PROFILES: Arctic inspires new art by Leslie Reid

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine, as part of a series of stories about Ottawa’s connections to the Far North .


Ottawa artist Leslie Reid is pictured with one of the first works, Llwewellyn 59°05’N; 133°56’W, which is based on her photo of the terminus, or tongue, of the Llewellyn Glacier in the Juneau Icefield. Photo by Dwayne Brown

Leslie Reid’s paintings, whether of pastoral Calumet Island or foggy Newfoundland, have always been more about emotion than landscape. That is to say, the sense of loss or tranquility or mortality is more important than the hazy images of lakes and trees the Ottawa artist harvests from photographs.

“Although she has always worked from photographs, her intention has never been photographic objectivity,” says Diana Nemiroff, who curated a Reid retrospective at Carleton University Art Gallery in 2011. “What interests her are the perceptual and psychological sensations provoked by the experience of a particular place.”

So when Reid spent nearly three weeks in August 2013 hopscotching around the Arctic with the military, the retired University of Ottawa art professor was, in essence, seeking emotions provoked by aerial views of glaciers, mountains, rivers — not to mention the effects of climate change on these landscape features — that she could put on canvas. Those Arctic scenes and emotions culled from 11,400 kilometres of air travel will form a body of work called Mapping Time for exhibitions next year in Ottawa and Montreal.

Reid on a walk to the shore of the Northwest Passage at Resolute on Cornwallis Island. Photo courtesy Leslie Reid
Reid on a walk to the shore of the Northwest Passage at Resolute on Cornwallis Island. Photo courtesy Leslie Reid

Some of those emotions provoked by the North are the “psychological sensations,” to use Nemiroff’s term, derived from Reid’s appreciation of the experiences of her late father, an air force pilot. She had a “difficult” relationship with her father, who died at 44 — half a century ago, when Leslie was still a teenager — their differences unresolved.

Squadron Leader John “Jack” Reid flew DC-3s around the Arctic in the 1940s while a military photographer captured the scenes below. The nine-by-nine-inch prints from those forays are stored in the National Air Photo Library on Booth Street. Reid, the daughter, is using those old photos, as well as her own, to help craft the paintings in Mapping Time. In many ways, Reid was following in her late father’s footsteps last year courtesy of the Canadian Forces Artists Program, which allows artists to have ringside seats at military activities for a few weeks at a time. She said she was not expecting the trip to “resolve” the troubled relationship with her father but that she hoped “family history” would be one of the lenses through which she viewed the Arctic. Reid seems reluctant to say much about her “mercurial” father but offered this: “When he was away, he loved me dearly. It’s when he was at home I wasn’t so sure.”

After her trip, Reid fed dozens of her digital photographs into a Flickr website as a gift of sorts to the pilots, rangers, and other military personnel who facilitated her magical mystery tour. Nancy Baele, former art critic for the Ottawa Citizen, saw the Flickr images and sent Reid an email. “They are amazing,” wrote Baele. “Some of the landscapes seem as though they are paintings you have done. But what kept going through my mind was the question: How will you distil the human and landscape, both so haunting, so inextricably intertwined, sublime, so earthly, so earthy? … It is the artist’s task to give all these sensations, thoughts, and intimations form … Lucky we have you.”

Baele’s challenge to transfer those sensations from photographs to paintings weighs heavily on Reid, like an obligation, as she works in her downtown studio. Enthralled as she was by the scenery and the people at the top of the world, Reid also experienced a “sinking feeling” of “the eventual catastrophe” coming to the North through a combination of economic development and environmental change. It is this sensation that drives the story Reid wants her paintings to tell.

Among the first paintings created for Mapping Time is a majestic scene from the Llewellyn Glacier, which is part of the Juneau Icefield that borders British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. Pointed glaciers stand in a row like soldiers guarding a distant mountain. Another painting shows the silted tendrils of a “braided stream” flowing from Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Kluane Icefield in the Yukon.


Photo courtesy Leslie Reid
The paintings in Mapping Time are Reid’s interpretations of photographs she took in 2013 while on tour with the Canadian Armed Forces. Photo courtesy Leslie Reid


Although Reid is a lifelong artist, painting is hard on her eyes, which were damaged first at birth and later, as an adult, in a fall so traumatic that she could not paint for five years, the world appearing double and on a slant. Her improved vision since then seems to owe more to willpower than to medicine. She now sees the world as it really is — or at least as an artist sees it, as this artist sees it.

Indeed, the landscapes depicted in these initial Mapping Time paintings resemble the photos but softened. It is like looking at the memory of the landscape rather than the landscape itself. It is also peering into an increasingly fragile future in which climate change melts glaciers and threatens the environment. Thus, the paintings simultaneously exalt and mourn the North.

Photo courtesy Leslie Reid
The paintings in Mapping Time are Reid’s interpretations of aerial photographs she took in 2013. Photo courtesy Leslie Reid

In her 2013 trip, Reid’s first stop was Whitehorse, where she met a group of Canadian Rangers, the Aboriginal paramilitary organization that patrols the Arctic on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces. The rangers wondered why this southern woman, well into her 60s, was part of Operation Nanook, the military’s annual flag-waving Arctic tour. Suddenly, one ranger declared, “You are honouring your father.”

It was moments like these that would bring Reid to tears. She had not thought of her trip that way, but the ranger was right. “Yes, in fact, I was honouring, not a ghost, but a relationship that grew in a ghostly way in the air. It was quite amazing.”

A Hercules air-craft was the plane that transported Reid on most of her trips in the Arctic. Photo courtesy Leslie Reid

It was while flying in Griffon helicopters and large Hercules aircraft to Yellowknife, Resolute, and Iqaluit that Reid felt closest to her father. “I was up in the air. I was his equal. They make you an honorary captain, so you have a rank. I was probably his rank or close to it. I suddenly felt totally empowered to be there in my own right, not as a military person but as a photographer, as a painter, as an artist — and respected as such.”

Reid constantly bumped into her father’s ghost. In Resolute, which is located on the northern tip of Resolute Bay and is considered one of Canada’s most northern communities, Reid encountered a couple of Inuit hunters stretching a polar bear hide. She was suddenly transported back to her childhood and to the polar bear rug her father had brought from the North. Little Leslie would sit on the rug to play with dolls her father had purchased in foreign countries he visited. In a shop in Iqaluit, Reid felt compelled to purchase two dolls dressed in Inuit garb. It was the kind of thing her father would have done. In Whitehorse, she discovered gold nugget earrings similar to those her father once brought her mother.

Photo courtesy Leslie Reid
Shortly after her arrival at Resolute, Reid came upon this polar bear skin being stretched. “My most tangible memory is a polar bear skin, with its bullet hole, that [my father] brought back and that I would nap on.” Photo courtesy Leslie Reid
Reid wore her mother’s gold nugget earrings during a presentation she gave this past summer on her Arctic trip to an overflow audience of artists and curators at Arts Court. That presentation has made Reid’s Mapping Time exhibition among the most highly anticipated shows of the 2015 local arts calendar. The first batch of paintings will be unveiled in March at Galerie Laroche/Joncas in Montreal. Later in the year, another batch will be shown at Ottawa’s Galerie St. Laurent + Hill. An installation of Reid’s photographs is tentatively planned for the Military Museums in Calgary next year, and the Canadian War Museum has expressed interest in acquiring some of the images.

Reid is energized by the thought of those exhibitions and the experiences that inspired them. “It’s good to visit old ghosts, even though that wasn’t the intention. I just thought this would be a really interesting way to experience the North, through family history, through my father’s love of it. His happiest days were up there in the bush.”