Painting on the Frozen Continent
Words by: Clare Dudeney
Photos by: Steffan Glynn, Steven Rose, Clare Dudeney
I’ve spent a lifetime imagining Antarctica. It’s the place that took my father away for many months each year, but gave him such joy and passion that he has dedicated his life to its science and conservation – working there for over fifty years initially with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and most recently as a historian on a tourist ship.
The experience of finally visiting Antarctica in December 2013 had a profound effect on me. It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to be there – so vast, isolated, sometimes with visibility for hundreds of miles, other times with close white skies. Moments can feel abstract as your brain searches for visual memories to make sense of what you’re seeing. Near silence can be interrupted by the growl of icebergs or the crack and crumble of an avalanche.
I was so inspired by the place and the people I met that I left my job when I got back to do what I loved - I became an artist. I spent time retraining in drawing, painting, and sculpture - taking evening classes, short courses and most recently completing an MA in Fine Art. In January 2018, I was given the opportunity to return to Antarctica with the same expedition company, as an artist in residence.
It was fantastic to attempt to capture the landscapes that had so moved me. I wanted to capture a sense of the place – not just how it looks, but what it feels like to be there. Drawing first in tiny sketchbooks, then working from memory to develop paintings.
I was so inspired by the place and the people I met that I left my job when I got back to do what I loved - I became an artist.
The expedition leader wanted to take us to places that even the staff had never been to. There’s a wonderful shared curiosity as you encounter animals that might never have seen a human before. I was endlessly amused by the behaviours of penguins, who create highways in the snow by walking in each other’s footsteps, and will walk halfway up a mountain only to forget what they were doing and shuffle back.
I was surprised by the colours of Antarctica. In the Weddell Sea mountains looked pink, I thought it might be rocks but then realised it was the poo of hundreds of thousands of nesting penguins. I had never before seen wildlife on this scale. We saw huge tabular icebergs, and the ship made a U-turn as our bird expert Simon spotted an emperor penguin.
Making artwork in Antarctica can be challenging – snowfall made the paper soggy and my oil paints froze. But on board the ship, I held workshops with the passengers on printmaking and watercolours with some fantastic results.
At Elephant Island the wind and waves were too fierce to make a landing but we travelled slowly around to Point Wild, marveling at how Shackleton’s team survived in such a treacherous place. In the Falkland Islands, there was a bizarre interaction of king penguins and sheep, as well as close encounters with nesting albatross.
It was a wonderful experience, particularly working with such a friendly and knowledgeable team and working alongside my father… Finally understanding his addiction to the frozen continent.