Riel turned two in an airport in Narsarsuaq, Greenland.
“We found two little tea candles to make candles and chocolate tea biscuits. People were singing happy birthday to him in Greenlandic and Danish,” says his mom, Alison McCreesh, the artist and illustrator who spent a whirlwind six months travelling through six countries North of 60 with her partner, Patrice, and their toddler son. (The idea was spurred on, in no small part, because Riel was young enough to fly and ride for free.) Along the way, she illustrated 180 postcards, which now make up Norths: A Circumpolar Postcard Project, due to be released this month (Conundrum Press).
To fundraise for the trip, she sold dates to backers, who would receive a postcard from something that was happening that day. “Sometimes they were more cartoony and sometimes they were more realistic,” she says.
The cards focus on snippets of day-to-day life. Like, how to move between six countries in the winter with a stroller in tow. Some show Riel learning new words, riding in grocery carts with his dad or charming old ladies in playgrounds. Others are about her friendships with other artists and people she met during her residencies. Or sipping coffee in outdoor hot pools in Finland. Some are just about what was happening with them and the world—whether it was a bad flu that knocked them all out, or the U.S. presidential election.
The postcard from Riel’s birthday shows him gleefully blowing out tea lights. McCreesh notes how other stranded travellers shake his small hand in celebratory congratulations: “Handshakes are a birthday thing here, we learn.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Riel charmed the locals. McCreesh visited Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Greenland and Iceland, leading workshops and holding various artist residencies. “He was really good at making friends with random people,” says McCreesh. Better even than his parents. And she says he found some unlikely candidates. “He’d pick these gruffish-looking guys in their 60s, and then he’d push his toy cars into them until they caved. He’d do this to a big Russian man. He’d just wind up sitting on the laps of people on the train or at the airport,” she says. “The cute kid, yeah, that totally helped.”
McCreesh’s first graphic novel, Ramshackle, focuses on her first summer in Yellowknife. For this book, she wanted to visit the rest of the circumpolar North in the winter to get the full Northern experience.
“In all my work I guess I’m interested in the anecdotal, like how it’s the small things that make things relatable. If you look big picture, then maybe things do seem very different. But when you look at small things that is when people can relate,” she says.
She went into the trip with the assumption that living at similar latitudes would equate similar lifestyles, but she quickly found some versions of the North are more ‘Northern’ than others.
“Say in [Lapua], Finland, even though we were at a similar latitude to Yellowknife, by Finnish standards that’s not really northern Finland, that’s just like central Finland. It just felt European—not in a bad way, but I didn’t feel that strong Northern identity in the same way.”
But in one of their most southerly stops, Qaqortoq, Greenland, things looked a bit more familiar. “People were back in parkas. The type of luggage people had—travelling with action packers. And the vibe. People were pretty smiley there too. Even though the second leg of our flight was cancelled, nobody was really upset.”
In Russia, she found other commonalities too. “I’d had some work I’d made in Nunavut that I showed in Russia, and people related because there were jerry cans and ATVs and Ski-Doos and that kind of stuff, and they were like, ‘Totally. That’s totally our life.’
Though the trip was stressful at times, laughing in hindsight at schlepping cloth diapers, art supplies and her family through Arctic train stations and airports, she says it was a good lesson in appreciating the small pleasures in life. “We’d stay one night in a hotel and there’d be long halls and Riel just wanted to run up and down them. Like it didn’t matter that we were in Greenland and everything was amazing—to him, tearing up and down the halls, he just couldn’t believe how good this hallway was.”