How far will you go in the pursuit of art? From Los Angeles to Oslo to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, I venture on planes, trains, and busses to set out on a 2.5-week voyage on the Tall Ship Antigua. This journey takes me to some of the most isolated areas in the high arctic, circling Svalbard to reach beyond 80 degrees latitude, nearing the North Pole.
With freezing temperatures, white-out snow storms, and vast cathedral-like mountains, it feels like an alien world. Here, I join my shipmates, including 28 artists and scientists from across the globe and a local crew of highly trained guides for the adventurous journey ahead.
We gather our belongings after a hearty Norwegen breakfast of cheese and sliced meats and pile our luggage on an elaborate, yet compact sailboat to spend weeks at sea. We chuckle and some cringe, as we throw our bags into our tiny bunk rooms, where the shower and toilet exist as one singular space. Tight quarters for all and the open sea ahead, we set out for our journey.
Those who cross the seas change their climate but not their character. — Roman Proverb
We layer up with our wool socks, sweaters, shells and coats on top of coats and hoist the sails. The fresh air moves the ship and fills my lungs. It is in this moment I realize this is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Positioned on the bow of the ship, I watch the shifting landscape pass by revealing sculpted icebergs, ancient rock formations, and turquoise glaciers. I surrender to the rocking motion of the tide and let my senses swallow my surroundings.
Aboard the ship, my porthole is my looking lens. I observe and respond to the shifting sites, morphing endlessly into new shapes and colors. Perhaps what surprises me most are the rainbow skies. Since it’s late in Fall, sunsets last for 2+ hours, revealing color schemes that look more saturated than a digital screen. The skies are infinite and vibrant — it feels like another planet.
Twice a day, we gather art supplies, life jackets and winter gear to venture to land aboard small zodiac boats. Here our gun-ready guides on the trip — also known as “polar bear guards” — stake out an area for us to work, keeping an eye out for polar bears that could put us in danger. When an area is cleared, we set out for hikes, site-based research, source material gathering and/or development of art projects on land.
On shore, I paint landscapes with arctic mud and water, trace the contours of glaciers, carve words into frosted soil, and photograph the surroundings at micro and macro scales. Since a “landing” is only two to three hours at a time (to prevent frostbite!), creative time is brief. I become highly reactionary — no time to hold back or overthink a project. Any creations need to happen instantly, responding to a fleeting location. This is a liberating way to make art.
The light is always changing and the shapes, textures, and even sounds of each place varies so much. I catch myself saying “wow” at least 10 times a day, a response uninhibited and urgently grasping. After full days of scenic wonders with eyes wide open, the evening creeps in with the cold. Tired after full days of sailing, zodiac trips, hiking, spontaneous art creations, and highly stimulating environments, the long days shift into night.
We peel off our winter layers to cozy up in our tiny beds. Just as sleep creeps in, we are often woken up by a voice hollering— “Northern Lights, everybody. Northern lights!” The cabins stir and we jolt awake, throwing on layers of sweaters. We stammer up the steep, small steps to the roof of Antigua to be fully encompassed in a dance of vibrant green northern lights. At this point, I am exasperated, how could this experience get any better?
We sail on and up. Sometimes for full days at a time. The further north we go, the further I surrender to it all. My breath synchs with the wash of the waves. My body moves with the turn of the tides. And my heart fills, more than I’ve ever known. I am home. I am free. Onwards to another week at sea!