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The smallest things in life
Cartoonist explores raw urban images

Daron Letts
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 17, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Graphic designer, painter and illustrator Garry Yelle enjoys celebrating Northern wildlife and landscapes in his commercial work.

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Garry Yelle is a cartoonist and painter who also creates wall hangings from poplar branches and other fine craftwork. To explore Eye View, an online gallery of Yelle's work, click here. - Daron Letts/NNSL photo

The 34-year-old artist from Boundary Creek near Yellowknife has created murals, promotional imagery and decorative designs in recent years for a variety of contracts and competitions. He has also donated work to a variety of community and charity fundraisers in the territory.

"Elders and kids they come first," he said.

A longtime seasonal guide and hunter and trapper, Yelle wants to concentrate on his art this summer.

"I'm trying to steer myself toward being a full-time artist being my own boss," he said. "I'm going to start freelancing. I make more on my artwork than my own job. But, I'm not worried about the money. It's mainly the creation."

In addition to his original take on familiar Arctic motifs, Yelle is also compiling a unique body of work in which he delves into contemporary urban life in the North. His personal style is reminiscent of the subversive drawings by American counter culture cartoonists Robert Crumb and Ralph Steadman and comic strips by early twentieth century African American cartoonist George Herriman.

"I live most of it," he said. "I've been there and done that and I've turned it all around into cartoons."

Like a mouse concealed in the cracks, Yelle's raw caricatures peer into scenes of Northern experience many people pretend to ignore street hustlers, a police lineup, disingenuous defence lawyers and random drunken violence sketched in pencil and colourfully shaded with Crayola Crayons.

"I never went to any (art) school," Yelle said. "I've never been taught. I never got no art grants or nothing. I choose my own colours. Everything is on my own. Since I was five-years-old everything fell into place."

Yelle lived in Rocher River when he was five-years-old, a former Hudson's Bay hunting and trapping settlement located on the bank of the Talston River about five hours south of Yellowknife by boat. The Hudson's Bay store closed in 1963, more than a decade before Yelle was born.

Back then Yelle would draw in pencil on the brown paper bags that wrapped the food shipped in to the tiny community. His earliest artwork was used to start fires in the wood stove.

Flooding caused by the Talsten Hydro Dam destroyed trap lines in the region, so Yelle's family relocated to Fort Resolution when he was still a child. He pursued his art as a student at Deninu school.

"When I was supposed to be doing math I was drawing," he recalled. "I got detention for doing my artwork but I just kept on and kept on. Finally they got tired of me and let me do what I wanted to do."

Yelle graduated to P.W. Kaesar High School in Fort Smith, where he continued until Grade 11, in 1993.

"In 1993 I found that I could make money from my art," he said. "My first sale was $40. I just continued on when I was young and today I'm finally making a name. Right now by my calculations I have over 3,000 originals. I'm still producing right now. I'm a very talented guy. When I have a pencil in my hand I can do a lot with it."

In a cartoon titled Oh Light, Guide Me To Garry, Yelle depicts an anthropomorphized mouse standing at the foot of what is to him a giant candle.

"He's looking for me, that little mouse," Yelle explained. "He's got his gunny sack and he's looking up at the light. When I did that one I was thinking about a mouse. I don't know why. I just wanted to see the smallest things in life because other people don't see it. So I drew a little mouse. What could I put beside it? Oh, a nice candle. Candlelight looks so awesome."

The mouse motif recurs throughout Yelle's work. In another cartoon, titled We Scored, a man is passed out on a beach, apparently after consuming too much booze and several cigarettes. Two mice drag bottles with labels marked XXX and "100 per cent wine" across the sand while a third emerges from a hole to pilfer change from the comatose man's wallet.

"The reason why I put the mouse in there is because he sees the smallest things in life," Yelle said.

"Some things that we don't see, you know? So that's why he's in the cartoons lots. I respect him lots. Anything that lives deserves to live."

Yelle hopes to establish himself as a prominent Northern artist. He plans to demonstrate his work this summer at the South Slave Friendship Festival in Fort Smith and in Inuvik at the Great Northern Arts Festival, where he has met audiences before.

He has some experience teaching art to students and he said he wants to continue developing his skill as an educator.

"I'd like to pass on my knowledge," he said. "Whatever road you want to choose you walk it. If you want to walk on the dark side you could where there's lots of misery and everything. Or else you could walk in the sunshine where there's light and glory. It's your choice. Follow your dreams. It doesn't have to necessarily be art. You could be a bush pilot or a truck driver. But, there's always room to get creative and put your creativity on a piece of paper. You'd be impressed what comes out. As an artist I'd just like to say follow your dreams. Follow your dreams, man."

To explore Eye View, an online gallery of Yelle's work, click here.

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