Svalbard: An Artist’s Expedition to the High Arctic.

Apologies in advance for the long awaited blog post but it’s taken me a while to even begin to process my journey up to the top of the world, the Archipelago of Svalbard in October. It’s taken me a while to sort through the thousands of photos, the writing and the drawings I produced whilst there. My last blog post was just after I left my summer on the Isle of Eigg, straight after that it was right onto the Svalbard trip and I’ve went straight from there to my current location of Shetland!

This post is going to be a big visual journey around the High Arctic, my thoughts, my experience and our route around one of the northernmost Islands on our planet. My follow up post to this will be reflections of my journey, thoughts and notes from my diary kept in the North.

I would like to properly begin this by thanking each and everyone of you who backed my crowdfunder to get me to the High Arctic! If it wasn’t for your very generous pledges and invaluable support I would never have got to go on this artist residency of a lifetime and see a part of the world that not many people will ever get to see. I’m going to be sending each and every one of you who pledged for a drawing or painting an email in the next few days as I’m going to begin the process of sending all of this work out to you in December!

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Let’s begin.

Svalbard, 80 Degrees North, the northernmost settlement in the world, this Archipelago of Islands felt more to me like another land, another planet, far from anything I had ever experienced before. My journey began on my flight up to Longyearben, the ‘capital’ of Svalbard on the 30th of September. This is where I was going to begin my long awaited artist residency with the Arctic Circle Organisation, a unique expedition for artists where you are on a boat for a few weeks circling the Islands in the High Arctic. The mist cleared as we were approaching the land after hours of flying above Norway and then the arctic sea. I was met with rock and ice, feeling somewhat separated from the rest of the earth and in a world of jagged peaks ascending from the clouds below, the first snow and layers of otherworldly landscapes stretched as far as my eyes could see.

It was here in Longyearben in the first few days of our venture where all of us creatives met for the first time, these days before embarking on the ship meant being able to get used to the landscape, to walk around the town and explore some of the museums. It was on the fringes of the town where there were signs addressing polar bears warnings, you could not cross these signs without a gun. I remember being shocked at first at how flourishing and busy the place was, a land of permafrost, nothing fertile, an alien landscape where people surely shouldn’t be able to thrive yet Longyearben is home to over 2500 people! On our expedition we sailed right up the north west coast of Svalbard where we passed many glaciers, rocky black mountains and icy outposts to the very top of the Archipelago and then back down again.

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Day 1 Leaving Longyearben 78°23,6’N, 016°51,6’E

Our official expedition began on the 3rd of October where we set sail on the mighty ship ‘The Antigua’ we were met with snow, a rough sea (welcoming us to the harsh arctic) and then turning into an overwhelming evening of a strong showing of the northern lights. The light at the beginning of the journey in Svalbard was very much the same as back in Scotland; sunrise roughly 08:50 and sunset 18:40, however the darkness crept in very quickly with a drastic loss of 30 minutes of light per day and then the official dark winter began on the 16th. The sun goes below the horizon at the end of October and doesn’t rise again fully until February, therefore Svalbard is in complete darkness for 3 months, a pitch black polar night.

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Day 2 Bjonahamna – Tunabreen 78°23,1’N, 017°23,7’E

The first introduction to the wild remote uninhabited area of Svalbard was in Bjonahamna, high sedimentary rocks rose high from the sea, a vast and rocky wilderness, the best introduction to Svalbard. This is where we made our first landing and got to explore the area with our incredible guides, Sarah, Sally, Marte and Kristin who went ashore before us to line out the perimeter and keep lookout for polar bears! Later this day we sailed towards Tunabreen Glacier, my first very glacier I had ever laid my eyes on. This glacier is 23 KM long, (this gives you more of a sense of scale) and is high very high. Being in the boat and heading towards the icy landscape on flat calm sea with the sound of the ice breaking as we sailed through was an incredible experience. We all stood silent as we approached, this being the first one for many of us, seeing the scale and being truly immersed in the grandiosity and sublimity of the wilderness is something you can never really describe, we all just had to take it in and believe it was real. We anchored close to the glacier and made a landing surrounded by large chunks of ice. I spent the afternoon sat on a sheet of ice painting away looking at the various colours of blue I will never be able to replicate, the best studio set up. Later that day there was a group of magical beluga whales circling the boat quietly, another moment that overwhelmed us all. I had my first proper encounter of climate change here in the High Arctic, one of the guides Kristin had noticed that the glacier had retreated so quickly that it had revealed an Island. This is what is happening rapidly in Svalbard, many of the glaciers are retreating drastically and revealing another landscape that no-one had known of before. I had gone to the High Arctic to see the effects of climate change and it was here where it was obvious, hearing frightening local stories of the ice still not freezing over at this time of year, raining in October which would normally be unheard of and glaciers calving so frequently in a matter of years going back kilometres.

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Day 3 & 4 Tunabreen – Gipsvika 78°26,2´N, 016°25,9´E

We made another few landings around the glacier and then in the evening tried to make our way out of Isfjorden. We all awoke to the harsh sea the following morning with a very strong swell. We had to turn back into Isfjorden because of the high winds! We sailed into less wild waters and put the anchor down in a place called Ymerbukta at 78° north. A group of us went on a big hike towards the incredible glacier Esmarkbeen and the afternoon was spent landing on the land spit in front of Esmarkbreen. This allowed me to have a few productive hours of painting and drawing in front of the glacier. The type of landscape in Svalbard is like a painting in itself, it’s something I realised very early on in the journey that I could not replicate, it’s an otherworldly beauty that to an artist is almost frustrating as what can you do with it? My initial reaction to all of the sublime places we encountered was to stand in complete shock and be so overwhelmed that I could do nothing but just be in the environment and be present. The residency was more about soaking in every last drop of the High Arctic and viewing as much as I could, yes I still got quite a lot of work done there but the most important factor on the journey was to truly be there and see it with my eyes. That evening on the same landing spot a few of us ran into the sea, we all thought if in the arctic we should do a polar plunge. We proceeded to undress as quickly as possible and ran right into the sea where mini icebergs floated around our feet and on the shore, I can’t say I lasted long but the experience was incredible enough to be able to tell the tale! We put the anchor down at Ymerbukta that evening.

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Day 5 Ymerbukta 78°16,6´N, 013°57.6´E

A day of being ´værfast´, which means stuck to the weather. It was the only time on our journey where we couldn’t make a landing due to the weather. A landing was impossible due to the severe high winds and even with the boat having two anchors down we were still swaying about on the sea. No visibility to the land and quite exposed, the Arctic weather can change within seconds!

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Day 6 Ymerbukta – North (Blomstrandhalvøya) 78°59,6´N, 012°04.6´E

We were finally able to sail out of Isfjorden and had the most inspiring sail right up the North West Coast of Spitsbergen. The morning sunshine shone on the alien mountainscape of Alkhornet. We sailed for a total of 14 hours on this day and then anchored that evening in Blomstrandhamnda where we proceeded to have our very successful costume party on the boat. Everyone made such an effort, it’s amazing how close you get to people in a matter of a few days; sharing such a small space with a group of 30 artists for 2 weeks on a boat makes for incredible connections.

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Day 7 Blomstrandhalvøya – Blomstrandbreen 79°00,2´N, 012°13.1´E

We had the morning landing on an Island in front of Blomstrandbreen. 10 years ago, the glacier was still connected to the larger island called Blomstrandhalvøya, yet in the space of only 10 years, the glacier has retreated enough to reveal a massive expanse of space. A shock for the guides on board with us and for me another revelation of how fast the High Arctic is changing. When the glacier retreated it became clear that it was an island instead of a peninsula. The small island that we landed on was still covered by the glacier about 7 years ago. I spent my time on the landing working on some more drawings, viewing the unique geology and ice sheets around me for inspiration. We spent the rest of the day sailing in uncharted waters (that were covered by the glacier before.) Looking around at the sculptural ice bergs floating around us, the vast dark quality of the glacier, and then going on a short hike to view the glacier from above. Viewing the layers of the ice, hundreds of years trapped within, looking into the layers and seeing the sand and air bubbles from another century, another time, another space, another energetic force. Pure wilderness.

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Day 8 Blomstrandbreen – Ny Ålesund 78°55.6´N, 011°56.4´E

In the morning’s landing some of us went on a big hike all the way up to Blomstrandbreen. We arrived at the top of the mountain and saw the massive expanse of ice sheet that flowed all the way down towards the glacier. The sublime in motion. We stood in silence taking it all in, the landscape stretched out in front of us, a land untamed and so wild. In that moment standing atop the peak, the infertile land black beneath my feet with the ice all around me I felt so inferior to the landscape and realising my insignificance of my presence in this place. The land here is more than beautiful and ‘amazing’ it is dangerous. It is more than an idyllic landscape, it represents a lot more, it is primal and instinctual, a true north. That is why we feel the way we do in places like this, we cannot tame it. It is refreshing, the land is above us and we know it, it is very important for people to feel something amongst the landscape as it brings you back to what exactly you are, tiny in the earth, all of your irrelevant worries vanish. We anchored in the afternoon and made our way for Ny Ålesund and had a walk to the Amundsen/Nobile mast (this was where Amundsen set off for his expedition to the North Pole,) and walked around the town.

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Day 9 Ny Ålesund – Sailing North – Virgohamna 79°43,3´N, 010°54,5´E

We left Ny Ålesund in the early hours of the morning and sailed further north. This day by far has to be my favourite out of all of them, (and that is a very difficult choice) we sailed past the 7 glaciers (that’s what they’re called) ice after ice after ice. The route north became apparent, the landscape changed, so many shades of white, the mountains peaked higher, and we entered a fjord. It was here where we not only encountered an arctic fox but also a polar bear! A healthy bear wandering around on the beach as we sailed silently close to the coastline. Clearly visible and huge he walked around whilst sniffing the air and looking directly at us! A truly humbling moment where I felt highly fortunate and emotional to see such a majestic hunter in its natural habitat, where they should only be. We also found a massive dead sperm whale washed up on the shore, and then a large pack of walruses all lying together on one of the smaller Islands. We put the anchor down in Virgohamna and went on a zodiac cruise where we came into contact with many many harbour seals only inches away from the boat, curious and rolling around in their packs. A full on day that will take forever to process.

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Day 10 Smeerenburg – Fuglefjorden 79°45,3´N, 011°31.5´E

We landed in the morning on Smeerenburg which translates to ‘Blubbertown’ the very centre of the Dutch Whaling Industry in the early 17th Century. We stepped onshore to a beach where there were around 50 or so walruses all packed tightly together. By walking quietly and slowly as a group we were able to get very close to them. They really didn’t seem to care and it was incredible being able to see these massive creatures rolling around on the beach and having such a close encounter with them. We then walked to Smeerenburg to see the remains of the old whaling town. Later that day we cruised around the sublime area of Svidjotbreen with both zodiacs in the water, a calm fjord with another impressive glacier immersing us in its power. An ice cruise around the area, all of us in silence just taking in the views and being overwhelmed as usual at the sheer power of the land. A place that felt the most dangerous to humans and I felt the happiest right there in amongst it all. A heightened experience; my mind opening up to the land, we are so insignificant as humans and the sublimity surrounded me.

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Day 11 Fuglefjorden – Sailing South – Fjortende Julibukta

Even though every single day brought with it new inspiration, new surroundings and overwhelming beauty, this has to be one of the days that sticks out for me. This day brought with it the clearest weather, the sharpest light, clear pink sunrise skies with the low sun just peaking over the distant horizon to illuminate all of the snowy spiky landscape in its power. It was the coldest day by far because of the zero cloud coverage and we had a landing on ‘Spikeholmen’, the Island that sat right in the middle of the fjord, a small distance from the glacier. The surroundings of this place were so immersive, everywhere you looked there was a peak, an icy texture, a cast of sharp light ever changing. Most of us made this landing on an island that looked deceptively small from a distance, we all got on with our own projects, all responding to the sublimity of the place in our own ways. I spent the morning painting, watching the paint freeze as soon as I applied it to the paper, the work I made in Svalbard has textures and patterns within the paint I had not planned, icicles made within the atmosphere embedded in the art. The glacier Svidjotbreen calving frequently causing ´the big wave´ that thundered around the fjord. We put the anchor up at 12:00 to start the sail south, another one of those days where I could not be inside, the landscape changed distinctively and very quickly and I felt even more so that this land is much more than beautiful, it is emotional, destructive, untamed, it makes you feel something, it is above us and you felt that being out on deck watching it go by and being a part of it.

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Day 12 Fjortende Julibukta

In the morning we landed at Fjortende Julibukta, an area once again overpowered by the ever impressive glacier, all around us the coastline was full of small parts of ice, fragments of the icebergs that had calved earlier from the glacier. The day was misty, rainy and the atmosphere was heavy, maybe as I knew the expedition was coming to an end. I spent the landing trying to paint but letting the work make itself with the surrounding beating of the elements. A few of us went on a long hike on the second landing of the day with Marte, we hiked right up to the viewpoint above the glacier, cracks and crevasses beneath our feet, another world below the ice, examining the ancient ice and noticing the bubbles trapped within, a reminder of the age old glacier. The layers of the ice beneath us, it’s difficult to comprehend such heights.

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Day 13 Fjortende Julibukta – Sailing South

The day was clear and we sat off on our big sail towards the south. The day brought with it lots of wind and intense snow, a blizzard came and blurred the edges of the landscape from the boat. It was a full day of sailing, no landings to make up the time to get us to Pyramiden, watching the landscape and light change consistently as we passed by.

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Day 14 Pyramiden 78°39.2´N, 16°22.9´E

We all noticed on the boat how much more energy it takes to wake up in the morning with the drastic change in light from the beginning of our journey. Over 3 hours less of light in two weeks, that’s extreme! We sailed into Pyramiden in the early hours of the morning. Pyramiden is a Russian Settlement and Coal Mining Community, it was a soviet town and closed in 1998, and it has many buildings and infrastructure still in place but has been mostly abandoned since then. We were given a tour of the town and given access to the Culture House, the community hall, the primary school all abandoned; a ghost town in the middle of Svalbard. Later that day we were able to visit the hotel, the only building in the town that is lived in, 3 people live there, a very surreal place, the whole day walking around the town felt obscure.

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Day 15 Pyramiden – Longyearbyen 78°13.7´N, 015°36.3´E

We moored in Longyearbyen, the ending of our artist’s expedition around the High Arctic. A sad morning getting reacquainted with a ‘busy’ place again, it’s remarkable how quick you get used to being in a place of constant quiet and nature, no other faces but the ones on the boat.

For those of you who made it to the end of this blog post I applaud you, it’s my probably my longest one yet! I felt though that I had to really go through our day to day journey on the boat as it was my way of processing everything that happened and what we encountered. I hope you enjoy the photos, my follow up blog to this one will be my reflections on the north, more of my lasting thoughts and feelings since coming back from the trip. Any questions feel free to leave a comment or email me at ellisoconnor@hotmail.co.uk

 

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7 comments

  1. Ellis this blog is fantastic, and truly reflects the landscape on this journey and your own journey within it. I understand your work and current exhibition in Wild Space even more now! Well done and thanks for sharing.

  2. I am so SO happy I’ve stumbled upon your IG. Your travels and pictures and art are so inspiring and beautiful. Amazing adventure – I am very jealous 😉 Kind greetings from Poland!

    1. Aww thank you so much, I’m so happy hearing that it inspires you! I just have a passion and I love what I do and it’s a plus if it inspires others! Keep creating! 🙂 Thanks again!

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