Fearless painter captures nature’s soul.
One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
“I paint for the sheer love of painting. And I love to be in the wild places.”
With these words Rigmor Clarke sums up her passion as a painter of the landscapes she visits and dwells in alone for days at a time. Her paintings are sensual, intense, energetic and powerful renderings, in large or small scale, of northern Saskatchewan and mountainous British Columbia. Her style has sometimes been compared to Tom Thomson’s.
And she loves the medium itself. “Paint is delicious. It’s like chocolate or whipped cream to me,” she told Wayne Rostad, in the CBC television program “On the Road Again”, in 2002.
Clarke paints in a Quonset studio on a farm in Shell Lake, about one hundred kilometres west of Prince Albert. This is the farm she shared with her husband John, from 1956 until his passing in 1998. However Rigmor was not originally from this area.
She was born in Sweden, and immigrated with her parents to Canada in 1949. In 1950 the family bought and settled on a ranch near Mount Robson, at Tete Juane Cache British Columbia.
As a child, Clarke was always making art. She made her first painting when she was five years old, and had her first box of paints at ten. She was influenced by impressionistic Swedish landscapes, and paintings by her grandmother, Marie Louise Widell. “On my grandmother Widell’s side,” Clarke says, “there’s been a painter in every generation.”
But in a homesteading family, there is practical work to do. As a young woman, Clarke skidded logs using horses, worked in the family saw mill, and tended cattle on the ranch.
At age twenty-one, with a yearning for adventure and a few dollars in her pocket, Rigmor flagged down the eastbound night train and went as far as her money took her. This was Shell Lake, Saskatchewan.
“There wasn’t very much here in those days – just open land and a few people.” Fortunately, some relatives there took her in. In Shell Lake Clarke found her first job as a domestic.
At a baseball game, she spotted a handsome man – John Clarke – found out that he was single “and pursued him really hard.” It seems he offered little resistance. They married, she moved to his farm (which he had bought in 1949), and soon began a family, which would comprise three children. “We raised cattle and grain,” says Clarke.
These activities left little time to pursue her passion for art, although Rigmor did give it attention whenever she was able. To buy paints, she tooled leather for belts, wallets and purses, tended garden for marketable produce, and hand-raised the occasional stray calf.
When she did paint, she painted in her living room. The school bus driver who picked up her children every day said, “I know when you’re painting Rigmor because I can smell it on the kids.”
All along, her husband was very supportive and encouraged her art and her independence. He made stretchers and frames for her, built her first camper, and loaned her the money to finish building her studio.
As her children grew up and her family responsibilities lessened, she began to find more time for art. At age 40 Rigmor committed herself to becoming a professional artist. She’d read about Grey Owl as a child in Sweden, and when she came to Saskatchewan she realised that this was Grey Owl country. A canoe trip on the Churchill River from Missinippi to Stanley Mission created an epiphany for Clarke. “When I came out onto the lake,” she says, “I saw my fortune. I felt I’d come home.” It was the visual and emotional impact of untouched nature that exhilarated her then and compels her now. Before forty, Clarke had never taken art classes, but suddenly she wanted to learn, so she studied with Bob Christie, Myles McDonald, George Glenn, and went to the Emma Lake art workshops.
For three decades now, Rigmor Clark has been painting with abandon. Several times a year, she loads up her camper, which pulls a trailer for the all-terrain vehicle, and she heads off into the wild. Among her favourite places in Saskatchewan are Pinkney Lake and Lac La Ronge. “Northern Saskatchewan is beautiful,” she says.
Recently – forty- nine years after that fateful train ride – she returned to the home ranch in British Columbia to paint there. “To get the soul of the mountains in paint is very challenging,” she says.
When she goes into the wilderness in Saskatchewan or British Columbia she becomes obsessed. “You’re out there all by yourself, and you just melt into the landscape, you become part of it.” She paints from about 10:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. She has painted as many as seventy-five oil sketches in three weeks.
And she is fearless. Being alone, surrounded by nature, including bugs and wild animals, does not trouble her. She says: “Animals are very astute. They know what’s in their territory. I don’t pay attention. I have to concentrate. I’ve often wondered, in all the years that I have been out there, how many animals have watched me, I’ve hardly ever seen an animal. Well, there was one time when I noticed a bull moose about two hundred feet way looking at me.”
Painting in the wilderness is transcendent and exhilarating according to Clarke. She says, “I come home very happy.”
Her son lives nearby, but her husband and her old neighbours are gone. “But I could never live better in any other place, than I am out here,” she says.
Her love of Saskatchewan includes great respect for other artists here, and spawns a theory. “There’s something special about art in Saskatchewan. It’s honest art. It’s the strong gene pool. The pioneers – only the strongest stayed. They had to be creative.”
Clarke has shown and sold her paintings all over Canada, to individuals, corporations and to public and private collections and she has sold internationally. Does she have fame and fortune? That depends on your definition. “Could I live on it? No. But I’m doing what I want to do to the fullest extent.”
Six years ago, Clarke visited a ‘studio trail’ – a tour of art studios – in Ontario and came home with an idea. So, along with local artists and craftspersons she created the Thickwood Hills Studio Trail, centred around Shell Lake and Spiritwood, which runs for two days in early August – this year August 6 and 7. Seventeen studios will open their doors to show paintings, bronze sculpture, wood carving, weaving, stained glass and more – all set in a lovely, scenic part of Saskatchewan about one and one half hours north of Saskatoon. Information can be found at www.studiotrail.com; Rigmor Clarke’s website is at www.forestraven.ca.
Though landscape is her primary medium and is featured in paintings ranging in size from eight by ten inches to six by eight feet, Clarke has also ventured into abstract and metaphoric paintings in two series – Excerpt from the Blue Planet, and the Raven Paintings, respectively.
For Clarke the challenge never ends – how to get the special quality of light on a moist fallen log into a painting, or to capture the change in the sky when the weather breaks.
It’s often a striving for the impossible “The tinkling of ice breaking up,” she says, “you can’t put that in a painting.” But it doesn’t mean she won’t keep trying.
“It takes a lifetime to be an artist,” says Clarke. “I don’t worry too much about critique. A hundred years after I am gone, they will decide if I was good painter or not.”
Who knows about the distant future, but for today and tomorrow, Rigmor Clarke is a remarkable painter.
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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