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April 2012

Golden Opportunities


IMG_9419Every now and then, Life offers Adventures that attract and frighten us in equal measure. Often, the temptation is neutralized by limited time, insufficient money, and worst of all, fear...

Last August, the Universe, and some very nice Earthlings, dropped a golden opportunity right into my lap, and, fortunately, I was able to keep all my worries at bay. Even a lifelong dread of bears didn't stop me from signing on as the first Artist-in-Residence at Kobuk Valley National Park.

I joined a team of biologists, orienteers, dog handlers and expert tracking dogs working on the Park's Bear Study Project in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, about an hour by small plane northeast of
Kotzebue.

We kept food in bear proof canisters and slept in little tents far from where we ate. The wind never stopped, so sand blew off the dunes into our hair, our clothes, our tents, our sleeping bags, our food, our teeth – everything. No one ever left camp without pepper spray, because of the bears (black AND grizzly).

IMG_9393I’ve never gone so long without changing clothes, washing hair, or sitting on a chair, yet, somehow, the astonishing beauty of the wilderness and the excellent company I kept more than compensated for any inconvenience. It was, in fact, the Adventure of a Lifetime.

Each work day, three teams of two humans and
one dog would head out to walk transits across the Dunes, tracking down evidence of bear populations. I was left on my own to walk into the wilderness and paint, paint, paint until suppertime.


Working in the Dunes, I had to be able to carry all my gear and art supplies in one backpack and that had to weigh no more than 50 pounds; first, because of the bag limit at Alaska Airlines and, second, because I doubted I’d be able to carry any more than that. I knew we’d be moving camp at least three times, carrying all our equipment across the dunes.

IMG_9084
I limited my paint to just three colors: Pthalo Blue, Hansa Yellow, and Quinacridone Magenta. With
those primaries and white, I could mix any
color I needed. I brought loose sheets of canvas to attach to a set of stretcher bars that I assembled at each worksite. I took my super lightweight easel, reduced my brushes to a bare minimum, and used Ziploc backs for water containers. I agonized over how much paint and how many canvases to bring. How horrible it would be to run out, but how useless to carry materials I wouldn’t use. In the end, I got it just right, finishing my last canvas on the last day in the field.

After two weeks of wandering in the desert, I rolled up my canvases, stuffed my gear into my bulging backpack, and headed to Kotzebue to have a long hot shower and and to lead an art workshop at Park Headquarters. About thirty people from the community came to paint, talk about art, and take a look at the field studies I’d done. Because of the generosity of the Park, participants were able to take home a kit with paint, brushes, and extra canvas boards so they could continue to experiment with painting.

IMG_8915Some of my paintings were nearly completed out on the Dunes; others needed more work in the studio. I think of these finished paintings as field studies, work that is complete in itself, but that might also serve as a foundation for more interpretation in the future.

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes were unbelievably
beautiful and dynamic, and sparkling with life and color, and endlessly fascinating. I'd like to thank Kes Woodward for directing me to this opportunity, Marci Johnson, NPS Team Leader, for giving me this opportunity, and all the members of the Bear Study Team, for making this adventure such an entertaining and unforgettable experience.

Eighteen of my completed works can be seen in the Photo Album at the top of this page.

Photos of the Bear Study Project on the Dunes can be seen at:

http://gallery.me.com/constancebhartle#100094