It’s a dark and cold morning in February and artist Joan Albaugh is heading out the door, flashlight in hand, for one of her daily predawn walks. The objective is to find inspiration for her next painting, but more so the walks serve as a way for ideas to percolate inside her head and to be outside, alone in nature.
“The stillness, the solitude, the excitement of a dawning new day began to permeate my work,” Albaugh wrote in her most recent artist statement.
She has just returned from a place that reflects and magnifies her urge to be alone in nature, the Arctic Circle.
Albaugh didn’t paint during her trip. Instead, she leaned into the two expeditions the group took each day, exploring the frozen tundra. The group would disembark from the ship they were staying on in inflatable zodiacs, once in the morning and once later in the day. It reminded her of the predawn walks she takes on Nantucket. It was a way for her to feel transported into one of her paintings, to be mesmerized by the way the Arctic light wrapped around the landscape.
Albaugh is well-known for her oil paintings of isolated, windowless structures inspired by buildings around the island. Looking deeper into her work, the structures serve only as a supporting cast to the way she depicts light and shadow.
The backgrounds of her paintings are an amalgam of landscapes she comes across on her walks. While we sit in her kitchen, she stresses that she is not a plein-air painter. Just like the backgrounds in her paintings, the houses are not an exact representation of a building but rather a framework for where to begin.
“I like working from photographs. You are always told in art school not to do that. But there is something about looking at a photograph and finding a different life to it that becomes something in your head. I like being inspired by the photograph,” she said.
Albaugh started her house series when she moved to the island in 1994. She has been fortunate enough to make a living from it, but recently she has been searching for something new. Looking for a sea change.
“It’s hard for me to stop when it’s my livelihood. I don’t want to be nostalgic. When I first lived in the East Village people would say, ‘you should have been here before. You missed it.’ The same goes for here,” she said.
She found that sea change on the deck of a sailing vessel in the frigid waters of the Arctic. After her close friend and fellow painter, Sherre Wilson-Liljegren, returned from her 2019 artist residency in the Arctic Circle, Albaugh thought that a trip north was just what she needed to shift her focus and move her work in a different direction.
She originally applied for the 2020 expedition, but the COVID-19 pandemic put that on hold. She was accepted for the 2021 trip but that was canceled as well. Finally, in October 2022 Albaugh set off on her journey.
The program, simply called the Arctic Circle Residency, was started in 2009 and brings together artists and scientists of different disciplines to explore the high-Arctic Svalbard Archipelago on the barquentine sailing vessel SV Antigua. There were 29 people on her expedition, on the ship for 12 days.
“The beauty of this trip was being on the sailboat. You can go places that a big boat can’t,” she said.
Although this was Albaugh’s first artist residency, it was not her first time in the Arctic. In 2006 she took her first trip to Greenland. She returned twice and visited Svalbard, Norway once.
“Fifteen years ago I did my first Arctic trip to Greenland. Gliding up fjords, at times so quiet, the silence broken only by the call of birds and the calving of ice, the desolate beauty was breathtaking and unforgettable. The summer light was never ending, illuminating icebergs that in the night slipped past portholes, posing momentarily for snapshots, keepsakes of a disappearing world,” Albaugh wrote in her 2019 letter of interest.
She has always had an affinity for visiting far-flung destinations, remembering with a smile ripping out pages of National Geographic magazines as a youngster and copying the images she had seen.
“That’s why I like going to faraway places,” she said. “It’s not about loneliness. It’s about being alone and really enjoying nature.”
The first leg of the trip started in the town of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement with a population around 1,700. The town was established by an American named John Munro Longyear as a coal-mining operation in 1906.
Along with her sketchbook and journal she brought a couple inflatable pool floaties. She would stage them, floating among icebergs, and take reference photos to work from upon her return. The plastic floaties show the tourist element and speak to the Disneyfication of the world’s most secluded destinations. Even Longyearbyen has been impacted by giant cruise ships that take over the small town.
“It’s about how places in our wilderness and hinterlands are becoming a little like playgrounds for us,” she said. “It’s nice because you feel like you have license to be there as an artist.”
But she admits that even though she was there as an artist, at the end of the day, no matter where you go you are a tourist. Her iceberg series is about the passing of time and to a certain extent man’s hand in the destruction of nature.
“Time is fleeting and it’s changing. The icebergs are about the long goodbye,” she said.
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