I return with enthusiasm to my discussion of the fine art and career of Native artist Sydney Kirkness, whose paintings I discovered during my Artists in the Schools residency at Joe A. Ross School. A close reading of his paintings reveals the mystery of creation at work and a mature artist at ease with composition, colour, and spiritual symbolism.
In the image he created for January, Sydney employs a delicate sense of movement as the wings of the realistically rendered Snowy Owl follow the circular shape. The subtle, pale colours and cool palette contribute to the sense of the lonely and lovely depths of winter, while the owl reminds us that life and the hunt that is necessary for survival go on all year. As well, from a mythical perspective, the owl is a liminal bird who exists at the threshold between one world and another, between one year and the next, a visionary being who sees into the past and forward into the future. Behind the owl, we see the vast stretch of snow and the edge of the snow-covered forest. As a keen observer of the natural world, Sydney paints the white orb of the sun surrounded by an ice halo, otherwise known of as a nimbus, icebow, or gloriole, a phenomena produced by ice crystals or ice diamonds in very cold weather. A circle within a circle within a circle…
February in Manitoba’s north is a frigid month. Sydney paints a spirit face that reminds the viewer of the ancestors, those who have gone before, who have become part of the land on which they once tread. Or the face might be Old Man Winter, winter being the time of the year associated with old age. Again, Sydney employs the subtle pastel palette with a representational perspective. There is a mist before the forest, a natural phenomena created by the warmth of the rising sun on the cold air, emphasizing spiritual presence.
For the month of March, Sydney chooses an earthy, vibrant palette of warm colours, deep oranges, browns and blacks in the background that leads to the white orb of the sun at the centre, all of which emphasizes the return of the sun and warmth to the Northern Hemisphere. The swirling movement of the two beautifully rendered eagles is created as Sydney paints the eagles in such a way that they (and the viewer’s gaze) follow the circle in a spiraling spiritual flight toward the sun, toward the sacred centre, toward the unknown spiritual Great Mystery at the heart of all life.
Discussing the evolution of Sydney Kirkness’s art, writer Andrea Geary in “Arborg business owner promotes talents of local artists” outlines how Sydney serendipitously brought art in for framing to Sylvia Gislason, who then went on to become his agent, promoting his work in a career that “snowballed,” with his work selling nationally and internationally. He sold up to one hundred paintings a year.
Sydney and Agnes Kirkness met in 1977. They married and raised a family together; Agnes watched her husband’s career evolve. As Agnes Kirkness confirmed in her 2013 conversation with me, Sydney liked to paint at night when the children were in bed and the household was quiet, painting into the wee hours. He painted from nature and his dreams. Agnes recalled that he would say to her “I can see the picture already,” and he would go on to give her a description, but Agnes let me know that she couldn’t visualize what Sydney saw in his mind’s eye. “I don’t have that talent,” she added, with humour. “But my grand-daughter does!”
In my next entry, I will conclude this blog sequence with musings on the last months of the year, as painted by Sydney Kirkness…