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In the Bleak Midwinter

Esther Lafferty talks to two local artists who are inspired by cold and inhospitable landscapes

For more than 15 years Frances Brann has been painting inside and at the edges of the Arctic Circle aboard the Snow Dragon II, both her sailboat home for the duration of her travels and the studio in which she paints and draws

The nights are long and headlights light the dusk across Oxfordshire through the damp and encroaching dusk and most of the population will be pleased to see the buds appear on the trees and to shed their coats and scarves as the new year gathers speed.

So what is it that pulls a small number of us to the cold and the bleak?

Two Oxfordshire artists find themselves most inspired by environments that would make the less hardy amongst us shiver in our boots, and their work is focused on some of the most inhospitable environments in the world.

Firstly we meet Frances Brann, a painter who spent her map-rich childhood at Burcot House, and longed to travel and explore the remote places that other people rarely got to see. Burcot was once a missionary college and in the old disused chapel attached to the house, Frances exhibits her paintings for Oxfordshire Artweeks each May. Living in Burcot for half of the year, Frances now spends the other half in the arctic circle on a boat she built herself, the Snow Dragon II.



It’s been an interesting journey, for her, to reach this point in life. Frances started out as a woodworker making small items for the house, furniture, some small architectural woodwork and for a short period taught woodworking for the University of Alaska where she fell in love with the arctic, before moving to the rather sunnier clines of California and concentrating on making boat interiors. But the cold and remote habitats had stolen her heart and, after building a couple of houses and a boat for herself, she headed back North, putting the graphite pencils of the professional woodworker a side, and taking up watercolours.

And so, for more than 15 years Frances Brann has been painting inside and at the edges of the Arctic Circle aboard the Snow Dragon II, both her sailboat home for the duration of her travels and the studio in which she paints and draws, exhibiting on a sporadic basis in Alaska, California and Oxfordshire.

Some of her landscapes she paints on location from mid-ocean as she traverses the cold waters between Greenland and Svalbard, for example.

‘What’s special about the arctic is the light’ says Frances as she explains to people why she is obsessed with painting the far north. ‘It’s a unique low level light that combined with a lack of vegetation allows the bares bones of the landscape to show through.’

And Frances takes the time to study her surroundings in depth, looking beneath the apparent surface to see the undulations and the structure, capturing the way the shape of the land interplays with the light and the way the panorama is illuminated because of landscape. Huddled in layers of clothing, she can become absorbed in the process for hours (as long as she has a continual supply of hot drinks at the side!)

Others picture are more composite, and might be done from the relative shelter of a harbour, especially if unfavourable sea conditions have confined her to the coast. These composite paintings are inspired by the sights from different places combined together into an imagined landscape for maximum effect, the sculptural form of a whales bones, for example, on the golden purple rocks of a beach seen at an earlier point in her travels.

Another Oxfordshire Artweeks artist, Headington photographer Ross Mackenzie, finds himself drawn to the arctic and other remote spots by the light and it isn’t just the Northern Lights that attract him like a moth.

‘It’s the dramatic mix of mountains and fjords, of villages and harbours, combined with the clear, crisp air that gives the light a special quality which makes Lofoten a wonderful place for photography and draws me back’, explains Ross.

Ross has spent some time on Lofoten, an archipelago off the west coast of Norway about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. ‘The logistics of visiting these kind of locations can be a challenge as many places don’t have any of the administration, communication and industrial facilities that are needed to make life in a remote group of islands in the Arctic possible’ says Ross, but he delights in this difficult environment of harbours and towering mountains which can be dominated by snow or equally bask in bright sunshine. ‘It’s a fantastic setting that would set the heart-beat of any would-be mountaineer soaring. For other tourists there is the draw of fjord safaris, looking for whales and white-tailed eagles, and the island of Svinoya linked by bridge on the other side of the harbour. It really is the end of the road and it’s just implausibly picturesque.’

Svinoya is typified by rorbu, striking red-painted white-windowed wooden huts with black roofs, the traditional seasonal houses used by fishermen, which are built on land, but have one end on poles in the water.

Other images that catch my eye are the Sculpted Icebergs of Eastern Greenland which is prime iceberg spotting territory reached only by helicopter from Reykjavik in Iceland or, in the summer, by boat. Beyond that, Ross travels on foot, though he hasn’t ‘yet’ camped inside the Arctic Circle.

‘One of the delights of photographing icebergs, explains Ross, ‘is the knowledge that an image can never be repeated, every iceberg image is unique.. After just a few minutes the light will be different, in a few hours the water will have changed and after a few days the berg would have been transformed out of all recognition.’

And Ross isn’t just captivated by the habitat he finds. He’s an avid wildlife photographer capturing from only a few metres away, Svalbard polar bears feeding, penguins undeterred by the cold and puffins at play. ‘It’s a privilege to see then in the wild’ he says,’ and something I feel driven to share with others.’

You can see more of Ross Mackenzie’s story on his blog and read of his latest adventures in the far reaches of Scotland, or follow him on @northsouthimage.

For further information on Frances Brann, visit francesbrann.com

Both artists will be hosting exhibitions in May as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks.

- Esther Lafferty

Top Image - Burford's Frances Brann

Bottom Image - Ross Mackenzie's Polar Bears, Lancaster Sound