I’ve always been in love with art, colour, drawing or anything that has to do with any of these things. I can say for certain, this was always how I was since I was a kid. I loved crayons, loved crafts. I remember my grandmother teaching me to knit and do embroidery. I found it all fascinating. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to growing up in the Yukon was a lack of exposure to culture. There are museums here in the Yukon, but they mostly focus on the history of the north, the Gold Rush of 1898, the Alaska Highway or that kind of thing. The Beringia Centre focuses on the last Ice Age and has a very comprehensive collection on the animals and humans that lived in that time. There is a fabulous museum in Burwash Landing that is all about the local wildlife that I totally recommend if you are in the neighbourhood. Needless to say, we don’t have much in the way of full-fledged art museums here. We have lovely galleries, including the co-operative gallery that I belong to, Yukon Artists at Work, but nothing on the scale of what is available down south. Which makes sense, of course. We are a pretty small community.
So what I do, like most other art and culture minded people in Whitehorse, is visit as many galleries and museums as possible when we travel out. When I was a kid, this meant when we went to visit my parents’ families in Ottawa, we would go to the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Civilization (I think it’s called the Museum of History now), and of course, my favourite when I was a kid, the Science and Technology Museum. Great exposure for a Yukon kid for sure. We also loved the escalator at the mall. Ask any Yukon kid, now or then, and riding an escalator is a definite highlight of any trip out too. We are a simple people.
What I wasn’t paying attention to at the time was Canada’s great history of art, and in particular, the landscape painting. The Group of Seven was lost on me, not because I didn’t love the paintings, I did, but I didn’t really know what I was looking at. I didn’t discover the history of the Group of Seven until my 30’s and didn’t understand what those paintings meant to me as a Canadian. I had seen the paintings, but I didn’t understand their weight and power. It was the first time art had represented the feeling of the wildness of Canada in a way that wasn’t photo representative. I think for a long time I thought for a painting to be good, it had to be photo realistic. The Group of Seven really changed all that and got behind the idea that a painting could be a feeling, and not a direct copy. They expressed what they felt about Canada with colour and brushstrokes that evoked emotion in their viewers, in a new way. I think in the age of the iPhone and Instagram, this way of thinking about art is just as important as it was when it was a new idea.
Tom Thomson technically wasn’t one of the Group of Seven, but he really blew people away with his paintings and, after his death, inspired his friend, Lawren Harris, to form the group. The Jack Pine is Thomson’s most famous and best beloved painting, by far, and one that a lot of my fellow Canadians agree represents us.
We have always been a country defined by our relationship to nature, the wilderness, and winter, even though I think that’s a stereotype. Perhaps it’s more true here, in the Yukon, where there is still some real wilderness left to be had. I am a landscape artist at heart. When I was younger I used to comment that living in the Yukon was like living in a post card. There is always inspiration for a painting.
I know if I was an artist somewhere else, like Toronto for example, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have had being an artist here in the Yukon. The focus on modern and abstract art forms not based on landscape, rules the current art world. Abstract is such a loaded term these days. Was Tom Thomson abstract? Yes, he was, but it was still representational. And I have been moved by many types of abstract art, perhaps the way an artist uses a certain combination of colours that I find inspiring or emotionally engaging. Some art of this genre, however, goes right over my head. I’ll admit that. I don’t know if a lot of people would admit that they just didn’t “get” a piece of art, but it happens to me all the time.
I guess I’m lucky to live somewhere that encourages the recreation of landscape, whether it’s an abstract or literal interpretation. People come to the Yukon wanting to bring home art that reminds them that they were here. People who live here want art in their houses that reflect the reasons they live here. Here’s to the love of art, in all its forms. And here’s to the lowly landscape. May it never fall by the wayside and maybe in another hundred years it will be in style again!