In the morning after a sandwich, a chocolate bar, bug spray and 45 pounds of painting gear are packed, I walk up the river gorge behind Pangnirtung looking for something to paint. A shelf of ice, the fold of hills, a cascade of boulders, a gush of water, the color of lichens and the carpet of plants have all stopped me in my tracks. Usually the thing of interest is off the trail and I carefully climb up or down the sides of the gorge, adjusting to a new center of gravity as the backpack shifts. Once arrived, I look for a flat spot with a duo of rocks to serve as chair and table on which I happily drop the pack. Preparing to paint outside takes countless small actions, which were time consuming until they became routine. Wind, uneven land and broken equipment have created challenges to setting up, but bungee cords have proven to be an all-purpose solution. Filling the emptied back pack with rocks and suspending it from the bottom of the easel with a bungee, for example, is a good way to prevent the constant wind from upending everything. Setting up takes half an hour, which gives the mosquitoes time to smell blood and track me. They are very large and travel in packs, but so far, they have been deterred by applying a 50% solution of DEET to exposed skin every 4 hours.
The sky varies from “mostly cloudy” to “partly sunny”, so the light is most often soft and cool. As the weather has warmed to 50° F, the color of the distant hillsides has made a modest shift from tan to olive. Not all the colors, however, are quiet. The ice sheets, for example, are a brilliant aqua when suffused with daylight and the granite boulders which cover the landscape like nuts on a sundae are modeled with contrasting spots of orange, chartreuse and charcoal. More dramatically, the color of Pangnirtung Fiord shifts from black to teal as the light changes during the day. Like the desert and the prairie, the arctic landscape has no middle scale. Things are either enormous like the mountains, or miniaturized like the plants. Only the occasional boulder is of a middle size, and as a result, the experience of seeing is pushed to extremes. On the land I am either standing in a humbling panorama, or down on hand and knee studying the complexity of the ground cover. The openness of the land is both awesome and unsettling; on Baffin Island a human-scale rock can feel like reassuring companionship. The shape of the rocks has become a favorite motif for painting, as has falling water, ice, moss and lichens.