Elizabeth Bourne describes herself as an “unapologetic pagophile,” which might make her new neighbors’ blood run cold. Unless they find out what it means, at which point they’ll know her blood runs very cold.
The foremost definition refers to life forms that “prefer to live in ice.” Or, alternately and presumably more appropriately in this instance, perform certain activities on the ice (breeding is cited as an example).
Bourne, from the U.S. city of Seattle – famous for being drenched in that formed of thawed ice known as rain – might be considered a relatively recent cold convert, having been “bitten by the Arctic bug” after first visiting Svalbard and other far north areas in 2017. But while she initially sounds like a lot of aspiring artistic Arctic explorers seeking to portray the beauty, harshness, changes and realities here through whatever creative lenses they view the world, the departure comes when she discusses how she plans to go about it.
The artist, photographer and writer said she plans to spend the next three years living in Longyearbyen, as a follow-up to her initial artist residency here, and her photos and writings are already prolific on local Facebook and other online media while she’s in the getting-adjusted stage.
“If you’re going to know this place down to its bones you have to experience what it’s like when the postal flights don’t come,” she said shortly before debuting her first Svalbard-themed exhibit at Galleri Svalbard. “You have to experience what it’s like when things are going on up at the mines. I am getting a lot more acceptance of welcome when I say I’m living here, I’m not just visiting.”
Bourne’s debut exhibit, titled “Cyanotypes,” is named after the chemical photo processing technique developed during the 1800s (originally intended as a low-cost way to produce copies of items such as blueprints) that results in a bluish hue to the images. In Bourne’s eyes, those colors give the impression of being in the past.
“Every time someone takes a photo of a glacier or the snow it looks like it’s permanent,” she said. “That is one of the challenges with art in the Arctic and the changes that are happening here. In many instances the images you see that I’ve made are already gone.”
While plenty of Arctic areas are appealing to Bourne, she said she chose to live in Svalbard because of the easy residency requirements and complex situations the archipelago is facing.
“I specifically want to document Longyearbyen because I believe this community is on the edge of drastic changes,” she said.
The biggest change she’s observed so far?
“I think the change from being a blue-collar industrial town to being a tourism destination,” she said. “I can see that being a hard pill to swallow.”
Again, hardly an impression that’s new or unique. But Jan Martin Berg, director of Galleri Svalbard, said his initial impressions of Bourne during her residency convinced him to feature her current exhibit.
“She goes in-depth,” he said. “We also had good communication from the beginning.”
Along with her commitment to portray the realities of life in Svalbard by committing to live here, and therefore learn by observing and listening over time, a similar approach in creating the exhibit appealed to Berg.
“She was very interested in what I wanted to see,” he said. “That’s when I realized I was dealing with a pro who could really achieve a task. I said ‘surprise me’ and she did.”
Bourne, who went through the usual current-day struggles such as trying to find a place to live in a housing-starved market while getting immediately settled in, said she still is relying on her art business at home to generate income while she figures out the next steps in her longer term plans.
“I would like to say I have the perfect plan for the next while, but I don’t,” she said.