High Arctic Light: Wilding and Cultivation

How has the North inspired you? One artist was so moved by her Out of the Northwest Passage expedition that she created a new exhibition of her works based on her travels with Adventure Canada. Learn more about her journey, inspirations, and process.
Janet read light opens over water 5 29x40 oil graphite on duralar 2020

© Janet Read

"Light Opens over Water #5" by Janet Read. 29x40, oil and graphite on Dura-Lar, 2020.

My current body of work presents “landscapes of consciousness” from a month’s immersion in high Arctic geography. I visited Pond Inlet, Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord), and areas of Devon, Philpots, and Ellesmere Islands.

The Journey

My husband, John, and I were guests onboard the MS Ocean Endeavour, travelling with Adventure Canada on a voyage called Out of the Northwest Passage. We had wanted to join this trip for over a decade and finally we were on our way. Our family lore connects my husband to Captain Francis Rawdon Crozier through Crozier’s sister’s family, though the exact connection is a bit mysterious. The rich history of the region, both Inuit and European, drew us to travel there.

Janet john cliffs of moher

Janet and her husband John are avid travellers, pictured here at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland.

The journey was scheduled to begin in Kugluktuk, Nunavut at the mouth of the Coppermine River, but climate change is melting the multi-year ice, and sent it down the passages the ship was due to navigate. We were in Edmonton waiting for the news of our new destination, and were excited to learn that Resolute was our next target. Well, challenges from ice continued, and though we made it to Yellowknife with the goal of heading to Resolute, that became unfeasible. Instead we were headed to Pond Inlet, via a refueling stop in Cambridge Bay.

Janet read paintings oil on linen

© Janet Read

From left to right, "The Vernacular of Light #2," "The Vernacular of Light," and "High Arctic: Tundra Light" all by Janet Read. All 60x42, oil on linen, 2018-2020.

MJ Swan, our Expedition Leader, rolled with these changed circumstances, and he and his team pivoted quickly to provide alternate plans. One huge hurdle was the fact that we all had to overnight in Yellowknife on the Labour Day long weekend. Over two hundred folks with Adventure Canada had to be accommodated and fed. Again, what a job MJ and the team did. We were spread out throughout the hotels in Yellowknife and had a chance to find the quirky places that were still serving food on the Sunday of the Labour Day weekend. We visited the splendid museum and walked the town. Plans to leave at 5:00a.m. the next morning for Pond Inlet kept us focused forward on the adventure to come.


Ice continued to shape our lives, as it always has in the Arctic. Daily ice map briefings changed our proposed expedition route to explorations of Lancaster Sound and Jones Sound, with stops at Sirmilik National Park, Dundas Harbour, South Cape Fjord, and Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord). Our new itinerary, captured by John's photos, introduced us to the staggering beauty of the high Arctic and ignited my painter’s imagination.

We sailed over to the west Greenland coast and worked our way down to Kangerlussuaq. The stunning beauty of Disko Bay, and the haunting archaeological site of the discovery of the Greenland mummies on a small island off Uummannaq, kindled a desire to return and to learn more, to experience more. My work has developed in the studio after returning home, as the voyage continues to nourish and inspire.

Devon island nunavut

© John Read

Devon Island, Nunavut

Janet read deep ice deep sky 3 oil wax on birch panel 18x18

© Janet Read

"Deep Ice Deep Sky #3" by Janet Read. 18x18, oil and cold wax on birch panel, 2020.

My paintings reference the artist’s “being” in the natural world and encounters with people for whom the high North is home. My paintings are reflective of my personal experience, always aware that Inuit voices must be heard firsthand to tell their own stories and history. My work tells the story of a visitor, a sojourner to a sublime region of Canada.

My purpose is to highlight this region and the themes of "wilding and cultivation." These themes invite the viewer to unpack moral, aesthetic, and legal relationships to the land and the people for whom it is both sustenance and spirit: landscape and home. The wild is evident in the land and sea. Cultivation is the sea as resource and garden.

My paintings stem from a deep connection to place and immersion in the natural world. Christian Bernard Singer, curator, says, "Janet Read's abstract works are like landscapes of consciousness that metaphorically interpret various states of being of the natural world."

The Artist’s Process

Paint is applied spontaneously in a process of improvisation that is refined over the period of the painting process until the work is itself a metaphor. Oil, cold wax, multiple layers, and scraping out and flinging paint mimic natural processes of wind, rain, cloud, and light. Spatulas are the primary tools.

Zodiac and icebergs

© John Read

A Zodiac cruises past icebergs

Janet read ice 1 5x5 oil on duralar 2020

© Janet Read

"Ice #1" by Janet Read. 5x5, oil on Dura-Lar, 2020.

This work, via painting, engages with the land and the community. Carla Garnet, curator, sees the sublime in past work, “…informed by the twenty-first century notion of the metaphor. As viewers of her [Read's] exquisite works, we are invited to become aware that this metaphor of embodiment extends beyond the picture, to a view that perceives the beauty in the oscillation between when to cultivate and when to let be wild.”

Works on Dura-Lar play with translucency and transparency with the media of graphite and thinned oil paint. The luminous ground evokes the clear Arctic air and its nebulous evanescent distances.

Wilding and Cultivation

Cultivation and wildness have contesting claims in the Arctic, where cultivation can mean exploitation of pristine landscapes for the riches beneath the surface by southern interests. Cultivation for Inuit people references the ocean. “Our garden is the sea,” says Susie Evyagotailak from the community of Kugluktuk. The natural world of the Arctic is unknown to most southerners, even Canadians. The high Arctic landscape compelled my imagination with its austerity, light, space, fragility, and beauty.

Jones sound nunavut

© John Read

Jones Sound, Nunavut

Janet read light opens over water 29x40 oil graphite on duralar 2019

© Janet Read

"Light Opens over Water" by Janet Read. 29x40, oil and graphite on Dura-Lar, 2019.

Wilding and cultivation go hand in hand in this delicately balanced environment. My work explores these dualities to raise awareness of this fragile and beautiful part of our country through explorations of light, earth, and sea.

About the Author

Janet Read

Janet Read

Adventure Canada Guest

Janet Read is a painter, musician, and poet, who grew up near the shores of Lake Simcoe and has sought the water’s edge ever since. Janet was born and educated in Toronto. Her settler roots go back to the Ottawa Valley Irish, Belfast and County Wexford in Ireland. Perhaps this explains a fondness for fiddle music, poetry, and the sea.

Residencies in Newfoundland and Ireland, and travels in Norway, Iceland, Scotland, the high Arctic, and west coastal Greenland have allowed her continued access to the sea, leading to a lifetime investigation of water, as a metaphor for strength and fragility. Janet holds a Masters of Arts in the philosophy of art and holds exhibits in commercial and public galleries.

She travelled with Adventure Canada on Out of the Northwest Passage in 2018.