What do you tell them, when they ask you? That when you go home, you live inside a painting? That when you approach, the endless peaks appear as if from a dream, their contours glowing into horizon, ridges like teeth, snowless valleys carving rivers into the earth? That every time you press your face, your lens, to the window, trying so hard to catch it? That feeling?
Earlier this winter, I stopped through my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, for a few weeks. I did a number of things while there – visited family, edited and launched some new bodies of work, fundraised for a new project (more on that later), skied, prepared for Antarctica, and visited my brother in Fairbanks.
It was there, in Fairbanks – at the Museum of the North, on the university’s campus – that I first laid eyes on an original painting by Rockwell Kent. I was drawn to it as if by magnetic force – the color, the richness, the way the canvas breathed forth the peculiarities of Arctic light that can only so fleetingly be glimpsed. He caught it – that uncatchable thing. I’d seen reprints of his work, read his books, even – but seeing the work in real life was another story.
The painting made me think of a lot of things. The image itself struck me, of course, because of the parallels it drew to my own daily reality (aboard ships in the Polar Regions), but it struck me also because of the color, that luminous quality and color of light. That single painting made me feel, instantly and forevermore, deeply connected to a community of artists and thinkers, past and present, engaged in ideas of North and northernness. The community had always been there, of course, but it took the painting to wake up to it.
It was a turning point. Since then, the more I consider it, the more important that community feels, and it’s everywhere. No matter what you are passionate about, somewhere out there are people who feel the same, who are driven by the same forces. You are not alone.
I’ll tell you this – as whimsical as Kent’s work may appear, it is in many ways astonishingly accurate. After seeing the painting, I saw it everywhere, in the mountains, the fjords, the sunrises.
On the flight home from Fairbanks, descending over Anchorage at dusk, I was suddenly gripped. Shooting in the dark, through the thick layered plastic of a jet window at thousands of feet, I gasped yet again at the vastness of this wilderness I’d grown up with, the Chugach mountains extending as far as the eye could see. Anchorage, when it finally appeared, seemed so inconsequential – a handful of glitter in the deep.
It was a beautiful November – not much snow, but properly cold, and by the time we returned from Fairbanks, the ocean had begun freezing in its myriad of formations. I’d just gotten a brand-new digital camera, and promptly took it to the sea ice to test it out.
The frozen sea of Turnagain Arm, only a few minutes from my childhood home, had been a source of artistic inspiration for as long as I could remember, but that day on the ice was challenging. No snow had fallen on the surface, and the ice was both slippery and brittle. I moved slowly, cautiously, outwards from the shore, while the moon rose above.
This was it: home. I’d been thinking a lot about sea ice, too, and our relationships to it. Here was a new camera, destined to tell these stories. Here was the first thing it saw. Here are the first pictures it took.
While I couldn’t get as far as I would have liked, alone on that new, fragile ice, it was a beginning. A beginning of something new coming, something more connected. I hope to move forward with a greater receptivity, now, to connectivity – of the things, in these polar realms, that draw us here; that shape us, and ultimately unite us.