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Escape Artist

Escape Artist

Got writer's block? Go find an iceberg.
By Samia Madwar
Jan 20
From the January 2016 Issue

It looked perfect on paper: two weeks aboard a refurbished tall ship, sailing through the Arctic Ocean, with nearly 30 artists and scientists on board and everything set up for you to relax and create. That’s The Arctic Circle, a New York-based organization offering biannual ship-based artist residencies, where the cabins are comfortable and luxurious, and the food is first-rate. “There’s cake time every day at five,” says Reneltta Arluk, a Northern playwright who was battling serious writer’s block when she hopped aboard the ship. Perhaps, she reasoned at the time, getting back to the landscape she knew so well would get her going again.

But it wasn’t working out, at least not for the first week. Her colleagues—creative thinkers though they were—got in the way. “I got tired of everyone talking all the time,” she says. The chatter was endless, following her throughout the ship, on Zodiac boat trips to shore, during hikes up moraines and even atop glaciers, where she longed to take in the sights and sounds of icebergs breaking off. “I wanted to experience isolation and expanse-ness,” she says, using a made-up but highly appropriate word to describe the Arctic landscape. So she asked for some private time, and the crew assigned a guide to accompany her on a (mostly silent) three-hour-long hike. 

“Just seeing how the icebergs change at every angle, what different facets of character they each possessed, and seeing the magnitude of the icebergs. That is what broke my spell."

Though she felt better, it still wasn’t quite right. So Arluk turned her attention to the other artists, helping one set up creative shots of icebergs, and another circle icebergs for two hours on a Zodiac, filming a 360-degree view of the ice. It opened her eyes, she says, “just seeing how the icebergs change at every angle, what different facets of character they each possessed, and seeing the magnitude of the icebergs.” 

“That is what broke my spell,” she says. “I realized what happens in the first act of my play and what happens in the second act of my play. It’s like the icebergs broke it down for me.” Arluk is still working on her script, which traces the journeys of Tookoolito, an Inuk woman who served as a translator for explorer Charles Francis Hall in the 1860s and ‘70s—and also sailed around the Arctic in a tall ship.


For this and other artist residencies in the North, check out:

The Arctic Circle: Summer Solstice Expedition: June 11-29, 2016; Autumn Art & Science Expedition: Oct. 1-19, 2016. thearcticcircle.org 

TD North/South Exchange: The Canadian Art Foundation sends Northern artists to the south and southern artists to Cape Dorset’s Kinngait Studios. canadianart.ca

Chilkoot Trail Artist Residency: A two-week hike along the historic Gold Rush trail. Apply by February 1 for the summer 2016 program. yukonartscentre.com

Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture: Look for filmmaking, songwriting and visual arts programs in Dawson City, Yukon. kiac.ca/artistinresidence

The Ted Harrison Artist Retreat Society: Named for the late Yukon arts icon, this program offers up studio space in a log cabin on the shores of Crag Lake. Weekly or monthly rentals available year-round. thars.ca

Western Arctic Moving Pictures: The Yellowknife-based multimedia group offers residencies when funding allows. wamp.ca