We talk to award-winning artist, Christine Montague, who began painting polar bear portraits when they were listed as a Species of Special Concern.
Why place polar bears as the focus of your work?
I’ve always loved animals, especially polar bears, but didn’t particularly know a lot about them or vanishing sea ice. Polar bears and their environment certainly weren’t a part of my artist portfolio of portraiture and figurative landscape painting. However, in 2011, the polar bear was listed and made the news as a Species of Special Concern under the Canadian federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).
I took a break from my pre-Christmas portraiture commissions and painted a somewhat spiritual tribute of a polar bear swimming amongst the stars. My studio at the time was in a popular arts destination and I was both surprised and moved at how passionately visitors reacted to this work. As a portrait artist, it was natural next step to paint polar bear portraits as a way to learn more about them. And then, as my knowledge and awareness developed, so did the perspective from which I depicted these beautiful animals.
What is it about these animals that you have found yourself particularly drawn to?
Their intelligence, power, beauty and ability to play astounds me. They are awesome in the true sense to be feared and admired. And polar bears do seem to have unique personalities and spirit, and so I think the personality of the bears I photograph for reference, sneaks in there, too.
My figurative landscapes were always about solitude without loneliness and so I quite relate to the polar bear’s solitary journey. The image of these great white bears roaming through the arctic night is one of magic, wonder and mystery to me. Also there is a mindfulness, a popular word right now, to their existence. And on an even more personal note, my children are everything to me. Polar bears are wonderful mothers whose cubs stay with them for about 30 months.
Your use of colour is very striking and ranges from piece to piece. Is colour particularly symbolic within your paintings?
I have never paid as much attention to colour as I do with my polar bear art. The colour, or lack of it, all has meaning. Some of my first polar bear paintings, were painted monochromatically in blue. Dark blue symbolizes intelligence, dignity, trust and authority. Light blue represent spirituality. Blue is the world’s favourite colour, which is appropriate for this beloved bear. As well, in Korea, blue is the colour of mourning, and in North America, we have the “blues” if sad. In later paintings the polar bears are isolated in dark space. This represents the darkness of the arctic in winter, the lack of reflective sea ice, and solitude. The bears are the “bright spot” of the painting.
What is the significance of water in your work?
Polar bears are the only bear that are marine mammals. Their highly insulated, buoyant body and slightly webbed front paws make them powerful swimmers. However it is the frozen sea that they are dependant on for hunting (only seal fat sustains them, not berries or birds’ eggs), resting, feeding (they can’t nurse in water) and denning (necessary for mother bears with cubs, semi-hibernation, and to ride out storms). Whether you believe in climate change or not, the fact is there is an increase in the period of open water from spring to fall, and the distance between ice tops in winter. This leaves the polar bear and its cubs vulnerable to starvation, attack and drowning. My polar bears tend not to be out on the tundra or on the sea ice. They are in swimming dark water and it is up to the viewer to imagine just how far outside the picture frame the next ice floe waits and sometimes, until this moment, whether her journey had been a solitary one.
You have said that your paintings are for those who are concerned about climate change. How did you come to learn more about polar bears and the threat they have been placed under due to the changes in our climate?
As I mentioned earlier, their inclusion on the SARA list first brought their plight to my attention but I had, and still have, a lot of learning to do. Since that first painting, I have made trips to both the arctic and to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill, Manitoba. I’m been fortunate to see polar bears in the wild and attend excellent lectures about the polar bear and vanishing sea ice.
What place do you believe art has in the fight against climate change?
Thanks to social media, it can serve a large role in promoting awareness, discussion and thought on the subject. I mean is there anyone who hasn’t seen the National Geographic clip of the starving polar bear? Emotion is key to action.
Christine Montague is an award-winning Canadian artist who paints polar bears in oil on canvas as symbols of beauty, wonder, and life under threat from the changing climate. “Dark water”, her first solo show of polar bear art is upcoming in March 2018.