Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arctic Art, Winter Light

"Looking for the Ice", cyanotype print with mixed media.

Gray December days.  We're closing in on the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year - the very darkest of days in Greenland. Would I see the Aurora if I was still there, spinning through low slung stars overhead, the snow creaking with cold like old bones and the patchy sea ice signaling danger?

Thinking of the Arctic and how, whatever our measure of darkness this time of year, we are all waiting for the light. It unites us.  

"Galaxy - Part 2", cyanotype on paper.  Like the winter night sky.  Full of hope.

          In the meantime, I'm working and making art as if my life depended on it. 
Luminous/Adrift, Baffin Bay. Acrylic on paper.

Bones of Greenland, porcelain paperclay.

One of my favorite projects right now is the series of porcelain skeleton ships I've been sculpting. They'll be installed in a gallery from the ceiling, resting on... nothing.  Kayaks inspired by my own powerful Arctic water voyage but also by dying seas and rising tides and temperatures - hanging in delicate balance just as we are.
 Semi-frozen porcelain paperclay with ice crystals.  An uncanny resemblance to an icescape.  

"Ice Fishing: Catch and Release", original cyanotype print on paper.

In recent weeks I've mailed off a few dozen original cyanotype prints to my Kickstarter supporters (all the fans that helped get me to Greenland!) and been delighted by the rave reviews.  How do I say thank you?? It means so much to have someone jot me a message that exclaims, "I love the piece you sent. I can't wait to frame it!"  All the uncharted, undeclared hours of toiling alone in the studio suddenly seem worth it.  After all.

I'm also spending countless hours video editing right now, peering over the edge of the Arctic expedition and allowing myself to tumble down into its depths.  Feeling and remembering.  Slicing and dicing the clips to create something someone else would want to become absorbed in.   Hoping I can do it justice.  I have moments of thinking, "Well, there's no adrenaline here.  Only the slow subtle drama of the Ice.  Some humor and thought provoking dialogue. A lot of beauty shot with a mediocre camera.  I'm not a film maker."  Or am I?  

It must be enough. I understand that this intimate and quiet work about the Arctic is bringing me closer to that which is bigger and bolder.  I'm lining up shows for all of it, along with speaking venues about the Arctic, art and global warming.  I've been invited to present at Regenerate, a conference in New Mexico about the ways that art can fuel progressive change.  I feel as if I to have pockets full of answers - and instead I have fistfuls of questions.

Today is December 20th.  Soon I'll begin teaching a semester at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe. In addition to engendering creativity in young hearts and minds, I long to be a light in the darkness.

A gathering of Solstice gifts.  And a return to my roots with some recently fired functional porcelain - the color of glaciers and December dawn.  ~Love and light to all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Forest and the Bones of Greenland

"Galaxy", cyanotype print with usnea, wild rose, river pebbles by Rebecca Barfoot
Life is precious, especially against the unforgiving starkness of the Arctic.  My time in Northwest Greenland heightened my awareness of how quietly fleeting our time is here on this little blue globe called home.  As a result, I’m working a bit feverishly these days, trying to get all my art projects born before time runs out.  I know this is foolish and fearful, but still I’m creating in a hyper-inspired (manic?) state, extra-attentive and energized.  

It’s a fertile place, this focused frenzy- but again, as ephemeral as our waking hours and numbered earthbound days. 

Smuggled Arctic seal bones adorn- incongruously- a bed of autumn leaves
I woke at dawn today with these words whispering through the mental haze of early morning: “In Greenland, I found the bones of my self.”  One part dream, one part highly conscious thought? I suspect a higher sense of knowing before the din of the daily begins, and I’m grateful for the mysterious tiding.   Since Greenland, I have felt the stirring of something old and moss covered inside me, moving and morphing yet deeply grounded.  

I can’t say with precision what happened for me internally in the icescape of the Arctic- but something did happen.  As if the cold sharpness of bedrock and glacier ripped me open like a storm running down the middle of my life, then tossed me back to sea to find my own way back to shore and sanity.  

Glacier meets bedrock, NW Greenland
 Back home I’ve taken refuge in the forest, an impossibility in northern Greenland as the high Arctic is a land without cover.  Refuge and revelry then!  The season here in Colorado has matured to a crisp golden autumn.  I’ve loved watching the world change as the aspen and cottonwoods gather themselves up for winter, shedding their leaves, drawing into themselves.  I understand.  

Aspens in full glory at a secret spot in southwest CO
 I’ve seen a bumper sticker floating around Durango lately that reads, “Trees are the answer.” Ah, the poetry of trees.   How they hold up the sky and root us all at once.  I watch the Halloween skeleton trees outside the studio, shifting and sighing in the late fall wind.  Yet how steady and steadfast they are- my own personal icons of small triumph.   

Beyond the poetic is the scientific:  trees give us oxygen, clean our air, filter the soil, and manage to transform greenhouse gases into wood.  No wonder I’m smitten. 

I won’t ask you if you’ve ever hugged a tree, but when was the last time you laid down beneath a canopy of, say, an enormous live oak- to be cradled by the forest floor, branches and leaves twining above and the open sky beyond? (Now’s your time!  Autumn is perfect!)  The pungent dirt-smell of moist leaves returning to the earth delivers me to a mysterious yet familiar place of yearning. 

A winter live oak thrives in west Texas
Dirt, moss, bones- and those words carved into my mind from this morning.  Greenland is littered with the skeletons of marine mammals that became Inuit food, and also from the natural course of things.  Nothing breaks down- or hides- with any ease this far north.  Bones are so rich in metaphor that they’ve already found their way into my art.  A year ago in the Adirondacks I began working on a series of coil-built skeletal objects in porcelain, beginning as a group of Lilliputian chairs (to be hung on the wall, a slightly twisted testament to comfort that can never be attained). Then I made some small boats, in the same manner and material.  A little bereft, these unmoored ships that can’t bear their own weight on water, slowly sinking.  Elegant and terrible as unprecedented Arctic ice melt.

"Skeleton Ship", porcelain paperclay by Rebecca Barfoot
 I’m building diminutive ceramic kayaks today, reminiscent of my time threading the waters of Baffin Bay this summer in just such a craft (which didn’t sink and never capsized!).  I found piles of seal and narwhal bones on Ikerinarmiut, a tiny island off the Greenland coast.  And ancient human remains nestled in an old rock cairn with a circular skyward opening, not far from my studio in Upernavik.  (Gasp!!  I’d never stumbled upon a human cranium just… lying there like that.  But this was the traditional Greenlandic way until only recent decades.) 

Untitled, by the young, gifted, and tragically fated Francesca Woodman,  MacDowell Colony, Peterbough, NH, 1980 

 For some reason I haven’t quite unearthed yet, I’m more in love with fall this year than I have been since my childhood in New Hampshire.  I was a maker of tree forts then, running around the woods looking for pokeberries and toads, excavating piles of crimson maple leaves to hide in.  Maybe the bones of the Arctic are bringing me back full circle to fall in love with a forgotten part of myself, at once old and young and giddy with living.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Summer splendor, San Juan mountains, Colorado

August 8.  My first morning back in the US.  COLORADO!!  I wake at daybreak- courtesy of jetlag- to the lavish splendor of this temperate latitude, in awe.  The tangle of oak and elder outside the bedroom window and the delicious fragrance of greenery after rain is puzzling at first, a little shocking to my senses.  I’ve become too accustomed to Greenland’s stark horizon of rock and ice, and the pungence of rank seal blubber and sea.  A hummingbird hovers outside my screened window, vibrant amidst vining purple clematis.  Like dormant lichen gathering moisture after drought, I soak it up.  I'm so content. 

I left the Arctic in a dual state of inspiration and overwhelm.  Here at home, I continue to be overwhelmed by the abundance that exists on so many levels: the lushness of the mountain landscape, the ubiquitous excess of food and amenities, the prevalence of conversation, chatter and gratuitous human interaction.

Dusk becoming darkness at my wintering site in remote northern New Mexico.
And ohhh… the NIGHT.  I stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac late last evening, smiling into the velvety darkness.  Shrouded by a blanket of stars overhead, I’d forgotten how the night calms me, enveloping and protecting me like the warm embrace of an old friend.  Ahh, darkness- after 40 days of light.

Young friends show me the way, La Plata River Canyon.
 I feel like a toddler, regarding the world with a child’s sense of wonder and innate curiosity.  I’m enthralled by all the succulent details of the everyday, losing myself in the minutiae of a flower petal or a swirl of subtle color on wet asphalt.  Sometimes it takes lack and loss to find one’s way again.  

Claret Cup cactus blooms in Colorado

August 9.  I walked into the grocery store today and had a meltdown.  (You mean I can have whatever I want?? But there are so many choices!) Avocados, eggplant, tofu, chick peas, and tamari-roasted almonds.  Pears and spinach, fig cookies and peaches.  Corn tortillas, coconut, arugula, jicama.  I’m skinny since Greenland.  I can’t possibly buy or eat all this.  I consume visually, with my eyes, my hands pausing over tidy mounds of plums from California, grape tomatoes from Mexico.  Squeeze.  To have so much- is this bounty or gluttony?

I am giddy with the effortlessness of communication, and from being in a place where people know and care for me.  It’s not just the commonality of a shared language, it’s also the sub-culture of familiarity.  Both friends and strangers regard one another, often, with a fluency and ease that I find heartening.  I can talk to people here.  I can connect.

Kayaking, self-portrait
It’s hard to describe the sense of quiet exuberance that possesses me at the moment.  I understand that it's the result of accumulated longing amassed beneath and beyond my Arctic travels, magnified under the pressure of ten months away.  Something in me releases now, and I breathe a long exhale after waiting, enduring, thrashing over countless obstacles.  Fulfillment after yearning.  Relief

My time in Greenland, though in many ways a refuge, was as austere as the rock and ice that surrounded me there.  Returning to a landscape of green and a profusion of growing things echoes the renewed bounty of my internal landscape. 

Apache Plume, cyanotype photogram

The downside- if there is one- is that I’ve returned after many months of quiet introspection to the insistent din of contemporary life.  All the solo time spent in the studio- and trawling the backwaters of my mind- will make wending my way back to a busier world more daunting.  I wonder if I’ve unlearned the skills required to join the ranks of muliti-taskers armed with iPhones, earbuds, and daily planners brimming with urgency.  But this is just fear shadowing me like a cloud pausing overhead.  I’ve never really been a part of that lifestyle and my unfitness for it is likely more a gift than I will ever know. 

Postscript- August 31.  I’ve been back three weeks now and my sense of wonder and delight in the world remains.  Eventually the bustle will claim me again, but for now everything still sparkles, as light-filled and luminous as the ice of a northern glacier.

Icebergs near Melville Bay, NW Greenland

Monday, August 27, 2012

Arctic Farewell

August 3, 2012. Baffin Bay is stormier lately and I can tell that fall is coming at this latitude.  The air is cooler, there are fewer bright sunny days, and the sun dips a little lower on the horizon each evening. Nights will be returning to this part of the Arctic soon, darkness finally engulfing the world after months of constant daylight.  

It feels like a time of hunkering down or moving on.  For me, it’s time for the latter. 

I’ve been in Greenland for only a matter of weeks, in a timeless place with no end or beginning.  I’ve stood on the brink of something eternal here, and I’m sure I will spend the next several months trying to unravel the mystery of it.  How, what, why.   Seeking order out of chaos, answers instead of questions.  
In the final days of my residency at the Upernavik Museum, I’ve been so encumbered by the maelstrom of my own mind- from the trivia of the mundane to the vast overhwhelm of the monumental-  that I don’t know what I feel about leaving.  Happy? Sad? Relieved? 
All the above- and exhausted. 

I do know that I will miss this little red house terribly.  I have loved the quiet here and the time to contemplate new ideas (and old ones ad nauseum).  I gave up my own rental in Colorado last fall when I left on my long year of artistic sojourning.   It makes leaving this place of refuge so much harder.

Still, I’m eager to find my way back to the Rockies and the remains of summer there, to say hello to old friends and reacquaint myself with my mountain bike and the solace that deep forest and high ridge trail riding brings me. 

I’m incredibly excited about all the artistic possibilities I have to explore as a result of my time in the Arctic.  With time and space in the US over the fall and long winter ahead, I will preside over a studio burgeoning with the chaos of multiple creative projects being born at once. 

What struck me most about Greenland is its mystery and ineffability- a landscape of rock and ice I can scarcely put words to.  And all the beauty and tragedy of an ancient culture experiencing the growing pains of intense transition.

What will strike me most about the US is the noise and frantic clutter of life- the same aspects that I so easily leave behind every time I travel, and that greet me with such savage bluntness upon each return.  The ease of communication will also be immediately apparent- a common language and familiar customs.  I have to be careful not to lose my curiosity and keen sense engagement.   I’m afraid of drowning in the comfort and convenience of it all.


I leave Upernavik on Sunday with a backpack full of notes and paintings, my memory adorned with indelible, indescribable impressions that, like the slow rise and fall of the sea itself, speak of forever.  The journey is over- or is it just beginning?