Unpacking the Antarctic with Elise Engler

Although my journey this fall will be to the Arctic, at the northern end of our planet, and not to the Antarctic, I have a keen interest in heading to the southern continent in the future.

I had the pleasure of attending one of the Explorers Club’s great Monday night lectures a few weeks ago, given by the artist Elise Engler. Engler is a New York based painter/illustrator/drawer with an immense patience. She talked us through her influences and her early work, which included some excellent Renaissance and early American influences and a 15 panel piece (each panel being 5 foot by 1 foot in size) in which she drew every object she owned. Yep, every object she owned. She then started drawing smaller collections of contained things, like the contents of handbags, every object in a firetruck and every object in a virology lab.

After a few other residencies and adventures, Engler was awarded an opportunity to journey to Antarctica through the National Science Foundation as part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Below is a selection of her work, some of which she made whilst in Antarctica and some made upon her return.

Some of my favorite pieces that Engler made from this journey are her Window View series. The final objects are accordion books, each panel a meticulous and spirited depiction of the view out each and every window in, for example, McMurdo station, or the Lake Hoare station.

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Engler also made an enormous number of small paintings both on site (in watercolor) and from images (in oil). They are all quite small, less than 6″ on a side I believe, but the smallness seems wonderfully appropriate to me. One attendee asked Engler why she chose to paint on so small a scale, finding it “ironic” that she choose to depict her experience and observations in Antarctica, this massive and looming continent, in such a small manner. I loved her answer, chiefly that the size actually brings an intimacy and delicacy to the pieces that she likes very much. But I also think she brought up another point in her lecture, that of SCALE and its inherent absence on the continent. Antarctica is so frequently remarked on as being totally lacking in a sense of scale; a mountain may appear no more than a hill until you start walking, a glacier could be the width of a road or the width of a canyon, and owing to the lack of any recognizably sized object around (there’s not even trees or grasses) there’s no real way to tell just by looking.

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With that in mind, I adore Engler’s small paintings! I think of them as being out of scale; these delicate little things that draw you in nose to nose with them that, in your minds eye, are actually a peep hole into a land of brobdingnagian beauty.

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Imaging the Arctic

Imaging the Arctic is an interdisciplinary exhibit on view through February 22, 2015 at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA. The exhibit explores the impact of climate change on West Greenland’s ecology and culture through the works of three talented women from a diversity of professions: marine mammal biologist Dr. Kristin Laidre, expeditionary artist Maria Coryell-Martin and Finnish photographer Tiina Itkonen.

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From the museum’s website, “In the spring of 2013, Coryell-Martin accompanied Dr. Laidre to West Greenland where she created a collection of field art and stories about scientific research in the Arctic environment. Itkonen’s evocative photographs of the Greenland landscape and Inuit add an additional perspective on the rhythm of life in the Arctic.”

They have a wonderfully beautiful, informative interactive website set up, which you should check out. Below are a few examples of work from Coryell-Martin and Itkonen.