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.
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.
The summit is dotted with Inuksuit, stone constructions that mark trails and caches of food for travelers. More poetically, Inuksuit in the shape of doors or windows were positioned with the opening faced toward home, so that Inuit hunters, lonely for family and friends, could sit in the window and transport themselves mentally to their loved ones.*
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
*”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.