creating, thinking, and doing.

“It’s boring if you just breathe and don’t do anything with this gift to be able to be alive and do something,” Steputh said.

“You’re not really focused on what you could achieve — not in the sense of being the best one, but bringing out what you really truly are, what you could you do.”

The Latin root of the word “inspire” means breathing, she says.

“It’s to be inspired by what possibilities open up if you really inhale and take your life,” she said.

“You really recognize that if you love what you do, you really breathe.”

Both artists learned that in the course of working on the exhibition.

They had decided they should allow themselves to try activities they didn’t like. For Steputh, that meant making dozens of identical works of pottery.

As it turns out, that felt more like a punishment than anything else, she said, so they dropped the idea.

“We got back to what really inspired us,” she said.

Even though she was trained to make hundreds of pottery items to be virtually identical, what she loves is making them all unique. She draws inspiration from the moment, throwing clay on her pottery wheel and letting the objects appear.

“A piece of beauty should arise naturally without even thinking of it,” she said, quoting a Japanese poet.

Guided by their inspiration, Ritchie and Steputh combined their artistic skills — printmaking and pottery respectively — to create a truly interesting and soothing exhibition.

The setup itself radiates a warm and positive vibe. It’s a perfect place to breathe.

Large hand-made prints of trees in black ink shape the exhibition space.

Pottery on wooden shelves adorns the walls, representing the Yukon landscape. There are blue sailboats hanging from the ceiling, floating in space, poetry in typewritten font on dried leaves.

It’s also about breathing in the Yukon landscapes: dozens of pictures of Haines Junction depict deep-blue landscapes where the sky almost crushes the earth, with a clear view all around.

“You can’t live there, and not be affected by the beauty and openness,” Ritchie said.

“In the Yukon in general, everywhere, the air is incredible.”

Allow Yourself to Breathe runs until Oct. 29 at Arts Underground. A closing ceremony, which includes the release of the bottled air, is scheduled for Oct. 28 at 5 p.m. For information, visit artsunderground.ca.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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