Panning art from the Yukon landscape

To call Hattie Nielsen’s house cluttered is a bit of an understatement. It’s piled high with yard sale knickknacks, art supplies and…

To call Hattie Nielsen’s house cluttered is a bit of an understatement.

It’s piled high with yard sale knickknacks, art supplies and character.

The Yukon artist has been described as one of the territory’s colourful five per cent.

And after an afternoon chatting in her living room, surrounded by tiny porcelain houses that light up, it became clear she lives an interesting, and somewhat eccentric life.

“I’ve been in a slump for the last seven years,” said Nielsen, touching up a ceramic cabin with a crusty paintbrush.

“I’ve done not much of anything.”

Except, she faithfully heads out to garage sales every Saturday.

“As a kid I had nothing, then I had this European husband who told me what to buy,” said Nielsen.

“So now, garage sales make me feel richer and more comfortable.”

Many of the porcelain houses that circle the living room ceiling were picked up at yard sales, along with the craft supplies and other interesting treasures that fill her Riverdale home.

Nielsen rummaged through some piles and pulled out a broken flowerpot.

She picked it up at one of the Saturday sales, painted it and filled the missing ceramic chunk with roses folded out of glue.

“I paint everything,” she said.

It started when Nielsen was still in her teens, breaking horses on the family ranch near Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

“I drew horses everywhere,” she said.

“I should have married a cowboy.”

Instead, Nielsen fled the farm and her tyrant father when she was just 16.

“My mom scrounged up every cent in the house, which amounted to about $8,” she said.

After hitching a ride with her brother to Dawson Creek, Nielsen headed to the employment centre and got a job at a lodge on the Alaska Highway.

“Back then they would pay your bus fare up and just take it off your first paycheque,” she said.

“I took a job as a chambermaid because I only had about three different outfits, so I couldn’t work as a waitress.”

Though after saving money and buying more clothes, she did eventually become a waitress.

Working hard, she found less time to draw and couldn’t afford supplies.

“I remember when I had no paper, I used to draw and paint pictures on the back of bathroom doors,” said Nielsen.

By 21, she’d had moved to Whitehorse, started painting again and married a Danish taxi driver who “looked very unthreatening.”

The couple travelled to Europe and Hawaii several times and spent weekends on their boat crossing Atlin Lake to visit the old sawmill, or exploring the inlets near Skagway.

During these excursions, Nielsen would sketch and take pictures, stockpiling images for future paintings.

When she was still relatively new to Whitehorse, a friend gave her an old trapper’s gold pan.

Not surprisingly, Nielsen painted it, choosing a Miles Canyon scene.

“I still have that first gold pan around here somewhere,” she said, pulling knots out of her Yorkshire terrier’s hair.

“Though it’s probably not as well taken care of as it should be.”

The gold pans were easier to work with than bathroom doors, and Nielsen became quite successful selling her circular, Yukon landscapes.

“I’ve painted thousands of gold pans,” she said.

And Murdoch’s still stocks them.

In the middle of Nielsen’s kitchen, a large mop bucket holds a bunch of rusty gold pans.

It is hard medium to work with.

Before painting them, she has to take the oil out of the pans using primer, which is a smelly business.

And painting the pan angles is tricky, she added.

A large painting of three ships on open seas hangs on one Nielsen’s living room walls. It’s framed by a large, colourful array of shells Nielsen’s kids collected in Europe.

She was going to give it to “the European,” her ex-husband, but he planned to reframe it, so he lost out.

Then, she was going to give it to her son, but he made the same mistake as the European.

So now, a nephew who has promised not to reframe it, is going to get the picture.

“I like to paint something that is something,” said Nielsen

“Not like these people that paint and you can’t tell what they’ve painted.”

On a table, under a disassembled chair is a painting of a musher crossing a frozen landscape.

Nielsen pulled out some more unframed paintings, all mountain landscapes in soft colours.

Most of the scenes are inspired from memories or sketches, she said.

Nielsen has been painting for more than 20 years and is self-taught, although she doesn’t like the term.

“I learned from books,” she said. “And anytime anyone wants to do anything, they can go and get a book.”

Nielsen’s had a few shows over the years, but after falling into her slump, she didn’t paint much.

Then, a couple of months ago, one of her close friends, a woman Nielsen met when she was still working at Alaska Highway lodges, went to get her dentures fixed.

Noticing there was art on the denturist’s walls, Nielsen’s friend approached him about an exhibit.

“My girlfriends decided to put this show on, to get me out of my slump,” said Nielsen.

“And they did all the promotion.”

The show inspired Nielsen.

“These last seven years, I’ve had nobody to answer to, nobody to clean the house for,” she said. “But when I think that people care enough about me to put on this art show, I have to come back for them.”

On our way out the door, Nielsen pointed out the sculpted roses and flowers winding up her porch post. She’d made these too, along with the series of tiny wood houses that forms a village in her front yard.

Off to one side sits a tiny log replica of Robert Service’s cabin.

“I’m so impulsive,” said Nielsen with a laugh.

“I could be making money and should be doing something else, like painting gold pans.

“And instead I’m building little Robert Service cabins.”

Nielsen’s show is hanging at 402 Hansen, at A Meilun Denture Clinic, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Her work is for sale and there’s a guest book for visitors.

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