Surveying the Surrealism of Northern Landscape

Surveying the Surrealism of Northern Landscapes

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The dark and magical influences in artist Rosemary Scanlon's work

This story originally ran in the Fall 2014 (V8I3) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.


The beauty of the land has an intoxicating lure when glancing at Rosemary Scanlon’s work from a distance. The stars are bright and rivers run deep blue. There is a sense of stillness—the kind that comes from living amongst cold winter months.

20140615_Rosemary_Scanlon_GBP_005-imp.jpg  Take a step closer. You might feel as if you’re in a dream. In one painting,a wolf emerges from the trunk of a tree and a man crawls from a manhole in the middle of the boreal forest while a grizzly bear watches nearby. In another, a bison herd tramples across a frozen landscape towards a river during spring breakup. In the sky, a miniature horse hangs from a string. Comets created from gold iridescent paint burn across the horizon.

  “I’m quite affected by this landscape,” says Scanlon, who ventured north from her hometown of Montreal. “There’s an underlying feeling that’s both dark and magical.

  ”That’s perhaps one of the reasons many people end up staying in the Yukon longer than expected. There is a surrealism in the land that’s difficult to articulate in words. Scanlon’s art plays between fantasy and reality, at times merging the two worlds so deeply it’s disorienting. She’s interested in exploring the concept of place, both in the land and in our minds.

  Scanlon was drawn to the North by stories of its strange beauty. In 2006, she had finished her art degree at Concordia University, in Montreal,where she spent most of her time painting oil portraits. She liked the expressive brush mark and, since she worked on huge canvasses,how she got to use her whole body to paint. But she felt stuck and was having difficulties coming up with new ideas.

  That fall Scanlon arrived in Whitehorse, then she left and returned to Montreal, eventually moving to complete her master’s degree at the Glasgow School of Art. That’s where she started using watercolours and found her mind drifting back to the open northern landscape.

  “I’m interested in pushing my boundaries. I find my ideas when I switch mediums,” she says. “It frees me up.”

  Scanlon’s latest exhibit, The Rose Parade, was featured at the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery. It explored the fine line between fantasy and reality, social rituals, and our perception of place. Although she now works primarily with watercolours, The Rose Parade also featured digital prints, plaster, porcelain, and gold leaf.

  Scanlon says her work progresses when she steps outside of her comfort zone.

  “When you change mediums or move to a new place, boundaries you created for yourself no longer exist,” she says.

bison_pull_1_-imp.jpg  When she was attending school in Scotland, Scanlon was asked to interpret the eclectic Burrell Collection, in Glasgow. The art collection houses everything from Chinese and Islamic art to the work of famous French artists like Rodin and Degas. She was fascinated with the medieval tapestries. The works are densely packed with mythological creatures, flora, and fauna. The works have no foreground or background, but still manage to tell a powerful story, she explains. In The Rose Parade, Scanlon has updated the tapestries by switching the traditional mille-fleur with the boreal forest and using contemporary northern hunting scenes instead of historical ones.

  “My work is inspired by formal, visual language from different times in art history, and then I’ll bring my own northern imagery to that structure,” she explains.

"IT'S A BALANCE: TRYING TO SHOW THE BEAUTY, BUT HAVING A LAYER OF NARRATIVE; BEING AWARE THE YUKON IS MORE THAN MOUNTAINS AND NORTHERN LIGHTS."

  In her painting, Carstacks, for example, Scanlon plays with the crucifixion scene by piling old cars on top of each other on three poles. She sees vehicles as an integral part of the northern experience: from long road trips from southern Canada, to cars crashed in the ditch during a winter freeze.

nameoftherose_1_-imp.jpg  Although the Yukon’s natural landscape is stunning on the surface, Scanlon knows there is another world underneath. She talks about cutting through the forest next to Whitehorse’s F.H. Collins Secondary School,on her way to the Millennium Trail that hugs the Yukon River. On the ground she found frozen malt containers, cigarette butts, and empty beer cans. Scanlon saw more than just trash. She saw a coming-of-age story.

  “That was just as interesting to me as the beautiful landscape,” she says. “It’s a balance:trying to show the beauty, but having a layer of narrative; being aware the Yukon is more than mountains and northern lights.”

  Scanlon can’t remember a specific time when she decided she would pursue art. She grew up in a city and considered herself an introvert.

  “I’m a pretty indecisive person,” she says.“I can’t decide on an ice cream flavour at the store. I feel like you don’t really make the big decisions in life—you just start doing them.”

  She thinks it’s easy for early-career artists to underestimate how long it takes to become established. When she moved back to the Yukon, in 2010, she worked for months establishing a body of work big enough for a show.She set it up at a coffee shop in Whitehorse and only sold one piece. She couldn’t help but be disappointed.

manhole-imp.jpg  “It’s just part of becoming an artist,” she says. “It takes a long time. You just have to keep making work.”

  It seems Scanlon is an artist who lets her subconscious drive much of her art. As Martha Graham, pioneer of modern dance,famously said, it’s the artist’s job to “keep the channel open” and “be aware to the urges that motivate you.”

  Although Scanlon is told often her work has a dark tone, it’s not a quality she strives for or is always aware of. When she was attending a residency at the Banff Centre last fall, her mentors were urging her to push the “dark and weird” qualities further. That made her uncomfortable. She thinks the surprising parts of your work should come naturally;they shouldn’t be forced.

  Scanlon does believe the darker and lighter side of her work can co-exist. That’s probably one reason the North is a constant source of inspiration. It’s her experiences in the Yukon,she says, that have given her more of a voice as an artist.

  “I like to be away from the art world. I like to go out and do a residency for a month, then be able to come back here and work away from all that,” she says. “It lets me breath and think—to do my own thing.” Y


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