“The captain came in and told us that beluga whales were nearby this morning. Jordi and I went outside to see. They were quite close this time; close enough to hear the hiss as they breathed. It really is magical here, both on the ship and off.
“We are floating in a giant bowl of blue ice and water. It is not too cold out so the air feels melty and wet. You can hear the ice chunks clicking and clacking as they bump against each other and melt. It is an eerie and lovely sound that punctuates the quiet.”
That is what the Colorado artist Tania Dibbs wrote in her journal while aboard the barquentine tall ship Antigua in the fall of 2016 as part of the Arctic Circle Residency. It’s an experience that Megan Broughton and Alex Keilty, two teachers at the Oxbow School, have the privilege of doing in June.
The expedition is a two-week sailing adventure around the Svalbard Archipelago, a group of islands roughly halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole.
They will sail with a group of other artists, scientists, architects and educators who have been selected to experience the wild majesty of the islands and to practice their art, as part of this artists’ residency program.
Every year a call is put out for proposals to artists and scientists who are interested in seeing the Svalbard Islands with a group of like-minded, but diverse, individuals. Applicants are vetted by a jury. Acceptance is based on their portfolio of work and the proposal for what they would do were they accepted to the program. Since its inception in 2009, it has become one of the most globally competitive programs of its type.
Broughton and Keilty have applied together as educators. Broughton is the printmaking instructor and dorm head, and Keilty teaches agricultural ecology. They plan to use this experience to form a similar program for the Oxbow School.
Broughton said, “We’ll have quite literally lived the experience we would like to create in Oxpeditions program, so we will be better able to fashion new opportunities there.”
“Oxpeditions,” what they will call their program, is a portmanteau of “Oxbow” and “Expeditions.”
As it turns out Broughton and Keilty have reinvigorated one of the original intents behind the Oxbow School that no one, as yet, could figure out how to do. When Keilty brought it up to the head of school, the recently retired Stephen Thomas, he told him, “that was the idea all along.
This was an original intention of the program but we couldn’t figure out how to staff it. So if you want to do it, you have a pre-established budget, all these things that have been latent for 20 years.”
Keilty continued, “For us getting to sit with and converse and take rafts and talk about climate change with all these awesome people from different disciplines we’re hoping that can inform a really progressive interdisciplinary curriculum.”
Broughton added, “And we also have that community to draw on to invite or connect students with because we do have some connections from Oxpeditions in the past, but not a ready made network and the residency does a really good job of keeping people connected afterward, so we want to capitalize on that.”
While Broughton and Keilty’s plans are to replicate the program for the Oxbow School, the experience inspires other artists to make art based on what they observe.
Hildur M H Jónasson, an Icelandic artist who lives in Canada was a participant in the 2017 autumn expedition, and subsequently created an exhibit, “Fata Morgana” at the Kootenay Gallery of Art in Castlegar, British Columbia.
In a artist’s statement, she wrote, “The nature and landscape of the high Arctic is otherworldly. I observed how I became spellbound by this stunning environment. This experience underlined the magic and wonder of this icy nature – I became a child again discovering mother earth for the first time. My senses were heightened with the absence of the noise of a busy, modern life. I was able to soak up my environment in the stillness.”
“Ghost Glacier,” a piece from “Fata Morgana,” consists of sheets of silk dyed in silvers, greys and icy blues. They hang from the ceiling in ethereal crumpled blankets, evoking perhaps the twisted, chaotic nature of the skies above Svalbard or the infinite wrinkles in an expanse of ice or snow. The effect is chilly, austere and otherworldly.
“Fata Morgana” also includes prints made from the plastic Jónasson collected on a Svalbard beach. On her website she writes, “It was shocking to see all sorts of plastic on a remote beach in the high Arctic.”
How man affects the environment is a main concern of Keilty’s as well and as an important component of the agricultural ecology curriculum he administers at the Oxbow School. Currently his work with students focuses on global warming. He said, “My work in the past two years has been shifting toward climate justice and climate action and how to have the students develop agency in the discussion of it.”
He works to get his student’s to develop “fluency” when talking about global warming because, “as a concept it’s rather difficult because as a civilization we’re struggling with how to think about a slow moving disaster, or like subjectively slow moving, but objectively it’s actually happening to people right now, we’re in it.
“The only way we can do that is through the creative process and the intention driven work that occurs in residencies like these.”
Keilty and Broughton will spend a few days in Oslo, before they fly to Tromsø, a town at the very northern tip of Norway. There they will board a small plane and fly to Longyearbyen, the largest city in the archipelago, where the Antigua will be waiting for them, with its three tall masts, its crew and 18 other artists and scientists. It promises to be a life-changing journey, not only for them, but for every student whose lives they touch in the future.
When asked about the significance of Keilty and Broughton being accepted into the program, Jennifer Jordan, the interim head of the Oxbow School said, “The fact that Megan and Alex were selected to participate this year speaks volumes about their leadership in the realm of education. The Oxbow community is very proud of their accomplishments and we look forward to hearing about their adventures.”
The Oxbow School is a one-semester residential arts program where high school aged students live full time on the Third Street campus. The curriculum focuses on studio art — painting, sculpture and printmaking among other mediums.
Jordan said that through Broughton and Keilty’s experience, “Oxbow students will learn how to better participate as key members of an interconnected global community committed to addressing pressing issues that we all face in the world. Through their mentorship, Oxbow students will be the very change-agents our world needs.”
More information about the Oxbow School is at oxbowschool.org.