October 1-17, 1998
Diane Farris Gallery, Vancouver
Flying keeps painter grounded
By Erling Friis-Baastad, ATLIN
Judith Currelly has just discovered that her upcoming show, Arctic/Arctos at the Diane Farris Gallery in Vancouver, was set to open earlier than she thought.
As she is being interviewed, the painter is also getting used to the fact she will be leaving Atlin for the south in a few days. The impending departure threatens to be wrenching, especially so, because she will spend the winter working in her Victoria studio and won’t see Atlin again until spring.
“Atlin is home,” she declares.
As well, this autumn’s trip out was going to be a prolonged tear rather than a quick break: Her beloved Supercruiser CF-PRY was in the shop for repairs, so she was going to be driving south rather than flying. With that long road trip ahead of her the artist reminisces about her first journey north.
She had just completed five years of study at the Ontario College of Art, and figured it was high time the “somewhat sheltered Ontario farm girl” got a glimpse of the West Coast. That was back in the early ‘70s, when many young urbanites were ‘getting back to the land,’ and some Ontario friends were thinking of buying a cabin on Frances Lake in the Yukon. They suggested Judith hop on up to the territory and take a look at their potential investment.
After visiting the coast, Currelly boarded a bus in Prince Rupert. From Watson Lake she hitched to Frances Lake, and there, of course, became “enthralled by the North.” Her future course was set, though she didn’t realize that fully at the time. As she says, she spent her first winter in the North at the cabin alone with two dogs, “just to get it out of my system.”
Not surprisingly, the experience had the opposite effect, and the next year found her building a cabin even further north, on the Yukon/NWT border.
Accomplishment followed accomplishment. The second cabin was located on a small lake that could only be reached by air. If she had to pay someone to fly her in and out regularly, she realized it would soon cost a fortune. So, she returned to Ontario, studied for her private pilot’s licence, bought a small plane and then earned her commercial licence, “just so I would know more”.
“It never would have occurred to me in Ontario to fly. (But) you live someplace like this and you meet people who fly and you see how it’s done and you say, ‘I can do that.’”
Up to then, she had never owned a vehicle. She was 26 when she bought her first plane. Her first car, a truck actually, came into her life two years later. Currelly has flown “over every inch of the Yukon,” and over much of the High Arctic from Herschel Island to Coppermine, to Ellesmere Island and along the coast of Baffin Island.
How much does she think all this flying has affected her art? “Oh, a tremendous amount!”
Obviously, what she saw from the air would find its way into her paintings — the landscape, the animals — but the effect of spending so much time in the air is many-layered and far more complex than that. First of all, she stresses, learning to fly, studying for it, demanded that she use a completely different part of her brain than painting does.
She had to learn to deal “with the immediacy of flying — you can’t be up in the air daydreaming or trying to figure out some philosophical problem if you’ve got to figure out your gas and the wind”.
“The thousands and thousands of hours that I’ve flown have helped mould who I am, and that must come out in my work.”
She notes that flying in the Yukon and northern B.C. is far different than flying in Ontario. In the North, one flies through the land; the mountains are often to port and starboard rather than below a plane.
“You’re so much in touch with what’s going on between the earth and the clouds,” she says. “You’re not in some ivory box floating along. For me, it’s a major expansion of my universe.”
In Currelly’s paintings, as in her flying life, so much of what is going on between earth and sky is animal life. Birds, caribou and bears are especially prevalent in her work, though the animals that appear via her hand are much different than the animals that usually show up in wilderness paintings. She is not a “wildlife artist.” Her creatures are independent of the artist, not posed, not staged. It’s as if the artist herself is merely tolerated. It’s the animals and the landscape — and, perhaps their Creator — that are in charge of these surfaces.
Only rarely, as in the lower-centre panel of the 1995 Totem, do we ever get glimpses of animal eyes — in this case, wide (frightened?) caribou eyes. By usually hiding or avoiding animal eyes Currelly tends to discourage our retreat into comforting and controlling anthropomorphism.
“I grew up on a farm, but all our land was game preserve. I grew up in an environment where hunting was strictly taboo,” she says.
Since then she has hunted her share of winter meat, and was once a partner in an outfitting business. But while she enjoyed the outdoors, the cabins and horses, she couldn’t make peace with trophy hunting. She avoids farmed meat as much as possible. “There’s nothing in my mind more strange than the concept of farming animals and then killing them.
“Human beings have this strange kind of connection with animals. Sometimes it’s destructive and sometimes it’s spiritual and often it’s trying to control them, but a part of us is recognizing we need them around.”
By way of an example of our conflicted relationship with animals, she recalls her years flying for Renewable Resources, spotting grizzlies and then, being there when they were drugged and collared.
“I’ve sat there with this huge grizzly bear’s head on my knee — this curly hair, your hand in his fur, how he smells, or she; often it’s a female. She’s lying there with her tongue out and eyes open. She’s completely immobilized for us — and this is all for research. That animal is killed twice, is terrorized.”
One immediately thinks of her oil on wood “Dancing Bear” (1990), and realizes that unintentionally, perhaps, she is giving something back to the creatures whose lives she helped disrupt for science. Her dancing bear is oblivious to human presence. The creature isn’t stylized for our titillation and consumption. In fact, her paintings are not created to sell, to meet current market appetites, but are created to reach a place of clarity in the artist’s own mind and soul… a function more akin to that of prehistoric petroglyphs than to that contemporary facile consumer item, “the wildlife painting.”
Diane Farris, who has been showing Currelly’s works for about a decade now, underscores this when she describes Currelly’s work.
“There is so much history, so much of times gone by… And animals are treated on equal footing as humans.”
Where people do appear on the scene in Currelly’s paintings, they are unobtrusive; they appear to have just arrived after a long trek from that more balanced past… Or perhaps from a more hopeful future.
Arctic/Arctos opens Saturday and runs until October 17. The Diane Farris Gallery is located at 1565 West 7th Ave. in Vancouver. The gallery can be reached at (604) 737-2629. If you’re in the city, the show is well worth a visit. For that matter, it’s a good reason to visit Vancouver in October in the first place.
Erling Friis-Baastad, Yukon News
Published by Media North Limited