Cory Trépanier wants to make you feel small. Not in a bad way, but in an awe-inspiring way.
The Canadian painter has spent a decade traveling around his country’s Arctic. Along the way, braving swarms of bugs and the occasional polar bear, he noticed his canvases began to grow in size as he tried to commit the larger-than-life landscapes to paint.
The result is now on show at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. At the exhibit’s center is a painting 4.5m (15ft) wide called “Great Glacier.” It’s part of a project that has produced more than 50 oil paintings and two documentary films.
Trépanier is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a member of the Explorers Club of Canada. We spoke to him recently about his “Into the Arctic” exhibition, which will go on to tour seven U.S. museums over the next two years.
Arctic Deeply: Can you describe some of the different challenges that you faced painting in the Arctic?
Cory Trépanier: I think one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome in planning was how to deal with polar bears. Now, I did go to a lot of national parks, and in national parks, you’re not allowed to carry a gun. So part of [the challenge] … when I went to Ellesmere Island for a month in Quttinirpaaq National Park, was how do I spend a month in this place where polar bears can wander wherever they want – although technically they don’t tend to go to the center of Ellesmere Island because they like to hang around the shorelines.
But the year before I went there, there was a polar bear that went right through a camp in the middle of Quttinirpaaq. It didn’t do any damage, fortunately, but it weighed heavily on me. How do I deal with polar bears in the Arctic?
I’m constantly doing research. I was talking to a lady who actually established the park boundaries 20 years ago. She said, “You know, 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about going to Quttinirpaaq park without a gun.”
But now, the way things have changed, and the way the environment has changed up there, she wouldn’t do it … because she feels that with the ice conditions and everything else, there’s more chance of polar bears wandering across that huge island than there was in the past.
So anyways, we finally went up there. The Inuit Parks Canada superintendent shows how he goes out on the land all the time, and even though he’s allowed to carry a gun, he didn’t. He felt confident and comfortable enough.
Each day we called in to satellite phones to give our location [to] the Polar Continental Shelf [program], every morning. Just in case something happened, they could find us.
Arctic Deeply: Did you end up seeing a polar bear on Ellesmere Island?
Trépanier: On Ellesmere, we did not. I’ve seen many. When I traveled on Baffin Island for a month, one stretch of it in particular, with two Inuit fellows from Clyde River on the northeast side of Baffin, we went out onto the land for about eight or nine days and saw about 10 polar bears in the course [of our trip].
We went out to a place called Sam Ford Fjord [and] because it wasn’t a park in that area, they had guns. They offered me, “Here, take one. Take two. Take three.” One is fine, thanks.
We set up our tents in Sam Ford Fjord, which was about an 11-hour or 8-hour boat ride from Clyde River. We left our tents and our food tent, went deeper onto the shore, went painting, came back and there were fresh polar bear tracks going past our tents. We relocated to another spot. We set up our tents, and in this case, they were in their own tent, I was in my own tent. They had given me a gun to have to myself, but I kind of liked the idea of them being in the tent next to me, but somehow the food tent got between them and me.
So that night we were out there, I’m lying there with the shotgun next to me, my zipper’s half undone, it’s not quite getting dark so you can see the writing of your tent, sort of in silhouette. I guess every hour probably, I woke up. Just in case there was a shadow looming over the tent.
But things were good. We managed just fine there, and there were a lot of polar bears we saw from the boats and so on. Incredible creatures is what they are.
Arctic Deeply: What stands out as some of your favorite moments from the project?
Trépanier: You saw in the video, probably, three Arctic wolves surrounding our tents. That was incredible. I’m glad I had the camera filming.
That was on Ellesmere. And that was just a wolf we saw that week. One came by and the other one howled. She came and sniffed our tent and then she walked away while I was filming. She was walking away. So I gave my best impression of a wolf howl. She turned and she howled six times. There was a mountain to the left of us and it just echoed off the mountain and it kind of reverberated down your spine it was so loud. To have that kind of direct connection just feels so amazing.
On the other end of it, you know the power of the weather, the storms, the environment. But then on the total opposite end, is the complete silence I experienced. In the western Arctic, on my first trip up in Kluane National Park, up in the mountains where the Yukon meets Alaska meets the Beaufort Sea, so you’re pretty far up there. After the stormy weather and after a day or two, I’m sitting there having lunch with a buddy. It’s just the two of us with a little single-burner stove. We turned it off and let the sizzle go down.
Everything fell away to complete silence. So silent, like you’ve never heard. We’re on this mountain edge, looking over for miles. I close my eyes and there wasn’t a bird, there wasn’t a peep, there wasn’t a thing. Then I opened my eyes and I’m just straining and looking in every direction. I’ve never experienced silence so profound. Then the wind started to pick up again.
So, I guess there’s both ends of the extreme. From that to storms almost blowing us of the edge of that cliff.
Arctic Deeply: The sense of being very, very, very tiny, did that contribute to your decision to make a 4.5-m (15-ft)-wide painting?
Cory Trépanier: My canvases started to grow when I went north. It’s the idea of being in these places that are so vast.
Sometimes I would bring a bigger canvas along if it were possible, but up to maybe 40in [100cm] wide. Which is awkward to carry but I’ve done it a few times. Most of my canvases are 16in [40cm] wide. They’re in a box and I can carry them on my back.
There are so many times where I sat painting on this little panel and I just felt like, “Oh man, this is just way too big for my canvas.” So I started to create larger works. I’ve got this 5ft by 5ft [1.5m by 1.5m] piece: Mount Thor, the highest uninterrupted rock face on the planet in the high peaks of the national park on Baffin Island. I stepped back from that painting when it was done, and I could still see the walls on each side. I think that kind of set it for me six years ago when I first stretched to that 15-ft canvas, that I wanted to create a piece that, as much as possible, could immerse people into the Arctic and hopefully share a little bit of what it’s like from when I’m out there.
That scale of the North … has affected the scale of my work in hopes that it can connect people more directly.
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