Rosemary Scanlon

Interview by Angela MacKenzie
Portrait by Rosemary Scanlon

Rosemary is a visual artist residing in Whitehorse, Yukon who works primarily in painting and drawing. She has been exploring the tension between the fantasy and reality of northern life in her watercolour paintings. Rosemary and I had a good chat about life and art in the north, where she tends to find inspriation, and about her most recent creations and exhibits.


Angela: How young were you when you first became seriously interested in visual art?
Rosemary: I guess it was in high school. I was part of an international program and you actually had to do a mini thesis to graduate. Mine was on portraiture. For the first couple of years I painted and drew, there was a creative component and then also a thesis that went along with it. Then I applied to Dawson College with the portfolio I’d created doing my mini thesis. It seemed pretty random because almost everyone else was doing theirs in the sciences since it was a more science-oriented high school. So that was how I started. It was really more like an extended essay. You took the whole year to do it and you had to incorporate what you’d learned in other classes.


When did you move to the Yukon?
In 2006 I lived here for 10 months or so and then I moved back to Montreal. When I finished my master’s degree in 2010 I moved back.


It must have been quite the adjustment to move from a city like Montreal to Whitehorse.
For sure. When you live up here I think you’re just closer to your family unit. My first introduction to living up here and to meeting other people was through [my husband] Tytus’s family. It’s a smaller, close-knit community. The biggest adjustment was not being in constant contact with that creative community in Montreal, all of those people I’d worked close to who were doing similar kinds of things. Being away from my family was hard too. It can feel geographically closed-in. You can’t just hop around as easily. You know that you’re in for the long season and you look around in the fall to see who’s going to be here to spend your time with in the winter.


Do you think it’s like living on an island, that sense of isolation?
A little bit. People travel a lot up here, they’re always coming and going. But unless you have a travel date in mind it can be a long wait until spring.

Balloon Invasion

Balloon Invasion


What’s the arts scene like in Whitehorse?
Pretty vibrant. There are a lot of artists here, many are self-taught. A lot of creative people move up here from other parts of Canada. There’s painting and also a lot of craft. It’s interesting because during my Master’s degree in Glasgow, Scotland it was so conceptual- you’re not really encouraged to make anything. After I left, I really wanted to make something, to physically paint and create with my hands.


Is space important to you when you’re creating? Is there a particular place where you like to work?
We’ve moved around a lot since we’ve been back here so no, not really. I just need a table. I don’t actually have a set studio right now though I think it does help. This summer I went away and spent a month in Winnipeg at the MAWA residency and had an intense period of working and creating. I do find those blocks of time pretty important. It’s nice to physically get away from your everyday life.


In order to really throw yourself into your work? Is it like an incubation period?
Yes, winter is like that in general. I make most of my work during the wintertime.


Whorl of Sleep

Whorl of Sleep

Was your recent exhibit in Winnipeg, Whorl of Sleep, your first solo show?
Yes, it was my first solo exhibit.


What kinds of concepts or stories were influencing you when you created those paintings?
Well there’s a few different series of works in there. For instance, one series of paintings is called Shadows of the Alaska Highway. Those were inspired by a road trip we took last winter. There’s just one highway here to get in and out, one lane each way. You follow the headlights for very extended periods of time. There’s a delirium that sets in, your mind can start going. You might see an owl drop into the headlights and wonder Did I just see that? During the drive we started talking about this delusion, about shadows and what you see in your peripheral vision when you’ve been driving for so long and you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. So I wanted to portray the highway and the forest and the animals and the underlying shadowy side of life in general.


Shadows of the Alaska Highway 1

Shadows of the Alaska Highway 1

Shadows of the Alaska Highway 2

Shadows of the Alaska Highway 2


You use animal imagery a lot in your work. I’d read that you used taxidermy animals as examples in some of your paintings?
In The Looking Glass, for example, I was looking for different representations of nature and how we try to hold and capture it and try to possess it. I was using a lot of odd taxidermy. I like to include things that are just slightly off from the norm. When I juxtapose things in the composition then you might look at the painting and think that’s nice and it might take another look to notice what is unusual.

Looking Glass

Looking Glass

I like the whimsy in your paintings. I also read that you were influenced by medieval tapestries. Is that something that grew out of your master’s degree?
I was part of an exhibition. The Burrell Collection in Glasgow invited some students to come in and reinterpret some of their collection, which has a lot of tapestries. It’s really the beginning point for my watercolour works. We went in there and spent a couple days with the collections. The compositions were often lacking a lot of perspective because they hadn’t really dealt with that in medieval times. The storytelling elements that were involved are really interesting.


When you look at this series of paintings it’s really lovely because there is such a strong visual narrative. When you’re starting the process of creating new work, where do you look for inspiration?
I often collect a lot of imagery. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness thing where I start putting different images together that I have. I also work at the Yukon Archives and there’s a lot of imagery here from the north, from the Gold Rush era. Sometimes I’ll have a scene in mind. For The Highway I would get an idea for a composition and then I would find the right images to put it together. They’re almost like collages, I guess. Some of them are based compositionally on medieval paintings or religious iconography. It’s more that I’m interested in how they were using the visual tools to create these environments that are almost a bit skewed. Some of them are based directly on a painting or tapestry. That might be my starting point.


What sort of work are you doing with the Yukon Archives?
Right now I’m working as a library assistant, checking in various donations. I’m also bringing materials up from the vault to patrons. You do, in a very passive way, end up coming across a lot of great material.


How was the art scene in Scotland compared to Canada?
The art scene was very vibrant. It felt like there was an opening every night, if not a couple of them. The Glasgow School of Art produces a lot of graduates, either from their MFA program or their undergraduate program, and a lot of them stick around Glasgow so there tend so be a lot of active artists who are just coming out of school.


Aside from painting you also do a lot of photography. Does one inform the other?
They do. I like to take a lot of snapshots or use other people’s snapshots. I’m interested in looking at vernacular photography—how we’re recording our times. It’s this huge visual archive that’s just accumulating through photos. I like to pick through those images and also take fairly normal photos, in terms of composition and lighting, but then have one or two that are slightly off. Very much like my paintings.


What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a body of work for Northern Scene, a festival that is coming up in Ottawa. The festival is visual arts but also fashion, food, performance art and musicians. I’m doing a show at the Ottawa Art Gallery that is showcasing contemporary art coming from the Yukon. I’m starting to use more gold leaf and iridescent paints in my water colours. I’m using a lot of dark blues but then the pouring of iridescent colours into it like an oil spill. So I’m experimenting with that. They’ll be quite a bit larger in format than my other work.


I saw an exhibit you’d done with plants and terrariums and then a very large format image on the wall. Was it a painting?
It was digital wallpaper. It was photoshopped. I was looking at the use of archives in contemporary art for my thesis and I was interested in plant archives and collections. Glasgow had some of the first collections and first botanical gardens. I might do wallpaper again for the Ottawa exhibit.


Digital wallpaper

It was really quite stunning the way the images popped out from the black background. The colours were so vibrant. Was I right about the glass containers? Are they terrariums?
Yeah, they were originally called Wardian cases because Mr. Ward had discovered that you could create this closed environment, which is the terrarium. He had a moth collection and he had a moth in a jar with some dirt in it and a seed ended up being in the jar. It sprouted and although there was no water getting to it he realized that the plant could grow and thrive in this closed environment. It ended up being a way to transport plants, which they couldn’t really do before that.


Wardian case

From the tropics?
Right. They’ve basically attributed it to the beginning of the tea and the tobacco trades, globalization and those sorts of things. These terrariums basically self-water, and the plants give off oxygen and take in CO2. So the series was very much about plant collections and globalization. The images in the wallpaper were plants from all around the world that people were taking pictures of. I called it Macro Garden. People love taking photos of their plants and their garden so I collected all kinds of these pictures from the internet that people had taken and I put them together in this kind of virtual garden.


They could never exist all together on their own?
Not together because their growing environments are so different. Compositionally I was still looking at the tapestries and how to put these images together in little clumps on the wallpaper.


Were the Wardian containers antiques that you collected?
No, I made those. I wanted to take them home with me but I couldn’t. I traded them for other artwork

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when I was in Glasgow and then I made a few up here. The form was really important to me. One was almost a church form and then I did some geodesic domes. They’re also quite seamless. Usually they use a lead or stained glass method to put them together but I like the completely clear glass cases. They’re not that hard to make. I made the model from cardboard and then took the cardboard to a glasscutter and then I put them together with a clear window sealant.


Are there any contemporary artists whose work you’re admiring at the moment?
For water colour I really like Michelle Blade. I think she works out of northern California. Her subject matter is almost apocalyptic in a way but they’re really very beautiful. I’m doing a lot of vortex type shapes in my paintings, abysses. I like doing skies. In some of my newer ones has these skydivers just free falling into no man’s land. The other artist I’m thinking of is Jason De Haan. He’s a Canadian artist who does painting and sculptural work, I think he’s from Winnipeg or Calgary. It’s very beautiful. His collage work puts together covers of science fiction paperbacks. There’s something about his subject matter that I’m intrigued by, this history mixed with fantasy. He also makes these mineral growths on busts that I love.


Winnipeg has really been on my radar lately.
Yeah, I really like the art coming out of there right now, a lot of slightly fantastical work. When I was applying for shows outside of the Yukon I definitely wanted to show there. I feel kind of akin to a lot of the artists coming out of that region.

Rosemary Scanlon •
Northern Scene •