“Art is not what you see but what you make others see” Edgar Degas
Northern Alberta, the land of rolling hills covered with the stubble of aspen and spruce. Spiky branches pressed up against the blue sky. Landscape thick with wild rose and saskatoon shrubs. Standing water crowded near the edge with thousands of pale, green blades. Miles of disheveled terrain laced with dirt roads. A place where, if you get stranded by an unreliable vehicle, you might have the minor inconvenience of hitch hiking back to town or the major inconvenience of fighting off a bear. A place of moose and muskeg, of bald eagles and wolf calls. A place where the trees remind us what it’s like to be wild.
I lived in Northern Alberta for a short time just after the birth of my first son. My husband took a remote teaching job and we moved, towing all our meager belongings in a poorly maintained red Capri to a place where I knew no one. And what is a lonely woman to do but draw pictures of her surroundings?
This painting was originally drawn when we lived on John D’or Prairie Indian Reserve. Even though it was a June night, the air was crisp enough to send my breath upwards in frosty plumes of vapor. And I could still see the sparkle of frost on every surface.
That’s when I saw the northern lights streaming across the sky.
I tucked my infant son into a baby carrier, wrapped a warm jacket around us both, and headed into the chilly night.
The lights were so unbelievably beautiful. Some things in life are beyond the confines of language. I sat in awe beneath them, so grateful to be its witness. My son wrinkled his forehead as he peered upwards. Not yet able to smile, he leaned his head back to study the crackling lights, looking, for all the world, like he was analyzing them.
We sat there in the cold, watching the lights as our breath disappeared into the air as silently and heart breakingly as the days pass away, as the years and even our lives pass. All of them drifting upwards and melting into nothing. I held my son and knew that nothing could replace that time with him and that those moments are the glue and mortar that make up our lives. All we can do is appreciate those moments, to own them. As I looked down on my son’s beautiful face, I felt that ownership. And that’s why I paint, so that I can own those times that I love. He has such a lovely face and he will endure hardship because we all do. But at that moment, we owned the time together under the northern lights.
Time is our most precious resource, nothing can replace it or bring it back or buy us more. We can only sit and enjoy the majesty of the world and be grateful for the gift of sight. That is our reward.
That’s where I drew this picture. Sitting on a mound of dried grass, holding my son with one hand while I drew with the other. Only my baby and I, in the darkness, sitting silently and breathing air just cold enough to make us feel alive.