Alaska first whispered in Lindsay Carron’s ear in 2015.
That was the summer some friends invited her to lead painting tours of the beaches and forests near Juneau. A three-month gig turned into six months, and by the time she packed up to go home to Los Angeles, she was already itching to return.
Alaska has lured her back every year since, with 2018 marking her third summer as an artist in residence with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She spent this July in the Yukon Flats and Togiak national wildlife refuges, with a several-days stopover in Anchorage to connect with urban Alaska Natives whose families and stories are being traced, through her work, back to the villages and regions where they started, tens of thousands of years ago.
As she describes it, the call she hears is about shedding her self-protective layers and opening herself to Alaska’s wildest places and the people who live there. As a self-described art activist and storyteller who is deeply committed to conservation, Carron seeks to create art that invites people to slow down and experience the stillness and urgency of some of the earth’s last wild places.
“My outlook from the beginning was ‘I don’t just want to hang pretty pictures on walls, I want to have an impact,’” she explained.
Carron grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, a small city located between Milwaukee and Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. She developed a love of nature as a child there, traipsing through the forests with a sketchbook in hand to record the flowers she saw or the way the light moved through the trees.
She moved to the Los Angeles area for college and completed her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Pepperdine University, in the trendy, ever-evolving beach community of Malibu. She creates her expansive works out of a sweltering, tidy garage/studio in thoroughly urban Culver City, a small dot in the teeming megalopolis of Los Angeles.
Arriving in Alaska was a strange synthesis of the familiar and completely foreign.
“All at once I was extracted from everything I knew in L.A., but placed somewhere that was utterly familiar to me,” Carron explained. “The way the land and the people both pushed up against me and challenged me and knocked me down and also fortified me was something I haven’t really found before in any of my travels.”
Her works often feature wild animals, landscapes and mystical symbolism. The pieces she has completed for the Fish and Wildlife Service to date are meticulous drawings done in ink, and filled in with colored pencil. Her canvas of choice is a vintage U.S. Geological Survey map of the region or community from which the work arose. The drawings blend portraiture — Alaska Native leaders and elders are her chosen subjects — with mountains, rivers, wildlife and the tools of contemporary subsistence lifestyles.
Her piece entitled “The Arctic Miracle of Life: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Kaktovik,” features two Kaktovik elders, Betty Brower and Isaac Atkoochook, who bracket an aerial view of the village of Kaktovik and the final braided threads of the Okpilak and Jago rivers as they spill out of the Brooks Range and into the Beaufort Sea. Brower’s hands are clasped, arms slightly outstretched, across the coastal plain, and in the crook of her elbow, a mother polar bear with two cubs rests peacefully. Rivers spill onto her hands, briefly becoming part of the intricate map of veins and tendons before pouring over her fingers and back into the landscape. A snowy owl flies west across the top of the image, and a single feather floats past Atkoochuk’s parka’s fur ruff.
This was exactly the type of work Roger Kaye, wilderness specialist in the Arctic Refuge, was hoping Carron would create. Kaye was responsible for selecting one of the artists to receive a residency in the Arctic Refuge, and was immediately drawn to Carron’s work.
“What I saw in her art was a potential, and very few people could do this, to convey this notion we’ve heard from Alaska Native people — I’ve heard it for decades — that we do not consider them to be part of the landscape,” Kaye said. “Alaska Native people don’t like to be considered visitors, stakeholders or constituents…they’re a part of the land. I wanted to try to convey that.”
Carron has now done two residencies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, her first in the southern portion of the 19.3-million-acre refuge, where she spent time camping and exploring completely off the grid and in Arctic Village, where she got to be part of the bi-annual Gathering celebration of the local Gwich’in people. A second residency, in 2017, brought her to the refuge’s northern extremes, along the Hula Hula River in the Brooks Range, and to the village of Kaktovik, home to Inupiat people. Also in 2017, she spent time in Chuathbaluk and along the Kuskokwim River in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
“I’ve gotten very positive feedback from both communities,” Kaye said, referring to Arctic Village and Kaktovik. “I think they like the art and appreciate that we listened to them. (The works) are a visual representation of how they see themselves.”
It is her willingness to open herself to both people and place that have resulted in Carron’s successive residencies. Her sincerity and humility gain her quick acceptance in rural Alaska.
“When someone asks the kind of questions Lindsay does, it’s clear this person really wants to understand,” Kaye said. “She’s not just saying something to get conversation going. She’s comfortable with silence, and that’s a skill.”
Carron relies heavily on conversations with her subjects — and really anyone who lives in the area she’s working in — to help complete her works. She also documents her trips in sketchbooks and journal entries. Sketches from her time in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge this summer capture in breathtaking detail the dramatic cloudscapes that gather and disperse above the rolling boreal-forest landscape in the course of a 22-hour July day.
“My process is to write about it first,” Carron explained, “about the things that are important to me and what I really want to feature. Then I look through all my photos and select the photos I will reference (in the work). Once I have those two pieces, then I will sketch out a composition, and the composition usually comes to me fully formed in my mind. Then I put the ink down, and the colored pencil comes last. It’s like a coloring book at that point. It’s really fun.”
Carron was connected to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska through a program called Voices of the Wilderness, which identifies and helps coordinate residencies for artists in a variety of mediums to highlight national forests, national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska.
Carron’s original works for the Fish and Wildlife Service are on display in agency offices in the regions from which they originate, along with a lot of extras from her sketchbooks. Prints have gone to many of the villages where she spent time.
Kaye believes it’s a testament to the agency that the Artist in Residence project receives funding and staff support.
“I’ve always felt we’re over reliant on data and numbers and that we can only convey some things via art,” he said. “I think (the Artist in Residence program) is an important recognition that there are other ways of relating to the world and expressing what’s really important to people about the landscape.”
Learn more about Lindsay at http://lindsaycarron.com and on Instagram @lacarron. Lindsay is also an illustrator of a series of children’s books for Juneau-based Sealaska Heritage Institute, which can be found here. Lindsay’s work continues to bring her to Alaska with a focus on wilderness and indigenous ways of life.
Amy Miller is a freelance writer and editor from Fairbanks, Alaska who now lives in Southern California.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.