The Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle Residency in Svalbard

My first artists’ residency was in October 2017, on a ship in the Arctic with 30 other artists. Each one of them inspired me in specific ways, but the collective impact on my way of thinking was significant. 

I didn’t attend art school. I don’t live in an arty community. I don’t follow the art scene, don’t really understand artspeak. I’m not an academic. Basically, I make stuff, I think about stuff, sometimes the two overlap. Because I’m mostly trained in photography, and mostly make my living from my camera, I call myself a photographer rather than an artist. 

I figured other artists would also identify with a specific medium. I asked the first person I met what kind of artist she was, expecting her to say painter or sculptor or similar. She didn’t. She told me that her concepts and projects determine which medium she uses, nothing is off limits in helping communicate her ideas. I nodded as if I understood. 

I had more or less the same conversation with several other people before it started to sink in. It seems so basic, that an artist can be an artist without further classifications. It’s probably Art School 101. But I hadn’t thought in these ways until we were sailing toward 80°N. Once I wrapped my head around the concept, I felt a world of possibility open up. I felt free.

There were a few artists who directly inspired this current project of paddling the Columbia River.

Amélie Laurence Fortin

Amélie was my assigned cabin mate for the residency, a fact that immediately felt like a stroke of good luck. We clicked right away, laughter was rich in our little cube. So was compassion, and silence, and a sense of safety at all the right moments. She shared her experiences in the art world with generosity and I absorbed all I could. Her varied history of artistic endeavours included a kayak journey, and it was this project that opened my eyes to the possibility of combining time outdoors with building an art career. Not a career as a sport or travel photographer, but as an artist, bringing careful thought and intention to the work and having that shown in galleries. A seed was planted. 

Sarah Gerats

I was introduced to Sarah as the trip leader and primary of four guides for our time in Svalbard. It wasn’t until later that I learned she is also an artist with a fascinating collection of past projects. The one that struck a chord with me was Journey to a Found Image. She created an exhibition in the Museum for Photography in Antwerp, Belgium which consisted only of a livestream webcam broadcasting an image on an island in the Finnish archipelago. Then she hopped on her bike and ‘cycled to the sea’, rode through Denmark and Norway and Sweden and then to Finland. “Two months have passed. I enter the right corner and cycle through the image.”

Sheng Wen Lo

Sheng showed me that art can be in the preparation and in the process. His project Down was a beautiful example of this. In advance of our travels to the Arctic he made his own down jacket by gathering feathers discarded by geese near his apartment. The resulting artwork was thoughtful, amusing, impactful. Speaking with him about his process likely planted seeds that later grew into the idea to build my kayak for this journey. 

The time spent in the Arctic among artists was a turning point for me. It broadened my perspective and gave me a little boost in confidence, which I have carried into the formation of this project.