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    NNSL Photo/Graphic

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    Seeing the forest for the trees

    Daron Letts
    Northern News Services
    Published Friday, July 18, 2008

    SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - As a child growing up in Scotland, Sheila Hodgkinson filled her sketchbooks with drawings of log cabins, fir trees and other Northern motifs.

    Her uncle worked as a fur trader along the Ungava Peninsula in Nunavik and in Fort St. John in Northern B.C. in the 1930s and 1940s.

    NNSL Photo/Graphic

    Sheila Hodgkinson and her 13-year-old husky-shepherd cross rest in front of their painting studio. For years the pair have explored the wooded trails around the legislature and the shores of Niven Lake and Back Bay. Hodgkinson credits these daily journeys as the inspiration for her exhibition of paintings titled Winter in the Boreal Forest: Dog Walking Notes now on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. - Daron Letts/NNSL photo

    The collection of Inuit and Dene carvings and sketches of life on the trap line that he sent back to Hodgkinson's family in Scotland captivated the young artist's imagination.

    This month the Yellowknife painter is showcasing about 30 works in acrylic and oil that explore her 35-years of artistry in the subarctic. The series of paintings, titled Winter in the Boreal Forest: Dog Walking Notes, is on display until September at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

    While Hodgkinson's project of recording observations of the boreal forest began shortly after she moved to Yellowknife in 1973, most of the paintings are inspired by long walks shared with her 13-year-old husky-shepherd cross, Bailey. For years the pair have made daily journeys through the woods that surround the legislature, Niven Lake and Back Bay.

    "I've taken this area as a kind of microcosm which would represent the whole," she said. "It doesn't, obviously, because the boreal forest changes as it incorporates maple trees and more spruce and all sorts of things (in the south). But, in general, around here is enough to work on."

    Hodgkinson would carry bits of card and a pencil in her pocket as she walked Bailey or other canine companions along Yellowknife's forested trails.

    "I had to concentrate so I could condense the image down to one thing and also meditate on the colour and the light and so on and then walk the dog back to the house and make a little coloured sketch," she said. "The coloured sketch became a small painting and then the small painting became a bigger one and then that bigger one would sometimes get worked on for 10 years or five years or a couple of months."

    Some of these notebooks and preliminary sketches are displayed under glass in the gallery, inviting viewers more intimately into the artist's creative mind and method.

    Hodgkinson's paintings, done mostly on square Masonite board, employ a style of readable and accessible abstraction that nonetheless demands active engagement from the audience. With close attention, the viewer can easily share in the artist's moods, reflections and ideas.

    Some of her fanciful works, such as Boreal Boogie, express the vast spaces occupied by snow and sky while capturing the curious shapes and individual personalities of the forest's spruce, jack pine, willow and birch trees. Other bright and playful paintings include Dog and Raven, Dogs in Snow and Round We Go, each of which focuses on a dog's humorous interaction with the landscape.

    Moonlight, sunlight and Northern lights are an important feature in her works, giving many of the landscapes a dynamic sense of movement and majesty. Ravens, foxes and caribou are muses, as well.

    Many of her works draw in larger ideas from beyond the forest. A 12-panel work titled Tree fills a section of wall at the back of the gallery. The panels form a conventional triangular tree interrupted by a disquieting space on one side where a panel seems to be installed backwards.

    "I wanted to make people think about changes in nature - bringing the bigger world in - not just how beautiful everything is," Hodgkinson explained. "That seemed to me a subtle way to do it. When you open up space you open up portals to things. You can enter them."

    The theme of rapid change is also reflected in TV Swallows, one of Hodgkinson's most recent paintings. The two-panel work juxtaposes dissimilar images much like a jump cut in video production. The panels show two swallows flying above an aerial view of an icebreaker navigating the thawing fissures on the Arctic Ocean.

    Her work Flag for an Unarmed Country merits close consideration, as well.

    "Listening to the radio and reading and doing other things while you're painting makes other things come in," she said. "This painting started to be a flag for an unarmed country, because there don't seem to be very many, if any."

    Winter in the Boreal Forest: Dog Walking Notes continues until September.