Last year I started reading about the explorations of Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company. In 1789 this Scottish fur trader followed a great northern river to its mouth. He left Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska and headed north in a birch bark canoe into unknown territory, hoping to find a route to the Pacific. After thirteen hundred miles on the river that now bears his name, he arrived at the Arctic Ocean.
This summer we’re going to do the same trip. We’re doing it in a craft I’ve designed myself — a sort of floating easel. It’s an outboard-powered flat-bottomed riverboat of wood and fiberglass, a liveaboard with a built-in painting station. It may be folly. Down this river there’s a few grizzlies, a few million mosquitoes, and maybe a few paintings.
The topographical maps for this trip when laid end to end stretch from our living room through the dining room and into the kitchen. I’ve identified what I think may be two hundred possible painting sites and listed them by name: “Mouth of Rabbitskin Creek” etc. — sort of artistic milestones to look forward to. The built-in easel on the bow is made from an old cutlery cabinet and customized to take small stretched canvasses. These, while bulky, are stored in such a way as to provide extra flotation should we get swamped. Kit and provisioning are gradually taking shape; storage, fuel, accommodation, first aid. My dog Emily will be perhaps the first Airedale down the Mackenzie. About thirty days on the river — there and back. It’ll be tight.
No one knows whether the paintings will be any good, nobody ever does, but if past experience is any guide, with this sort of planning and anticipation, they just might be okay.
PS: “Trifles make the sum of life.” (Charles Dickens)
Esoterica: Floating Easels. Sisley, Monet, and others found a boat to be an ideal spot for painting. Fishermen and others who sit in boats for long periods tend to have level readings on electroencephalograms. There is historic document for boats doing something for the creative soul. Oliver Gogarty, the Irish writer, fished without hooks so that he might think properly.
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
River of Joy and Darkness
by Steve Bloom UK
I remember travelling up Borneo’s Sekonya River with my cameras to photograph orangutans. I can still remember the smell of the clean air and the soft light in the morning. Sadly, only days after I left, the area was devastated by forest fires and the destruction to wildlife was horrendous. I never saw the inferno which followed, but heard stories about a bleak and charred landscape — not the warm and gentle forest which I remember. It made me realise how transient everything is, and how important it is for me, as a photographer, to waste no time in photographing what I see and feel.
In December I will be in Antarctica, and Ted Cheesman, who is organising the trip for me, sent me the following quote which I think is very appropriate:
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.” (Apsley Cherry-Garrard, from The Worst Journey in the World)
by Corinne McIntyre, Ocean Point/East Boothbay, Maine, USA
I tuck fabric softener (yes the kind you put in your dryer) into my collar when I paint outside, the black flies and mosquitoes won’t come near me. I used to tuck leaves of the citronella plant into the brim of my hat… looking like an apparition from Mars I might add. The night before last and again yesterday morning I went out to paint along the shore. The seaweed attracts bugs and the black flies and a few mosquitoes hovered, but guess what… it works!… so take a small box of fabric softener along with you.
by Verro Ward, Recife, Brasil
Plein air is largely a romantic notion based on its early practitioners, the Barbizon school and a few of the impressionists. It has been popularized in the twentieth century as a “back to basics” approach and has developed into a way for artists to be seen and sometimes sell works on location to passers-by. You mention a two-step method. I have found this idea valuable. I do rather quick pastel outlines on location, fix them, and finish in oil in the studio. I am interested in the relative shapes of things as my line finds them, not so much in the world as it is, and my work benefits from bringing it back to the studio for consideration, adding of foreign elements, and painting in colors that have little or no relation to reality.
by Ifthikar Cader, Colombo, Siri Lanka
The expedition down the Mackenzie for 30 days sounds great, unless it’s at the expense of my twice weekly letters! Have a nice trip and here’s wishing you many happy opportunities.
(RG note) Some letters will be prepared in advance. Some we may be able to get out via satellite. My assistant will look after selecting the material for these clickbacks.
by Chrystos Minot, Boulder, Colorado, USA
“The way you see people is the way you treat them and the way you treat them is the way they become.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
“You must look within for value, but must look beyond for perspective.” (Denis Waitley)
“It is only as we develop others that we permanently succeed.” (Harvey S. Firestone)
by Wing Leung, Hong Kong
You mention naming paintings before you go on trips. What’s going on here?
(RG note) It’s a creative process that gives a different spin to travelwork. I’m a map kind of guy. I like to pour over them before trips. It gives me an orientation and a preparedness for the topography and the potential. Furthermore, titles have always been very important to me, not only in connecting with the collector, but in completing the circle in a creative way. A way or a path can be a series of titles. The titles slow me down and help me to appreciate the romance, the history, the environs. At the same time it’s important not to lock in to using those titles. Often, something altogether better will come up.
I take it that the effort you put in to preparation is in some way related to the results. How do you make this work and what are the problems?
(RG note) When I’m installing a bilge pump in my boat I’m thinking of the potential of the whole trip. Every minor job is a further commitment toward the major goal. The brain is at work, anticipating, scheming, at all times, even in sleep. The main problems are in not anticipating all the problems and the frustration of not being able to turn some problems into opportunities.
by Nora Clarke
In the interest of storage space on this trip, have you considered using canvases glued to 1/8th plywood or painting on canvas taped to a board and then rolled up when dry (I learned this method at a Louise Woodward course in France)
(RG note) To me, wooden panels are the best when backpacking or when space is limited. On the Mackenzie trip I’ve built in the luxury of stretched canvas. Also, for some reason, I’ve gone off panels for a while, but it could come back.
What to do
My problem is that I love to paint plein air and can hardly paint from photos. When I have a photo in front of me I feel lost and sort of stuck. But I don’t have a lot of opportunities to go out often, so sometimes I take photos. Should I paint from memory or go back to the place now and then to check the details? Should I make things up? For example, add trees or other stuff or boats, people?
(RG note) Here’s a happy path to your creative growth. Paint from life, paint from excellent reference that you get yourself, and paint from your imagination. All three. Mix and match these activities and learn to combine them in single works. You will find style and personal joy. You will not be so at a loss on a rainy day.
A pebble in a mountain stream
by Victor Morgan, UK
I shall be with you in spirit. My sub aqua diving and water skiing and boating days are long gone in the distant past. Now in the winter of my life I read with delight your letter of intended adventure. Too late for a chance that a few pounds could be made from my art. Travel and far off lands will come only in the description and vision from your letters. You have the gifted talent which sustains your travel. Sharing those experiences and places I will never visit but enjoy reading about. Take the dog. Brings to mind my own sad loss of my faithful Bull terrier, Ben. Fourteen years and sadly passed away. Thoughts go back to times when young and free and if I had not done this or that. But then in thought he can’t come back. You can never go back in time or body — only in the memory of one’s own mind. Live then for today. Man is like a pebble in a mountain stream. We rub briefly on our journey to the sea.
The horse’s mouth
by Gerald Lui, Ft. McMurray, NWT, Canada
Watch out for horse flies. They are black and of a size a little smaller than your thumb. When they bite on horses, the pain can be so intense that it causes the animals to stand on their hind feet with cries you can hear from two miles away. They say that this is the best moment for viewing the whole set of teeth of a horse. These black flies can take a trunk of meat from live animals in one single bite.
Mackenzie River trip statistics
by Bill and Carol Hogan
Where are you leaving from and when will you be going? 1300 miles each way — that’s quite an undertaking — You’ll be going so fast: 86 miles a day — when will you be able to paint? It’s a big river too, currents and eddies to deal with, I wish you luck, so it’s you and Emily?
(RG note) Leaving near Ft. Providence, NWT approximately August 1, 2000. Destination Tuktoyaktuk. Alexander Mackenzie actually averaged 100 miles per day going downstream, 30 per day back up. This in a canoe that had to be repaired every night, disagreeable and deserting native guides, fearful canoemen who did not know what lay in wait for them around the next bend. In my case agreeable fellow travellers will join and leave by air when they are properly mosquitoed. Emily all the way. Rapids on this river not such a problem. With a 2 to 4 knot current it’s possible to drift and paint. Long hours of light in summer.
I wish to thank everybody who wrote to wish us bon voyage.