Work In Progress: Outside In

YK Painter Jennifer Walden connects the world with the wild

Jennifer Walden, the 38-year-old, Toronto-born painter who has made Yellowknife home since 2002, is on a roll. Together with her two young children, she spent the winter in Florence, Italy studying figure and fresco painting while her largest exhibition, “The Land at the End of the Sticks,” hung at the Yukon Arts Centre Public Art Gallery. The expressive collection of textured northern landscapes and wildlife, inspired by her time at Dechenla Wilderness Lodge, will reside at Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre from May to next January. EDGE YK caught up with William Mcdonald School’s former art teacher at her home studio in Trails End.

EDGE YK: What first brought you to Yellowknife?

JW: I first visited for a weekend and I met Grant Beck and I was really fascinated with his dog-mushing business and so I came back to work for him and never left.

EDGE YK: When we first met you’d just recorded a CD after getting degrees in theatre and education and teaching art. How did painting become your job?

JENNIFER: Painting was always my first love. From the time I was a little kid that was my biggest passion. It had been a life dream of mine to do a solo exhibit. There were some friends of my older brother’s, who I watched go from being high school artists to these professional artists in Toronto. I still can clearly remember being 12 and going to their first exhibit and it was this very fancy affair with the live music and the wine and cheese and all this beautiful art. I was just so amazed and I remember thinking that someday I want to do this with my art. And then in 2007 when I was pregnant with my first kid I just thought, if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it, because everybody tells you, you have kids and life just slows right down and you’re so busy. I kind of panicked. So I rented the Northern United Place and I put on this show when I was seven months pregnant and it turned out to be a phenomenal success. The show sold out with the exception of three pieces in a day and I was completely shocked.

EDGE YK: Was that the moment when you said, hey, I can do this for a living?

JW: After that happened I thought well why would I stop? That encouraged me so I applied to the Great Northern Arts Festival that winter. I was accepted, so I went with my little guy who was four months old and the same thing happened. People just loved my work, it all sold and there was just this incredible response, and not just from the buyers but also the other artists and the organizers and the professionals in the business. My first show was very exciting and successful for me, but there was still a lot of ‘people who know Jen’ who came out, and friends…that kind of support. Whereas at the Great Northern Arts Festival I’m in a different town, no one knows me and they don’t have to be polite. So that was what sealed the deal and made me think I should stay here.

EDGE YK: Why did you choose Yellowknife as your home base?

JW: It was already chosen as a home base. I already was comfortable here and when I went full-time into the painting was right when my first child was born, and that’s not really the time to pick up and move places right? I had my kids here so I felt rooted here family-wise and community-wise, but it also makes a lot of sense for me to be here because of my subject matter. I paint landscape and wildlife and Yellowknife is perfectly situated in the middle of this astounding, gorgeous wilderness. So I’m surrounded daily by my inspiration and sort of the land is my muse so it doesn’t make sense for me to move right now.

EDGE YK:What’s the biggest challenge for you as a single mom earning your living through art? It’s a bit of a dream for so many people.

JW: Yah, you know, I think the biggest challenge to tell you the truth has nothing to do with being a single mom. I think that’s not even part of the equation. The biggest challenge is balancing my two passions. When you’re passionate about something it comes with this drive, it’s all consuming it fires you up and it also eats you up. It’s all you can do. And so I feel that way about my kids. And I feel that way about art. And having that kind of passion sort of demands full attention, full time and all your energy; but I’ve got two things that have that. To not ignore my children and to not get so lost in a project that I’m saying ‘go play, go turn the TV on, don’t bug me’ – I don’t want to be that kind of parent and that’s hard. I have no choice. I get ripped out of a project right in the middle of this huge creative flow when somebody needs help to go to the bathroom. And then at the same time – I think all parents have this feeling – I want to be with my kids at the park or I want to go to the event at their school and take the afternoon off when they go to the museum. Well, we all want to do that, but we have to work and make a living and I have to say to the kids I can’t do that, or I’m sorry we can’t go camping this weekend because I have to finish this show for deadline. So it’s the balance.

EDGE YK: You paint almost exclusively of nature. Do you think people are craving a nearness to it, is that part of the appeal to your work? What are people telling you?

JW: What I think is really interesting about my work is, oh my god how can I put this, it’s not just that people are craving nature, I think there’s something bigger than that. I think people recognize the familiar images, especially up here in the North because we live so close to nature, and a majority of people who live here I think have a connection in it one way or another. But I think what grabs them more so is not just that they recognize a place, I think that it manages to invoke a feeling in them that they get when they’re in that place. A lot of my goal when I’m painting is to capture the intangible. What is the sensation or feeling or spiritual sense you have when you are out in the middle of nowhere and you have a moment with a wild animal and you feel that closeness to nature that we don’t get in our daily lives? Because everybody at some point in their life has had some kind of experience where they’ve felt really connected to the bigger picture, the bigger work, and if they can see that feeling in an image and keep that with them, it kind of keeps that moment close to them and close to heart. That is the kind of response that people have told me. And it’s not that I can paint other people’s feelings; what happens is that I’m painting my own and that’s the human race, we all have these feelings. So they’re seeing their experiences through mine, and I think that’s pretty special.

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