Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mount Duval

In the body of Pavarotti, I opened my eyes. The bedroom was two-storied, made of stone and sparsely furnished with substantial, Baroque furniture. I rose from bed and walked up the steps to the balcony which overlooked a piazza where a crowd had gathered. I opened my mouth and sang with the perfection that comes when technical control and emotional abandon merge into one thing. With sound I expressed every feeling that any person has ever had and with my voice I transformed the crowd into a single, ecstatic being. Then I woke up a second time, as me, alone in a double bed with flannel sheets and I was happy.

Carrying the fantasy that virtuosity can unite humanity as well as satisfy the ego, I hiked up the guardian of Pangnirtung, Mount Duval, to end my Arctic adventure.

At the foot of the mountain I stopped many times to admire the Arctic Cotton, and other late blooming plants.

As I moved up the slope, the footing changed and I stepped from jumbles of bruising rocks onto planes of dry lichens that crunched like fried noodles.

With other steps I sank into brilliant, green tubs of sodden moss that filled with water at the pressure of my foot only to spring back into shape as I moved past.

Boulders, unlatched from the mountain, pressed into the ground to demonstrate their weight or perched on promontories to express their potential.

Black-bottomed water courses, large and small, streamed over the surface reflecting a deep shade of sapphire too blue to be the sky.

Over the course of hours the sun lowered to describe the land with great volumes of shadow. In all this glory, I thought, “I’m sure glad I’m not trying to paint realistically”.

At this unguarded moment painting “realistically” meant the ambition to faithfully record detail, and to minimize interpretation so that the thing being observed is captured fresh and whole. Of course it is impossible to package the complexity of an experience like hiking Mt. Duval and deliver it fresh and whole, but I’m often troubled by the thought that I’m a fraud unless I can deliver no less. This fear is real and it often dictates that I paint in secluded spots to avoid exposure as a faker. With dread I imagine the moment that a stranger approaches, looks at a half-finished picture and asks, “What is that supposed to be?” If hell is self-imagined, then “What is that supposed to be?” will crown the gates. In this fantasy, the question is not really a question but a judgment. The stranger has asserted that the art is Poorly Observed. Badly Recorded. Self-indulgent. Uncommunicative. In other words the artist, formerly known as Pavarotti, has failed.

Continuing to the summit of Mount Duval, I rested and enjoyed a small bag of cookies and cashews.

The summit is dotted with Inuksuit, stone messengers “which act in the capacity of a human”. Although I suspect that the majority of Inuksuit on Mount Duval are modern, there are many ancient ones across Baffin Island which served and continue to serve native hunters. *

On the way home I flirted with the sheer, western edge of Mount Duval, which drops 2200 feet to the fiord below. A spectacular drop from which one could fly, briefly, is always an occasion for a quick assessment. With the deep space spectacle of Pangnirtung Fiord before me and the inscriptions of time on the rocks around me, I took stock of what I had learned by painting in the Baffin Island landscape. First, I can’t begin to tell the whole story. Second, that being true, I can tell a good story by reducing color, light and form to their essentials. As for color, there is not much red here, but a lot of orange, which ranges from flaming, to rusty, to pale salmon. In the early spring the land is tan, but as the weather warms, it shifts to olive and gold. The blue of the sky is often cool and pale and is best described by adding a little thalo green (a very cold and powerful color) to the usual recipe for sky. Contrasts of light and dark are strong in the Arctic and there are countless shades of black and white to employ. Although Arctic Poppies, a cheerful and ubiquitous yellow flower, were painted into several scenes, they were in the end erased, because they detracted from the essential soberness and grandness of the open, treeless space. Besides the occasional boulder and caribou, few things are middle sized. Instead a vast, living carpet of infinite detail and texture clings to massive convexities and concavities. Ovals and hemispheres are common forms and angular lines are as abundant as long curves. The circulation of water from air to land to sea is a constant subject and the transformations of water into fog, drizzle, torrent, tide, and ice are always interesting. Time seems long here, since it is marked by glacial scrapings and ancient ice caps, but the pace is becoming more modern as the glaciers melt and the sea ice retreats.

These observations are a part of the inventory of thoughts from which the Arctic paintings were made. This same inventory included comic dreams of artistic prowess and comic visions of artistic humiliation, but these two items were selected infrequently since the inventory was stuffed with more fascinating things like

fancy boulders

and Arctic mushrooms on Mount Duval.

*"Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic", by Norman Hallendy, published by Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2000, is an excellent source of images and information on the stone structures of Baffin Island.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Walking Past the Summer Solstice

Every thirteen days darkness takes an hour of light from Pangnirtung. The slide toward the arctic night has started and the change is quick since 24 hours of daylight must be shed before the winter solstice. I’m subtly bothered by the change, like I’ve left the house and forgotten something, but can’t remember what.

Although the light is changing quickly, the days have a routine. Once a week I walk into town to pick up mail and buy groceries.

On the way I see a few handsome sled dogs.

But mostly I see short-legged, hard-working mutts.

Kids don't seem to frequent the school grounds during the summer.

Instead, the young ones play in the empty spaces between the houses. Private yard space defined by sidewalks, lawn edges and fences does not exist; kids play under any window and adults cut through any yard to make the shortest path to their destinations.

Older girls and boys run in separate groups. The girls do not look at me or speak to me, but the boys are a different story. A pack of boys shot a hole in my living room window with a BB gun. When I spoke to them, they seemed surprised that aiming a gun at a house could have a consequence. Another pack thought it would fun to throw stones at me while I was working at the bottom of a rock slide. They did not realize that throwing stones from a 150 feet above the target significantly improves the velocity. The stones hit like bullets near my head! I stormed up the cliff and scared the crap out of them. They apologized and sped off on small bikes. Later, I saw them in town, where they cheerfully said, "hello" and politely introduced themselves. (The boys in the photograph above where not involved in the BB gun or rock throwing incidents. They are just nice friendly kids who let me take their picture.)

During the weekday, downtown is noisy with four wheelers outside the post office.

And the store, where I bought a sweet potato for $8.00.

But after the store closes, downtown is very quiet.

Very quiet.

But there are a few diversions, like the remains of the Hudson Bay Company, “Old Blubber Station”, where whales were rendered for oil at the turn of the 20th century.

Or watching the large tides rise and fall twice a day.

And seeing the harbor turn into the beach.

It’s also fun to watch the Sea Lift, which visits only once a year, unload food, gas, plywood, sinks, cars, carpets and clothes.

But the best thing to see on a walk through Pangnirtung is the view from the north end of town, where the mountains suggest an enormous circle like the sun balanced on the horizon just about to set.