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?


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Exquisite Isolation

The artist's retreat 
I’m a few weeks into one of the most exquisitely isolated experiences of my life.  I live on an island off the northwest coast of Greenland in a small seaside cabin high above the Arctic Circle.  It feels like the edge of the world.

I am a guest of the Upernavik Museum, and my purpose here is art, research and discovery.  I spend my days exploring the small settlement of Upernavik, painting seascapes, writing, and filming.  I’m thinking about melting glaciers, retreating sea ice, and the warming of our delicate planet.

I have fallen in love with the silent stillness of this place, an understated landscape of bare essentials: rock and ice, sea and sky.   

And while I have forged a deep connection with the wildness of Greenland, I sometimes crave human relationship.  Upernavik is home to a few hundred inhabitants, largely Greenlandic-speaking Inuit. We share no language.  It’s hard to meet people here and even harder to converse.  I long to communicate my experience of the Arctic hinterlands, to ask questions and understand more about where I am by sharing something with the people who live here.   I am mute, silenced.

In isolation, my thoughts turn repeatedly toward home and the people I’ve left behind. There are few options for high tech communication here- my phone doesn’t work in Greenland and I spend too much energy trying to figure out how to access the internet. Occasionally I’m allowed to use the computer at the museum for a short time- for a fee and only if they are open and someone is in the office.

Today I’ve been frustrated.  Tears welled up in my eyes and blurred my vision as I was turned away from the museum for the 6th day in a row.  Can't use the internet today.  Access denied, like typing the wrong password into my online bank login and the screen blinking shut on me- except that I am dealing with real people, not security codes.  I am confused, a fact again attributable to lack of common language.  I went to the only other place in town that might help me, a kiosk that sells chips, Coke, and occasional online access. The Danish owner asked- in the blunt, efficient manner of a true northern European- why I had no phone for internet, ending the conversation abruptly when I asked about paying for wireless.  “It’s not possible,” he shouted at me as I retreated out the door.    

I am ashamed to admit it, but I miss the world wide web.  I can’t decide if it’s a blessing or a blight, this high speed techno-tool that allows me connect across time zones and disparate ideologies with anyone and everyone.  I’m grateful that on most days I’m immersed in my work and the beautiful mystery of this place- and know better than to crave technology while in the rugged isolation of the Arctic.  
Local color- in the background, a fashionable young  mother pushes a baby stroller.

I can tell that family relationships in Greenland settlements are at the heart of life here, far more so than in the US.  Extended families of multiple generations often live together and homes are small and full.  I consider my own family, many of its ties broken and all of us scattered.   (My mother in New Hampshire just turned 75 while I was on the kayak expedition! I tried to call her on her birthday from the guide’s satellite phone, no luck.)  Back in the US I visit both parents maybe once a year, and briefly.  Divorced, they live on opposite ends of the country.  Being in Upernavik- where I am so distinctly an outsider and most often alone- makes me yearn for family engagement and the unconditional support that a family can sometimes provide.

Most exciting in the realm of correspondence are the hand written letters I’ve received from home.  Snail mail- in Greenland no less!- makes me melt. I save and savor the unopened envelopes, my eyes following the script of the address, the postmark, to find clues to its mysterious passage to me from the Rockies, the Pacific, or New England.   I do this for a day or two before devouring the words like much longed for sustenance.   

Letters and the forever-clutter of my desk.

I've left the retreat behind and am en route to the US.  I'm continuing to write offline at the Kangerlussuaq airport and have many hours ahead til I board my night flight to Copenhagen. "Kanger" has the bustling feel of much larger airport because it’s the main connector from Europe to Greenland.  Since I left Upernavik yesterday morning (only yesterday?) I’ve been experiencing culture shock.  I’ve emerged from the deep isolation of a remote northern community, overwhelmed. I hear English being spoken (and Danish, German) and sit now amidst a cacophony of other tourists and travelers.  I visited a supermarket yesterday in Ilulissat that was… well, it was (to my provincial mind) HUGEAnd sold things like cantaloupe, goji berries (?!) and pistachio nuts. Ilulissat was bustling with young Greenlandic hipsters decked out in the latest European fashions, smoking, wearing iPods.  I stayed in a hostel with a flush toilet.   As I’ve journeyed south,  I've reemerged in the postmodern world.  When I rolled into Kanger this afternoon, I headed to the International Science Support building and was invited to binge on free internet time. 

But back to the theme of isolation that defined my life in Upernavik less than 24 hours ago.  Already it seems so far away, already I miss the stillness and quiet that comes with so few distractions.  I know that whatever we have, we seem to crave the converse.  It's our nature.  What I won’t miss is being so utterly disconnected from the people that I love.  Like an umbilical cord that keeps me safely tethered to the known world, these relationships allow me the luxury and freedom to journey in the unknown world to stand at the remotest edge of myself.

Fog rises over the islands of Upernavik Fjord

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Art in the Arctic

A small red house at the edge of the world.  Acrylic sketch on paper
 It’s almost time to leave this little red house on Baffin Bay and head back to my other life in Colorado.   I’m watching the sea rise and fall in slow crests outside the studio, the endless cycling of waves and tide on a grey day, quiet and still.  I’m restless.  And I wonder what I’ve accomplished here.

I’ve written in this blog about people and place, kayaking and climate change- but little about my artwork at the artist’s residency.   That’s because much of my daily duty (to myself, my project, and the museum) is focused on various forms of documentation- and paying close attention.  It’s a little less of a studio residency and a little more of a soaking up of land, culture, and environment- which will in turn feed a prodigious amount of creative work back in the US.
I’ve tried to greet this truly exceptional opportunity with the blank slate of an inquisitive mind, and not too many preconceived ideas about artistic outcomes.  I’ve hoped that the experience of being in the beautiful, beleaguered Arctic would teach me what to make, which vocabulary to use.  If I just listen hard enough. I want the Arctic to give me the words- the form- I need to describe all this, rather than being too sure of myself from the start.  Tell me what to do.

 Acrylic sketch on paper. 
 So far this approach isn’t letting me down.

Today I worked on photographing and video recording along with creating a series of cyanotype prints (since the sun was out- a prerequisite for this type of image making).  Some of the photos will be used for reference material as I paint, and others will be rendered later in negative format for cyanotype printing.  The rest is my own visual archive of what really happened on the Arctic Art Expedition.

I’ve been painting every day- small works on paper in acrylic, an economy of scale and materials. (Remember the one bag/20 kilo weight limit on Air Greenland? This had significant influence on what I could drag with me on 6 flights across 3 continents!)  I don’t usually paint landscapes. I’m not much good at it.  But here I've been sketching studies of the ice, thinking of more involved compositions while I push paint around and try to create a likeness which, of course, will never do this place justice.  It’s fun to try, and to fall into the beautiful curves and color of the icebergs. I  remember paddling out at sea, close enough to the bergs to feel their raw power.  Ancient frozen water, a still life. 

Icebergs near Melville Bay.  Acrylic sketch on paper.
While I work I imagine a slew of larger projects which are at the heart of my Last Places ideas, all the things I can’t wait to get my hands into back in the US.  I want to work on big canvases, and I want to work in oil.  This fall and winter I’ll develop these more complex paintings, along with (and rather ambitiously?), a whole new body of porcelain sculpture.  I’m writing and taking reams of  notes about my current ideas and inspiration for the clay pieces.  The awesome part is that my ideas develop exponentially when they’re given time to distill and something essential is allowed to surface.

Upernavik retreat guest book
Then there’s the film editing and video project that is also part of this.  Uh. (I’ve begun to think my new motto must be go big or go home…?)  But time.  I have time.  The months to come will be saturated with the bright light of this work, as if I took an iceberg home in my pocket and put it in the freezer to peek at from time to time.  It’s all with me.  It won’t go away and I can’t forget it.

Close-up of ice structure
Time + creativity = art.  In theory, anyway.  The missing part of this equation is that art and life are inextricably linked.  My thoughts about trash burning and mercury, eating seal (or not) and navigating a kayak through a sea of towering sapphire ice sculpture- all this ultimately carries me back to my work.  The seeds of creation are forever born of the most sacred and mundane of things. 

Acrylic sketch on paper.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Vegan in Greenland

Polar bear is traditional Greenlandic food.  A skin hangs on the side of a home in Upernavik town.
Before I came to Greenland, many people asked me what I would eat there.  Like its Arctic counterparts in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, Greenland is a land of meat and food from the sea.  Since I’ve completely abstained from eating animal products for more than two decades, it’s something I’d also given some thought to.  I’d either starve, find a supermarket- or begin eating meat again. 

Either way, I wasn’t panicked about it.  I’ve been doggedly committed to my project all along- and to traveling to Upernavik regardless of the food situation.  I knew I would be adapting to my circumstances in a variety of ways. 

But subsistence hunting has faded here in Upernavik.  Indeed, it seems to me that the old ways have all but disappeared from this small Arctic town, as the sea ice retreats and European influence increases.  There’s currently fewer fish and mammals in the sea to be taken, and changing weather patterns affect hunting and availability of prey.

What this means for me is that small markets exist in most of the settlements here.  There’s not much to choose from as a hardcore vegan, but I’m surviving.  I’m shy of protein and dropping weight, but I am getting by. 

What do I come home with from a typical store run?  Usually a can of garbanzo beans or navy beans, a small loaf of heavy rye bread (which I developed a taste for during my time in Denmark), maybe some cabbage or a banana if a ship has come in recently with supplies.  Maybe some jam, sweet pickles or pickled beets.  

Surely if I eat enough German bread I will look like the girl in the photo...?

It’s pricey here.  Understandably so.  The dollar is weak, and everything is imported from Denmark. I easily spend 20 bucks- about 500 Danish crowns- on what amounts to rations.  But who’s complaining? I’m in a supermarket in Greenland!!  I can have chips and Coke if I want!! 

There’s plenty of cookies, soda, and candy available, too.  And meat!  If I want to cook up some seal or whale, its available frozen and shrink wrapped along with more ordinary selections of fish, canned liver pate, sausage – and chicken.  (Chicken? In Greenland?)

When I came here, I promised myself to be open- to eat fish if I felt like it (along with whatever else served itself up to me), or if I just needed a good dose of quality protein.  It absolutely makes sense to eat fresh food from the sea and tundra here, consuming what the land provides and contributing to the local economy.  But honestly, after so many years as a non-meat eater, I have no taste for it.  Although I was (almost) ready to change my non-meat ways for the duration of this trip, I was granted a reprieve!  

There are numerous edible mushrooms in Greenland- but these look like trouble.
I also admit I arrived in Greenland with about 15 pounds of food from home. I brought mung means, which I love sprouted.  I’ve been rationing them all month. I’ve also got some almonds and flax seed.  Some fresh greens I’d dehydrated myself.  Some dates.  Some quinoa. A little of this and that, but certainly not enough to get me by for 40 days.  And believe me I’d have carried more with if I’d had the luggage capacity!  (Air Greenland allows only one 20 kilo bag.)

So the short story is, I’m still vegan. I won’t be very strong on my mountain bike when I get back to Durango, I don’t feel awesome physically, but I’m getting through.  I do dream of food at night, and have food cravings during the day- tofu, avocados, hemp protein, fresh corn tortillas with beans and salsa, fruit smoothies and fresh greens, tomatoes and melons.

A reindeer antler on a remote northern island returns to the earth.
And I do wonder if I should’ve just subsisted on local food these weeks, to be true to the culture and the experience.  But the fact is, I don’t know what to do with a fish– or a narwhal or an auk or a reindeer- and I don’t want to eat one.

The postscript to today’s blog is that I have been invited by the family of a new friend to dinner tonight - for seal stew.  I will leave you wondering how I decide to navigate the evening. I may  surprise myself.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Notes from a Greenland Evening

The view from here...

“July 25, 11pm.  The glare of the late night sun reflects off the water, bouncing into the studio through the glass windows and rebounding off the white walls, dazzling. Shouldn’t have to squint like this inside, so far north.  Today was mild and the fog lifted.  People were out painting their houses, kids playing everywhere, loud laughter following me into the house like the light from outside.

I’d want to be outside too, day and night, not sleeping all summer, if I knew the sun would leave in the fall and not roll around again til February. I’d like to spend a winter in the Arctic (to torture myself?!) I could see the Northern Lights then.  I really want to go to Svalbard!! It’d be cheaper and easier to get to than here.  Just about anywhere would be.

Now that my days are numbered here in Greenland, I feel more grounded, less untethered.  When the time felt limitless, there was less urgency to hone in and get things done.  My focus is sharp now.  I’m on task. This always happens to me- artist’s residencies see me foundering some in the beginning when there’s so much to take in, so much to adjust to. I’ve come to realize this is normal.

Art projects are going well, I’m in heaven with the time I now have to CREATE.   I’ve been slacking on filming these last few days, painting more.  I lost some video clips that I’d filmed- a rare set of interviews! It was a camcorder glitch, and I was so mad at myself that I had to put it all away for a few days.  Writing all the time too, constantly scratching notes, scribbling things here and there. Obsessive. I don’t think I have a future as a landscape painter, but I’m enjoying the acrylic and oil sketches I’ve been doing every afternoon and evening, mostly of the ice.  Honestly, I’m just in love with pushing the paint around and losing myself in the brush strokes. It doesn’t always matter what I’m painting.

working on small painting studies from a photos on my laptop

I went up to the airport today to see if I could change my flight. I’m not scheduled to leave until August 5, but technically the residency is over on the first.  Another artist arrives then. But no go.  I’d hoped to get back to Kangerlussuaq and spend time at the International Science Support building, talking to scientists about their weird projects- things like Arctic caterpillars, microbes, and the probability of life on Mars.  I spent the night there on my way in last month.  There’s some fascinating things going on at that place.

Kangerlussuaq International Science Support building.  Non-descript outside, full of intrigue inside.

But it’s not to be.  I don’t know yet what I’ll do. I hope serendipity intervenes again, same as with the kayak expedition. I may have blown my good standing with that magic this time around. Time will tell!!  I spend too much of my time worrying, removing myself from the present moment so I miss it.  Yuck!  Anxiety may be a natural response to contemporary life, but it’s also a great way to miss the joy of being alive.

Someday I’ll be gone from here and I’ll miss watching the icebergs from my desk and bedroom window, miss listening to the waves lapping the shore as I fall to sleep.

I really do keep dreaming of home.  So many people from my past have shown up to entertain me at night!!  I know it’s because I have felt lonely up here at times, not part of this world, just a tourist who can’t speak the language.  That’s been really hard.  My heart aches for the people I miss, and for those I know I have lost for good.

Sometimes I wish I could be like “normal” people, have a steady job, not try to save the world, not be so different. Just go to work, get a paycheck, come home.  Just HAVING a house to come home to, now that would be something!  I know myself too well though.  I’d never be satisfied with that.

I took a long hike today up the east side of the island, around the cliffy north end, and back the west side.  I love it for it’s beauty, and the pure solitude that puts me at ease.  I can feel the spaciousness.  The blue of the distance, the glint of the ice, the deep beds of moss that measure their growth in millimeters from year to year- these things seem so steadfast, calming the restlessness I carry with me and silencing my fears. Some days I’m overtaken by the indescribable beauty of this place.  And just by being alive.”


There’s something about a creative residency that is one part heaven, one part hell.  Read  Life in Lady Writer Heaven by Courtney Martin for more on the topic. She's writer in residence at Hedgebrook Farm on Whidbey Island, WA, and she describes so well the joy and struggle of unmitigated creative time.  I felt instant kinship when I read her words, and if you are another creative, so will you.