“Chasing the Light” Voyage Creates Foundation for Exhibitions

“Whenever we cross the Arctic we take on a few avian hitchhikers.” These words spoken by Karen Miles, wife of Rick Miles, co-owners and Captains of the Wanderbird expedition-cruise ship.  She displayed her photograph taken early that morning of a gyrfalcon devouring its prey while perched on the rail of the ship’s aft-deck. She glows, knowing how rare such a sighting is. Greenland, in the Arctic, is a place where survival is a never-ending battle. The success of any hunter, this gyrfalcon, was to be celebrated. One precious life to feed another.

Our August voyage to Greenland, timed to witness the explosion of color and light was titled Chasing the Light – and we did. As a rough guess, the ten passengers and five crew members aboard the Wanderbird  ‘chased’ with such photographic and artistic enthusiasm that we may have surpassed, in four weeks, the total photographic output of the mid-19th century. Remarkably, tens of thousands of digital photographs were taken, as well as traditional film; video and sound were also recorded. Some of this will lead to other work: paintings, drawings, installations, some of it an end unto itself. It will be exciting to see the collective output of this undertaking.

This journey was for many of us transformative, producing a perspective shift.  Imagining the hardships endured by people living in or travelling to one of the earth’s most demanding environments are made clear even in these short summer months. The Inuit people, the Norse, missionaries and whalers, all either called this place home or learned to respect this immense island of ice and rock. The ocean, massive ice, glacier lakes and waterfalls, the soggy and fragrant hummocks and prehistoric  geological features were all breathtaking. It was an honor travelling in the wakes of luminist painter William Bradford (1823-1892), Polar explorers Isaac Israel Hayes, Sir John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, Adolphus Greely, and others before them.

The Wanderbird is a floating classroom, a Bed & Breakfast, a lookout. The Miles’ converted their sturdily constructed North Sea fishing trawler into a comfortable long range expedition vessel. The fishhold turned into six comfortable mahogany trimmed cabins accommodating as many as twelve. The Captains, experienced mariners and conservationists are tuned to nature and local culture. Food preparation, whenever possible, is based on obtaining locally hunted or fished resources: musk-ox, reindeer, seal, char, wolf fish, shrimp, crabs. The galley always emits enticing smells.

The diverse group aboard the Wanderbird, artists and crew members alike, have been invited by the Museum to share their work and experiences. First on these pages, and then potentially as part of a series related to the primary exhibition, Arctic Regions: Away then Floats the Ice Island.

As curator of this project my primary goal during Chasing the Light was to document as many of the original locations illustrated in Bradford’s  Arctic Regions  as possible. To that end, I am pleased to report that as a group we saw five,  possibly six locations previously captured by Bradford expedition photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson. I will present these in the weeks to follow on this blog.

Here is the first installment.

Plate Number: 68 “View of Upernavik, the most northern settlement on the globe. The snow-clad summit of Kresarsoak seen in the distance.” (Dunmore and Critcherson, 1869)

Upernavik (M. Lapides, 2012)

Following William Bradford to the Frozen North

Counting the hours until launch. In a couple days I’ll be  one of a small group heading to  Greenland as we retrace William Bradford’s final Arctic voyage one hundred and forty-three years later. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, in April of 2013, will be republishing a modern edition of Bradford’s Arctic Regions in conjunction with our upcoming exhibit  Arctic Visions: Away then Float the Ice Island.

The Chasing the Light voyage was first envisioned a few years ago by Rena Bass Forman (1954-2011). At that time it seemed to me more a dream than opportunity to be taken. Instead, through the generosity of private donors and with careful planning this dream is now a reality. As artist and photographer Rena was inspired by Bradford’s work, but more specifically the photography incorporated within Arctic Regions as executed by Boston photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson.

“Castle Berg in Melville Bay over two hundred feet high.”

Their photographs were the first taken in the high Arctic. At that time the theory of an Ice Age was still new, and the concept of an open Polar Sea was popular, though not proven. This perspective sits in contrast to our knowledge today; and to the discussion revolving around natural and manmade climate change; and the fact that Polar Sea is now opening up.  Then, like today, the public was hungry for news about ice, glaciers, and survival in one of the most remote regions of our planet.

Our Arctic Visions: Away then Float the Ice Island exhibit will run for one year. Adjacent to it we will feature a series of contemporary exhibits that will relate to the parallel narratives Bradford and fellow voyager and Arctic Explorer Isaac Israel Hayes developed. We will open this series with Rena Bass Forman’s exhibit also named Following the Panther.

Our group of ten voyagers and five crew includes: artists, explorers, photographers, filmmaker, teacher, polar guide, curator, captains, students, musicians, conservationists. We hold to our core a thirst to explore and create, passed to us most recently from Rena, and through the centuries from Bradford and like-minded artists.

Engage with the developing exhibits and programming process via our Department of Digital Initiatives wiki and this website.