Art in the Arctic
Drawing inspiration from Alaska’s lands and waters
Artists. Teachers. Birders. Many people draw creative inspiration from the Arctic. They connect us in new ways to Alaska’s public lands by illustrating the connections between the land, wildlife, and people across a variety of artforms — from watercolor to ceramics and poetry.
“I did not expect the diversity of birds breeding on the coastal plain that were familiar friends. Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers, Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks, Red-throated Loons, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. These birds had all spent time in areas near my home in Maine; along coastal beaches or wetlands, farm fields or on the ocean. It was a wonder to see these birds decked out in their breeding plumage, quite different than the colors they display as they migrate south through my home.”
“My artwork is based heavily on experience and memory, and the best way for me to collect this information is through field sketching on location. Often the image is just a rough pencil gesture as my subject moves through the landscape, to be finished up later in the weather port by the propane heater at camp. I take notes of things I notice, connections, artifacts, pieces of information from the biologists, all goes into the idea that eventually becomes a painting.”
“I recall crossing the river channel by camp…we came across several caribou on the opposite bank. I madly began snapping photos, then saw a Black-bellied Plover at their feet. Being the bird nerd I am, I went back and forth between the caribou and the plover. I started thinking about the journeys both creatures took to get to the Coastal Plain, and the idea for this painting materialized.”
Elaine is an artist and teacher who is passionate about wilderness and outdoor adventure. She teaches art and ceramics at Homer High School.
“My main art form is ceramics, though I also enjoy painting, illustration, block printing, and dabbling and experimenting in all art media.”
“As a woman of Russian descent, matryoshka dolls have always held sentimental meaning to me. I love the way that they nest within one another, and embody the intricate nature motifs painted upon them. This ceramic art piece came together in a way that encapsulates my experience and appreciation, as a visitor of the arctic. It also reminds me to consider my impact on the arctic ecosystem, and the stability of our planet.”
Charlotte Bird and Ree Nancarrow
Charlotte’s career began in 1987 after she and her husband spent most of a year in a cabin in Denali National Park. Textiles have always played a central role in her work and a lifelong interest in anthropology provides a foundation for many of the marks she chooses to use.
Ree came to Alaska in 1964. For 30 years, she was a printmaker, weaver, spinner, and graphic designer. When she started making art quilts in 1992, it combined a lifetime of sewing with fine art. Her goal is not to achieve an exact representation of a specific place but to capture its feeling and energy. As a piece is developed, she considers elevation, ground cover, season of year, and species of plants and animals.
The focus piece created by Ree interprets the findings of a published study on the biogeography of bacterioplankton in Arctic lakes and streams. The map of the study area is at the center, backed by the mountains to the south of the study area, and both surrounded by specific plants that grow in the immediate area. The small dots, French knots embroidered in different colors, represent the bactertioplankton communities found there.
Charlotte’s three smaller pieces were inspired by microscopic slides of water collected at an arctic research station located on the southeast shore of Toolik Lake.
“Surrounded by Alaska’s beautiful nature, I have a constant source of inspiration for my artwork, which I call “playing with color’”. I use snippets from magazines, catalogs, etc. and use them much as an artist uses paint or a quilter uses fabric. Living off the grid in a small cabin, limitations of workspace and energy consumption have steered me toward this simple pastime which only requires scissors, glue sticks, paper — and imagination. The pieces often seem to make themselves, using me as a guide.”
“Witnessing the surprise visit of a caribou herd along the Elliott Highway in 2019 led me to think about their home on the arctic tundra. Its vastness, remoteness and stark beauty filled my imagination. This picture doesn’t represent an actual scene: it’s more of a combination of the types of landscape that make up the wildlife refuges that I see in the distance each day: the snow-covered mountain peaks, the lower tree-covered hills, the valleys and flats, the rivers, and the plant life that makes the most wonderful palette of early fall colors.”
Megan Perra and Caitlin Scarano
Poet Caitlin Scarano and the visual artist Megan Perra have spent the past year and a half creating works that detail the cyclical lives of the caribou that calve in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These pieces are an ode to the herd’s time in the Brooks Range, where they winter in the windswept slopes and valleys whose shallow snow makes food more accessible. It is in these mountains where the caribou are more likely to encounter wolves, who have been estimated to consume 5–7% of the population.
Even the Wind
The caribou to the wolf
Fall rusts the tundra
like a shipwreck. Vibrations of other bands
of caribou rise from the earth
into my body, a metronome.
You cut through north slope drainages, try
to find me alone. In winter,
my eyes change from gold
to blue, I hear the howls
from the inside
of my body out. Try to absorb
the sparse light of the tundra night
where ravens wrap
themselves in scraps of dark.
Here, snow swallows
every sound. We’ll meet on the edge
of a boning knife winter. Parallel lives,
the hunter and the hunted. I am just one
in a storm and stress
of antlers. Pawing for lichen and moss.
They run, I run. Your pack
dots in the narrowing
distance. Like wraiths, shadow
palimpsests, they follow in the tracks
you’ve made. This season
will try to pick us
clean. Winnow our bodies to raven-wracked
rib cages among the drifts and dwarf
willows. Here, even the wind
has teeth and I am thriving, perhaps
dying. The tundra is empty,
the tundra is full.
Both can be true. All of it can be true.
Robin Farmer is Alaskan born and raised. Her creativity has been nurtured by Alaska’s landscapes throughout her life. Initially drawn to watercolor’s expressive spontaneity and stubbornness, she has continued to deepen her relationship with that medium by following her inspiration throughout the state.
“Moss Campion is one of my favorite wildflowers that grows in rocky alpine areas. At first glance, their environment can look like nothing but barren rocky ground, but if you look more closely at the landscape you’ll see all these beautiful details start unfold, and discover these dense lumps of green with dozens of tiny brilliant pink flowers right under your nose.”
“A few summers ago I was meandering up a river with a friend in mid-July through ankle-deep current, and I remember being struck by the warmth and clarity of the turquoise water, and the brightness of the smooth rocks glowing in the sun under the surface.”
Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs in Alaska, using “Art in the Arctic” posts from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Facebook page (visit their page for the full 2021 artist lineup).
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.