Her paintings have the fantasy flavour of a film set – yet Oxfordshire artist Leila Javadi spent seven winters living in the interior of Alaska and the Arctic circle and her paintings tell the tales of her adventures. Her story is fascinating and packed with bravery and joyous optimism.
“I was very introverted as a child,” says Leila, “a selective mute happy in my own company. I come from a huge family – ten brothers and sisters – and I was in the middle. We had lots of dogs too so there was always noise and activity. I loved it but also loved to do my own thing, spending lots of time sitting quietly in the corner painting. At school, art and sport were the things that inspired me, and they still do. I love being physically fit, strong and active. That – along with taking on challenges that push my limits – is part of who I am.”
Although Leila doesn’t believe people should be defined by their sex or other characteristics, she is proud to be a #thisgirlcan ambassador with a remit to encourage physical activity in women.
“I started learning the martial art taekwondo when I was about seven and I sparred with my brothers who were bigger and older than I was, which gave me the edge when I came to compete with other girls who were the same size as me. I earned a second-degree blackbelt, competed for the UK, was the English champion for five years and an instructor and umpire too.”
Describing herself as adventure-artist, Leila’s first adventure was triggered in her late teens when, messing around on the riverside with friends, she was thrown in. She couldn’t swim and so challenged herself internally – two years later she was scuba diving cageless with bull sharks in Fiji. It was there that the Arctic caught Leila’s imagination.
“I was lazing in a hammock in the boiling heat flicking through an atlas and wondered where I could go that was cool” she laughs. “I’d read about The Gates of the Arctic: a single spot described by the American forester and writer Bob Marshall who travelled to Alaska looking for ‘blank spaces on maps’. His philosophy considered wild places to be essential for both a region’s ecology and for human happiness. The gates are two mountains 200 miles inside the Arctic circle which swoop down to the flat terrain between. Stand there and arctic tundra opens up ahead of you. I knew that was next.
I first chose to travel un-guided with a friend. We had woefully poor equipment and walked on snow-shoes for 196 miles. We had mis-timed the trip, travelling in late April when the ice was becoming too thin to walk on by day, so we travelled by night during which we saw tracks of ravenous bears who’d emerged from hibernation. We nearly made it, but not quite. Afterwards my co-adventurer swore she’d only go to warm places with good menus, but for me, it was unfinished business. I decided a dog-sled would be a better way to travel”
Laughingly, Leila describes how she had rung around Alaskan kennels asking to borrow a team of dogs and sledding equipment. “I had no experience, so they all said no. So next I learnt to race huskies.
I trained with huskies for several years – racing hundreds of miles at a time, travelling thousands of miles through blizzards and over thin ice, lost on the trail with cracking trees and charging moose – before I finally reached those gates of the Arctic. I’ve now spent seven winters in the Arctic. I love the solitude of racing alone, with no phone and no outside world. There’s an invigorating simplicity to travelling, cutting wood, lighting fire, cooking and sleeping, being totally self-sufficient. When you’re alone in the great outdoors you have a heightened sense of awareness. Your senses sharpen and you’ll hear the beating of a bird’s wings. At 50 below, the whole world changes. There’s an indescribable rising haze from the ground; the air is crisp, and it sparks with static.
The Arctic is full of stunning phenomenon from ice flowers – delicate feathery clusters of bacteria that form on top of the ice and look just like flowers – to the Northern lights. You can also see sundogs, an atmospheric optical illusion giving the sun a striking halo. It’s these views that inspire my art.”
To help raise funds for her adventures, Leila sells her paintings. “I’ve always taken a sketchbook wherever I go to draw, or just scribble when my hands were very cold, which was most of the time. If I can’t draw, then – and it sounds bonkers – I write a description of the sights and the colours to remind myself. You’d never capture their shades with a camera. Eskimos have two hundred words for snow and there are that many colours.”
Leila’s palette is unquestionably arctic yet includes strong rich colours alongside white and grey in many hues, some surprising. “Snow is pink when the sun sets, and yellow sometimes. In the moonlight the Arctic terrain lights up in a glittery silver. There’s also a whole range of blues particularly where running water squeezes up and out from deep below the frozen surface of a river or lake. Glacial rivers are a vibrant turquoise, miles of colour stretching out in front of you.”
Her paintings are often large, powerful and immersive – you could be lost in the snow just looking at them. “My paintings come from first-hand experiences and emotions,” she explains. “It’s that attachment to the subject which gives a life to the pictures, an extra dimension. Producing something that’s merely aesthetically beautiful isn’t enough: I am always trying to capture a moment of a story on the canvas, the beauty of the view and the tale it’s telling too.”
For the Joy for example, shows a line of dogs jumping into the snow, bounding with energy and excited to have reached a patch of new fresh snow. “It’s a moment when I had pushed myself to the absolute limit and was beginning to hallucinate. You hear and see things that just aren’t there and there’s a kind of delay in your brain as you process what you are looking at. My eyes could see these amazing colours coming from the dogs and I thought ‘I have to paint that!’’’
Alongside energetic huskies under moody skies, caribou in windswept snowstorms and Canadian geese, her latest My Dear Cowboy painting records her time with a Canadian Ranger on horseback, setting log stockpiles ablaze deep in the Rocky Mountains as part of a forest regeneration project. The blazing flames give a sense of heat and intensity against shadowy trees and drifting smoke.
And what’s next? “I fancy going to see the flamingos in the blood-red, ice-frosted Laguna Colorada in Bolivia at an altitude of over 4000m. They’re incredibly tough and get frozen into the lake overnight. I’m also increasingly drawn to Asia,” she continues, and while she has no firm plans, standing in a studio home to a large globe and an easel, where maps and celestial charts hang, Leila’s wanderlust is certain to take her on more interesting adventures. “It’s a good job Mum had lots of us,” she grins. “It means I can get away with disappearing into unusual places without her worrying too much!”