Te Arctic Circle – a VERY brief recap

November 7, 2012 § Leave a comment


I just returned from The Arctic Circle, a 16-day research residency to the high arctic with a diverse group of 26 artists, musicians, composers, poets, writers, and scientists representing countries on four continents. I became increasingly interested in this expedition when I discovered that Spitsbergen is international territory belonging to no one – a true “Terra Nullius.” This idea of a No Man’s Land had direct implications on my work, which tends to explore the concept of place via alienation, assimilation and exploitation. I was also drawn to the opportunity to experiment with my creative process. In my case, this meant working outside the studio. Working without walls was liberating – it permitted searching for direction rather than trusting a familiar one. It forced me to work in alternative ways and with media that I am less acquainted with. I am not yet completely sure what the results are but am sure to discover that in the coming months as I sift through the hundreds of photographs and hours of audio and video.

The trip started in Longyearbyen (which boasts the world’s northernmost post office), on the archipelago of Spitsbergen. From there we boarded an ice-class tall ship and sailed up the west coast beyond 80° North via the Arctic Ocean anchoring in sheltered fjords for one to two day working excursions on land. Some days entailed hiking a few miles to glaciers or inland lakes over snow-covered land devoid of any vegetation while others were spent hunting for house-sized icebergs in a Zodiac. Many of the sites we visited were protected by law due to their cultural significance and therefore could not be touched. Decades old whaling stations, trapper’s cabins and even the graves of whalers long past are preserved with stunning and often grisly detail due to the cold climate and lack of humidity. Because Polar Bears are cunning hunters and a permanent resident among these islands, three armed guides became constant companions. This was understood when midway through the trip we encountered the elusive Ice Bjorn feasting on a walrus. Safety was not all our guides provided, they were also well versed in the history and culture of the area and were always eager to help us get where we needed to be in order to carry out a project.


Working in a landscape as wild and pristine as the arctic is a sublime experience for sure. However, one of the most profound days of the trip came when we visited Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal town that was home to 1,200 inhabitants at its peak. A twenty-foot bust of Stalin presides over the town square, which is carpeted with grass imported from Siberia. Pyramiden is silent – frozen as it was in 1998 when the Russian government ordered it closed due to finances. Former residents were given one week to hastily pack and evacuate, leaving behind clothing, furniture, papers and the world’s northernmost Red October grand piano. Everything is left in place, revealing the final moments of a community that, according to photographs left behind, lived a full and culturally diverse life in a very remote and hostile part of the world. I am working to return to Pyramiden in the coming year to continue working on a series of works that I only had a chance to sketch out in the seven hours I was there.


The arctic landscape struck me as truly mesmerizing at first. I found myself feeling lost and mindless during the first few days – I couldn’t think straight or take a decent photo. I spent evenings pouring over the day’s work and recall thinking,  “What am I doing? These are weak images.” It took me a few days to adjust to the scale – or lack thereof – and sheer majesty of the place. I had to consciously remind myself to slow down, focus and be present. Once the numbness wore off I found a rhythm and began working on a project that involved planting a flag at every location we visited in an effort to lay claim to a land that is not claimable. This project will be pieced together over the next 12-18 months as a long-form, three-channel video, a series of large-format photographs and fabricated objects.


The Arctic Circle was a mind-blowing experience. Living on a ship for over two weeks voids any hope for privacy or quiet reflection but it does create a fertile ground for collaboration. We were literally on top of each other the entire time and it was natural to be in each other’s personal and professional business. Many of us took interest in one another’s projects and the sharing of gear, knowledge, and ideas became commonplace. I had planned on letting my work evolve on this expedition and that was accomplished. What I didn’t plan for was the way in which my thinking has changed on numerous levels. My creative process has certainly been altered, as has the way I think about space, the environment, my relationship to history and the importance of preserving culture. In whole, this experience has taught me to rethink my studio practice.


Rock On, Motor City!

July 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

In June, 2012, I was asked to curate an exhibition in Detroit (my future home) for Billboard Art Project, a non-profit that buys time on LED billboards in blocks ranging from 24 hours to 0ne month. My answer was Cheap Coffee & Beef Jerky, a collection of images from every city the Billboard Art Project has touched so far. Billboard Art Project’s main goal is to re-purpose advertising venues into roadside galleries, and since its inception, BAP has hosted exhibitions in over a dozen cities across the U.S. as well as conducted residency workshops with artists working in audio and visual art. This is a young organization that is expanding its scope scale of projects and one that I recommend keeping an eye on. Here is a video of an interview about Cheap Coffee & Beef Jerky:

The Arctic Circle is getting near

June 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Arctic Circle expedition is nearing – only 8 weeks until we set sail for Svalbard at 80 degrees north. I recently purchased the most expensive airplane ticket of my life and I am not even traveling first class (my condolences to anyone doing business in Norway). It is a 36 hour trip from Detroit to Longyearbyen, Norway, which includes an overnight stay in Oslo before I catch the last leg of the trip before boarding the boat that will serve as my home for three weeks . Trying to figure out how to arrive on the specific day taking onto consideration time zones, international date lines etc. has been an engineering feat. To prepare myself for the trip I have been watching Lilyhammer, a TV series, starring Steven Van Zandt (guitarist from the E Street Band), about a mobster who enters the witness protection program and asks to be relocated in Lillehammer, Norway, only to find himself introducing the lucrative antics of mob life to the local population. The point is not the show itself , which is mediocre at best,  but it has given me a visual of what to expect – namely a lot of snow and low temperatures. Next on the agenda, arctic clothing – very warm and waterproof clothing, and maybe a really good deodorant. Three weeks on a small boat makes me think I will need it, and I’m sure the crew will appreciate it. Maybe I should also buy an old Christmas sweater, everyone on Lilyhammer wears one….

A very special thank you  to all of you who have contributed to my Arctic Circle project via my USA Projects page – Your support is helping me get closer making this expedition a reality.

Valerie Castle, Richmond, VA
Gibson Family, Richmond, VA
Jeffrey Kenoff, Bedford, NY
Aris Georgiades, Stoughton, WI
Rachele Riley, Philadelphia, PA
Blair & Rob Metcalf, Nashville, TN
Gudrun Hupfauer, Sorrento, B.C.
Dava Wisenant, Los Angeles, CA
Fran Holstrom, Brooklyn, NY
Vagner Whitehead, Ferndale, MI
Kevin Free, Savannah, GA
Taylor Baldwin, Richmond, VA

I am still several thousand dollars away from meeting my goal so keep spreading the word. Your contributions are rewarded  with original limited edition works of art based on my arctic research upon my return.

To make a tax-deductible contribution please visit my USA Projects page at: http://www.usaprojects.org/project/from_here_to_there_the_arctic.

The Arctic Or Bust: Part 2

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

To learn more about my project please visit my project page here:
From Here To There: The Arctic

I wrote a bit about the arctic circle residency I have been invited on in a previous post. As anyone can probably imagine, participating in an endeavor of this magnitude requires much preparation and comes at great expense. In addition to residency fees – which pay for things like the boat and crew, food, lodging in Norway, evacuation insurance, doctors, security, etc. – I also have to consider travel to and from Norway, shipping and equipment, and of course clothing to keep me warm in October at 80 degrees north. Being independently wealthy would be great right about now. However, that not being the case I have initiated a public fund-raising campaign via USA Projects, a non-profit artists advocacy group.

This is not a shameless attempt to ask for money. Quite the opposite. In fact, seeking funding is one of the most difficult things to do as an independent artist. This is why I have decided to do just that through USA Projects. Because USA Projects is a non-profit organization, all contributions are tax-deductible. In addition, I have established a series of unique “rewards” for supporters based on their donation level. So you get something in return.

Please check out my project page and tell all your friends. This is a chance to collaborate in creative research and get something back for it.

Thanks everyone.


Help me get to the Arctic Circle

May 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am starting a crowd sourcing campaign to raise money to pay for a residency to the arctic circle in the fall of 2012. This effort will be done via USA Projects, a project site for artists administered by non-profit USA Artists. The great thing about USA Projects is that all the artists participating have been vetted based on their past accolades and that means that there are some really great projects to get involved in.

My project, From Here To There, will be launching this Friday, June 1, so tell all your friends and stay tuned for further information about how to be a part of the ultimate research expedition.

The Arctic Circle or Bust

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

image courtesy The Farm Inc. (The Arctic Circle program)

The Arctic Circle is an artist and scientist-led collaborative research mission to the high arctic aboard an ice-class expedition vessel. This expedition requires us to sail the waters of the Svalbard archipelago, residing at around 80 degrees north. My creative research plan for this mission is to push the current boundaries in my work by focusing on and communicating the extreme subtleties of a grand frozen desert devoid of any obvious movement or detail. This will be realized via a series of planned and spontaneous projects employing photography, video and Morse code. The added benefits of this mission include working next to scientists, learning new methods to conduct research, and accumulating material and data for a series of sculptures and installations to be created upon my return.

I grew up in some very remote areas of Canada where thick colorful forests teaming with life and six feet of snow in the winter were common. When I reached high school, my family moved us to the Pacific Northwest where I developed a deeper appreciation for the natural environment. While I was in college wanderlust and curiosity took me cross-country several times by car through the American southwest – I was instantly captivated by the honesty and solitude of the desert. This was an environment that felt simultaneously foreign yet familiar to me. The vast emptiness of the desert deeply affected my perception of light and scale. The blood-red sunsets punctuated by dust clouds kicked up by gusting winds appeared miniature in a landscape that stretched for hundreds of unobstructed miles. The desert made me feel insignificant and much of what I experienced here would later resurface in my work as abstracted and hybridized forms. When I heard about The Arctic Circle research residency, I dropped everything I was working on to get on board. The arctic struck me as another kind of desert that combined something familiar with a completely foreign and hostile environment. This is a place where my work can evolve.

My current work combines physical objects with light. I treat light as a “material” that can be used to occupy space with virtually nothing. Because light lacks any tangible properties it relies on the presence of shadow – light playing against darkness – to make its presence known. Until now light has played a mostly aesthetic and somewhat of a supporting role in my work due to lacking the physicality of conventional materials such as wood, or steel. This expedition is an opportunity to push light as a discreet physical “material,” freeing it from aesthetic responsibility.

The arctic is the logical place for this research to take place; its frozen silence is broken only by the amount and quality of light present. With the Aurora Borealis caused by the violent collision of charged particles in the atmosphere and the Polar night which lasts for more than 24 hours each day during the winter months, the arctic possesses the “material” I need to push the potential of light in my work. Among the projects I have planned is to document the passing of time by documenting the quality of light reflecting off the snow on the eve of the Polar night every hour for 24 hours. My theory suggests that the captured images will reveal very delicate changes in texture, shade and hue while revealing only very slight color changes between frames. In relation to this project is a series of video “portraits” based on the idea that movement seen in our immediate environment is a result of the wind blowing branches, dust, trash and other debris in the landscape. With the absence of these elements in the arctic, I am curious as to the level of movement that can be detected visually. These “portraits” will aim to reveal the featurelessness of the arctic while drawing attention to the isolation and relative absence of movement in the landscape. I imagine these video portraits will appear almost as still photographs when presented, revealing very little, if any, movement while also recording the passing of time. Light is also used in some cases to communicate in short flashing bursts. I am curious about communicating silently across long distances with the use of Morse code transmitted via signal lamp.

The Arctic Circle residency is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collaborate with artists and scientists and push the boundaries of my work in a unique environment. With great opportunity comes great responsibility and, of course, great cost. I hope that you recognize the value of this residency, the impact it will have on my work, and are compelled to be a part of it. A fundraising effort will be launched via USA Projects on June 1, 2012. In return, I have established a unique set of perks, some of which represent actual research objects that will ultimately be incorporated into an exhibition reflecting the work carried out in the arctic. I thank you in advance for your interest in my project and look forward to carrying out this mission with your financial support.

For more information about The Arctic Circle expedition please visit:


August 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Re-entry isn’t so much rough as it is indiscriminate. It’s good to be home and though I have only been home for a few days it seems like I never even left. The routines so familiar before I left for The Bemis have ruthlessly reclaimed their place, overwhelming and erasing most of the muscle memories formed over the past three months. Must….. Resist….. Thank god for sketch books. There have, however, been a few new developments. I have returned to find that a number of rabbits have discovered and made a home in my studio. This is evidenced by more than enough droppings, and piles of fiberglass insulation in various corners of the studio. I wasn’t even aware that the studio was insulated; it’s hot as hell in the summer and cold as a witches, you know, in the winter. Besides there are holes allowing passage to the elements all around. The good thing about having rabbits in the studio is that they take care of the cave crickets. So either way I win, or lose, I’m not sure which. I’ve got to find a new studio, pronto. Another observation is that despite my loathing for yard work, I am damn good at it. We had hired someone to cut our lawn all summer and it currently looks like s%#t. On another, more disturbing note, I still can’t shake the image of Divine’s last scene in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.” Thanks a lot, Mia. I owe you one.

Life at The Bemis is a bit of a fantasy. Wait, let me rephrase that. Life at The Bemis is an absolute fantasy. For three months one can work or play as much or as little as possible. Go to bed when one wants, wake when one wants, and most importantly, work when one wants. On the outside things are a little different, as I mentioned in a previous post. Life on the inside is so socially immersive, and at times insular,  that one may actually forget what life is actually like on the outside. The truth is, in general things move along very slowly with little or no change. That being said, I have a little advice for the residents still living the fantasy. To Lisa, I still don’t care, and neither should you. Don’t forget to call Mike. Nathanial, I hate to say it but unemployment is still at an all-time high. Sharpen your canines, you may need to make use of them soon.  Mia, don’t lose sight of what you deem important in your work. While others may not realize how much soul is in your work, but they will notice if it’s not there at all. John, I love the honesty in your drawings, and furthermore, your absolute love for  awkward situations. But there are some REALLY messed up people out here, even more messed up than you (you know what I mean.) I’ve encountered many since I left and every time I do I wonder “What would John say in this situation?” April, secure another residency. As a recent Grad you’ll soon realize that fantasy is better than reality. Peter, pour all that pent up energy into your paintings. It may be a while before you get another chance like this, and you only have 8-10 pints of blood to work with. Oh, make another trip to the Quart House too. Tim, go to the Quart House with Peter, and lay off Julia Childs’ chicken. That amount of butter will kill you, but man, it’s good. Sophie, a return trip to the Alpine Inn (video here) is a must, despite its gnarliness. And keep working on that Omaha comparison scale, it may come in handy when you return to the outside world. However, I’m not sure where Providence resides on the scale. Oh yeah, make your bed. Lucrecia, what can I say? I know there’s a wild bone in there somewhere. I regret to have not been around long enough to help find it. To all those on the third floor – get some paint on those new floors, those studios need character and it’s up to you to supply it.


Menu: Penne with home made pesto, arugula salad with red onions and lemon juice dressing (sans e.Coli,) artisan bread with balsamic and olive oil