Our contributing art editor Riki Moss recently had this exchange with Sally Linder, our Issue #21 featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her work depicting polar bears, her trips to the Arctic, and her emotional connection with the animals she portrays.
I’d like to begin not with your most recent series, but with the one featured in Mud Season Review. For me, this series on the polar bear that you call “Approaching a Threshold ” speaks most directly to the heart. The images are so powerful, the viewer can’t help but feel the connectivity between you, the animal, and the viewer. Would you talk about the thoughts, images, feelings, emotions that drive you forward?
Painting in series provides me the opportunity to initiate, establish, and nurture a relationship with my subject. Several of the series I feel are channeled, as I cannot account rationally for why I started painting them. “Approaching a Threshold” is one of those channeled experiences and consumed me for seven years. The drive ‘to come into relationship’ is strong and propels me against better judgment. I trust my inner voice, or perhaps ‘theirs’ calling. Usually, and in this case certainly, the polar bears’ actual physical form was intoxicating, which makes the drawing experience a vivid and sensuous act.
Why are these animals approaching a threshold? Where lies the responsibility of we humans? Can we begin to feel their loss, their hunger, their connection to the ice? And if their world on this side of the threshold disappears, are you imagining what’s on the other side?
Creating the title “Approaching a Threshold” in 2010 spoke to both the bears and to us humans. For the bears the threshold was diminished, diminishing ice of which they must have to survive. For humans, the threshold referred to choice – do something to alter the path of global warming – or do nothing. As the series evolved over the years global warming and its consequences evolved too. All species are on thin ice. We are no longer approaching; we have arrived.
Your work has always moved me to tears. My love for these Bears has grown over time, especially through those paintings where the animal meets my gaze. Can you speak to the connecting gaze between animals and humans? At least, for those of us who still open to looking?
Working for the first two years in this series from visits to zoos, the gaze of the polar bear split my heart wide open. Their repetitive pacing heightened the intensity of their eyes, and the paintings expressed their anguish with actual tar smeared across their confined world, their fur. I do not look away.
I never feel blame or confrontation from your bears. At times, I feel a sense that the animal is comforting me, possibly because there is no comfort I can give to her. Or is it an indulgence of mine to believe this? A desire for redemption?
I learned from the primates lost in the 1995 Philadelphia Zoo fire (I painted them in the series “Remembering the Primates”) that animals love unconditionally. They don’t hold a grudge; they don’t blame, despite man’s inhumanity to other living beings. The act of painting becomes my reciprocated love and deep respect. I am acutely aware of how far I have to walk to reach unconditional love in my human relationships.
None of your animals are menacing, and yet we know not to disrespect them. You’ve been on several excursions to the Arctic and I wonder if you’ve ever felt fear, or the sense that you are trespassing?
My first time seeing a polar bear in her natural world was on an expedition to Svalbard in the high Arctic. First spotting her from the bridge of the icebreaker where I was busy sketching an iceberg, she was the size of a rice kernel, yellow against the distant white snow. Let’s imagine I peed in my pants from excitement. After that sighting and those that followed, it was clear I would never again paint the bears removed from their home.
On an expedition to Nunavut, tracing the North West Passage, the icebreaker spent six hours frozen into the ice, unable to move. During those hours of captivity before being broken out of the ice by a Canadian icebreaker, the polar bears came to us, curious and unafraid. Reaching their huge paws up onto the hull of the ship, they turned their gaze unabashedly toward us who were trapped.
I see an evolution through this series and I wonder if you are finished with it, or if you will remain watching and recording until the ice is gone. Can you speak to the evolution of these paintings?
For the duration of this series I have watched, on computer screens and from the bow of icebreakers, the ice disappear. I have stripped off layers of clothing as the temperature has occasionally been in the low 50s despite being 500 miles from the North Pole at times. The Natural Resource Defense Council sent me constant updates on the increasing diminishment of the polar bears’ world, and the bears themselves.
This series is a love story. I have come to love, to worry often close to paralysis, as the polar bear species loses its footing. In my life I have let them go, forward into a new plane, unrestricted by my vision of them. In the last painting, “In Our Lifetime,” finished March 2016, they are leaving: tenderly drawn in graphite on the backside of the drafting film. Although I am no longer painting them their spirits are all around me, unencumbered by our warming planet.