The exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum comprises photos and paintings from the most endangered ecosystem on the planet.
‘Imaging the Arctic’: powerful, lonely, endangered vistas - Published in Seattle Times, January 30, 2015
Ice dominates nearly every picture in “Imaging the Arctic”, the smart, engaging exhibition now at the Nordic Heritage Museum. No wonder; we’re looking at Greenland, which is almost completely frozen over, along with much of the surrounding sea. But appearances can be deceptive. At the show’s outset are satellite photos illustrating the recent, drastic shrinking of the ice pack: this polar landscape, and the people and animals that depend on it, is one of the most threatened on earth.
Perhaps that background is why I found Tiina Itkonen’s spectacular, large-format photograph of a frozen arctic cemetery (“Qaanaaq Graveyard”) so poignant. In the photo, several dozen identical white crosses, many hung with dried-up wreathes, frame a bay and mountain view of immense, epic emptiness. But the sculptural gray solitude that gives the picture its drama is something that is literally melting away; if current trends continue, oil tankers and even cruise ships may replace the icebergs on what is currently such a remote horizon.
The sharp-focus photos of the Helsinki-based Itkonen, whose powerful images of artic villages, peoples, and landscapes have both cinematic sweep and carefully-observed detail, are interspersed with the more modest watercolors of Seattle artist Maria Coryell-Martin, an intrepid traveler whose field sketches are made on location, then worked up into larger paintings in the venerable tradition of expedition artists going back to Darwin. Her strongest pieces capture some of the same sense of super-human scale and icy strangeness, but with a restrained, almost monochromatic palette, depicted with a handful of well-chosen washes and shapes. She is better at machines and landscapes than people and animals, but her work has an earnestness to go with her ability to work almost anywhere (her sketch kit is part of the show). Water seems the ideal medium to depict what is in mostly water in its various forms: icebergs, ice sheets, snow, and sky, and she accomplishes a lot with a little.
The show was organized by University of Washington polar researcher Dr. Kristin Laidre and painter Coryell-Martin; Dr. Laidre’s comments are presented in a crisply-written series of didactic panels, alongside a sampling of her scientific instruments and specimens – a polar bear skin and skull; the tracking collars for marine mammals. A particularly amusing and enlightening collaboration has her teaming with young Seattle cartoonist Owen Curtsinger, whose wall of graphic-novel style panels explore the mysteries of the narwal tusk, next to both a tusk cast and a life-sized watercolor of a tusk. The strip, “Myths of the Tusk”, summarizes the various theories as to what possible function the unicorn-like growth, up to 9-feet long, might serve for the elusive and northerly whale. The current consensus: it’s about sex.