A few weeks ago in Fairbanks, we were thrilled to unveil this year’s featured art by Jill Richie. As we select our featured artist, we look for someone who embodies the spirit of Northern Alaska – and Jill does just that.
At the final event in our annual Northern Voices Speaker Series, Jill told us about her journey as an artist, parent, and archaeologist in Alaska. Jill grew up in Alaska, and now lives in Fairbanks, on the traditional lands of the Dene people of the lower Tanana River. Community-taught and always-learning, she uses her primary work with on-site watercolors to inform her studio work, and “considers painting to be a form of being in conversation with the environment – and a tool to protect it.”
In her writing below, Jill offers insight into her creative practice and her experience painting Ground Truth. Take a look at the final piece at the bottom of this article – and save the date for our annual auction on November 17 where you’ll have a chance to bid on this work.
On Developing a Creative Practice
I’ve enjoyed dabbling in visual arts for as long as I can remember, but lacked a medium and focus until entering parenthood in 2019. Eager to maintain my lifelong outdoor hobbies with a body in recovery and a baby in tow, I started to include a small watercolor kit in my bag when we’d venture out as a family. Painting, it turned out, was a great thing for me to do while taking a break on the skin track or nursing a newborn in the foothills. I didn’t always make it to the top of every mountain, but these sketches, pauses, and observations laid the foundation for a stable creative practice and a new relationship with nature.
Since then, I’ve continued to think of my artwork as a creative practice – as opposed to a professional pursuit, a business, or an obligation. This mindset has allowed me to treat painting as something I can improve at, experiment with, take breaks from, and truly enjoy without being fixated on the end result or distracted by the notion of talent.
On Working with What You Have
If watercolor paintings required me to have a large work space, big chunks of time, and lots of materials to care for, I’d probably never put brush to paper. But having light, convenient tools that can travel with me anywhere have allowed me to create in the moment, for a moment. I’ve learned that the best art supplies are the ones you’re going to use – for me this means avoiding things that are too precious, expensive, or complicated. My watercolor kit contains a sketchbook, waterbrush, palette, pen/pencil, and a shop towel. With simple materials, I never have to worry about heartache if they get dirty, frozen, or shared with my toddler.
On that note, I’d also love to emphasize that art can be a way to observe new places, but it can also be a tool to see familiar things with fresh eyes. There’s no need to wait for a big adventure to start documenting your surroundings or practicing art. My sketchbooks capture the magic of my backyard and the backcountry with the same amount of gusto.
Art as an Act of Reciprocity
While the purpose of many of my sketches are sentimental and experimental, they also have the power to be an act of reciprocity. Art is a form of being in conversation with the environment and can be a tool to protect it.
The more I paint – that is, the more I pause, listen, and inquire – within nature, the more curious I grow about the details behind the aesthetics. How was this landform created? What is the Indigenous name for this river? Are these plants edible? How is this environment changing? Building well-rounded knowledge of the places I paint has become one small part of my responsibility—and joy—of being an artist and a steward.
In the last handful of years, I’ve made conscious efforts to deepen the themes of education and advocacy in my work. In doing so, my art has connected with social and environmental justice initiatives. It has raised funds to support local non profit organizations. It has coalesced into personal projects that strengthen my relationship to the land and individuals who inhabit it. I’m always considering how to move towards this goal, and am all ears if you have ideas!
The Northern Center plays an important role in keeping Alaskans informed of conservation issues and I’m honored to be able to engage with their mission and communities through art.
When considering what to paint for their 2023 featured artwork, I was compelled to depict a scene that was familiar across the North. Tundra – and the wide range of nature and culture it holds – quickly came to mind, and to paper. Ground Truth, a play on the scientific practice of ground truthing and a nod to the many truths held by the ground, is informed by personal experiences and field sketches from northern Alaska. Plants, caribou tracks, artifacts, insects, and feathers populate the late-summer scene and invite discussion of the long-standing interdependence of humans and nature.