The Art of Arctic Elements through the Eyes of a Native Nevadan

By Megan Berner, visual artist, Reno, Nevada

From the “Here” series — Esmarkbreen Glacier and Ymerbukta Bay in Oscar II Land, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway, 2015 (Photo credit: Megan Berner)

As an artist, I consider myself an explorer, embarking on fantastic voyages through uncharted territories — my analogy to my creative process. Coming from a desert home, I have always been drawn to more desolate, inhospitable, and subtle landscapes — places that seem to only show themselves to those who spend time in them and seek out what they have to offer. For me they have always invited introspection and reflection on the complexity of human-place relationships and our own internal-external manifestations of these relationships.

Rhyolite, Nevada, 2015 (Photo credit: Megan Berner)

I am a native of Reno, Nevada, a high desert city nestled at the western edge of the Great Basin and just east of the Sierra Nevada. If you drive west, within thirty minutes you can be in the mountains surrounded by pine forests. If you drive east, within thirty minutes you can be surrounded by expanses of desert — playas and basins in between the numerous mountain ranges that crisscross the state. Growing up here gave me an appreciation for the expansive, the arid, and the dramatic. An appreciation of the difference between the high mountains with their revealing geology and the open spaces of the desert floor. Light and wind are two integral elements of this landscape, indicative of the changing seasons and cycles in the desert.

In the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to participate in The Arctic Circle’s Summer Expeditionary residency. I have dreamed of being a part of some sort of expedition to one of the less traveled poles of the earth, and when I found out about The Arctic Circle artist residency I was stunned that such a thing truly existed. Plus, the thought of being in a part of the world where light would be such an integral part of my experience appealed immensely to me. Along with a group of international artists and educators, I traveled to Longyearbyen, Norway — one of the world’s northernmost cities — on the archipelago of Svalbard. From there, we embarked on a journey onboard the Antigua, a tall sailing ship, for two weeks during the summer solstice.

Polaroid transposed over Arctic landscape, 2015 (Photo credit: Megan Berner)

Travel has always been an integral part of my art practice. There is something about being exposed to the unfamiliarity of new places that creates a hyper-awareness of the surrounding environment. It always connects me back to myself, which is the basis for most of my work — though not often in a literal sense. I am particularly interested in exploring inhospitable and so-called empty spaces — the desert, the tundra, the ocean — as they are spaces that lend themselves to wanderings of the human imagination, a psychological experience of place.

As we sailed through the twenty-four hour sunlight, we looked out at the geologic layers of mountain ranges that rose up from the shores, watched the water change colors with the clouds and weather, observed glaciers calving and saw blue whales — the largest animal on earth — swimming alongside our ship. There is nothing to describe the feeling of being in that expanse. These landscapes of extreme environments and hard-to-get-to places are familiar to many of us through photographs and media but, when you are there, feeling the wind, listening to the silence, and sensing your smallness in the vast space around you, it’s something else — something I find indescribable in words, but seek to recreate in certain pieces of my art.

(L) Arctic mountainscape, 2015; and (R) Close up of a snow bank in the Arctic, 2015 (Image credits: Megan Berner)

During our two weeks at sea, skirting the Northwest edge of Spitsbergen and exploring the shores, glaciers, and mountains, we had no contact with the outside world save for the few denizens of Ny-Ålesund and Pyramiden. Our world was the ship and its community of crew, guides, guards, and artists. It felt like a piece out of time — much longer than the actual two weeks — and otherworldly.

Panoramic view from the tall ship “Antigua,” 2015 (Photograph credit: Megan Berner)

Above the Arctic Circle, I was struck by how much the geology of the mountains resembled those in Nevada. The nature of the climate in the Arctic (and in Nevada) is such that there is not much vegetation covering the mountains, thus the strata is laid bare and you can see the layering of time, measured much differently from our human perception of time.

The dramatic rises of the ranges in the Arctic were reminiscent of home. As foreign as the landscape was to me, it was strangely familiar. Although they seem like worlds apart, being in the Arctic made me feel that that landscape was intimately linked to my desert home, both shaped over millennia by the powerful elemental forces of ice, wind, and tectonics.

(L) Iceberg, Lilliehöökbreen, Norway, 2015; (R) Black Rock Desert, 2010 (Photo credits: Megan Berner)

It’s interesting to see how these types of experiences influence my artwork. Of course, there are the obvious immediate effects like the incredible landscape and the light for twenty-four hours that is disturbingly disorienting to the rhythm of our bodies and how we perceive time, or being able to recount the stories of the polar bear and her cub on a still and sunny solstice morning, or skinny dipping in near-freezing water near the 80th parallel. But it’s the other stuff that comes up — weeks, months, or years later — that becomes really valuable as you start to process and synthesize your experiences. Memories and experiences become ingrained and meshed into each other, connecting to larger pieces of the greater whole, and sometimes creating more understanding of it.

Cyanotype flag filmed blowing in the arctic wind. Stills from the video “Of Wind and Light,” 2016, by Megan Berner

In my work, I explore the ways we interact with our environment — how we form relationships with it and how those connections influence our interpretation of the world around us — what marks we leave behind, the experiences — intangible and manifest, and the action of moving through or being in a place. I am particularly fascinated by mirages and other light phenomena as visual representations of the liminal spaces of these relationships.

Of Ice and Light 02, 2015, by Megan Berner

The light in the Arctic region and the expanses of water and snow create ideal conditions for mirages — skewing perception of depth, distance, and scale. This is not unlike the conditions created in the Nevada desert — driving along The Loneliest Road in America it is common to see the inferior mirage of the dark lake of water that seems to be pooled over the highway in the distance ahead. The idea of mirages appeals to me because they are observable optical phenomena that can be recorded on camera, yet the images that they appear to represent are interpreted by the mind — not a hallucination but perhaps a representation of our desires. In a very real way, it reflects this idea of a landscape of the mind or imagination — a concept related to mostly uninhabited or unconstructed landscapes that aren’t built for human comfort and convenience.

Being in the Arctic was in some ways like being in a suspended moment, inviting introspection on the many and complicated ways that I interact with my environment and how that creates meaning for the places in our lives — how we impact them and how they impact us. It is my hope that I can create a space through my artwork for others to daydream, explore, and discover a new way of looking at the world around them and, through that, bring a self-awareness that just might reflect back into our everyday relationships with people and the environment around us.

Of Ice and Light, 2015, by Megan Berner

About the Author:

Megan Berner is a visual artist living and working in Reno, Nevada. She is greatly influenced by the landscape of her native Nevada home as well as the vast prairies of the Midwest, mapping and exploration, and countless hours of daydreaming. She creates site-specific installations that incorporate video and sound and constructs performative scenes that ultimately exist as photographs. You can reach her at: meganberner@gmail.com.


Next week’s featured U.S. state: MINNESOTA