Northern Exposure: Kirsten Furlong Goes North to Alaska 

Boise artist's new show highlights Alaskan inspiration

"News from the Wilderness: Grizzly Bear 2011," oil, acrylic and metal leaf on canvas.

Kirsten Furlong

"News from the Wilderness: Grizzly Bear 2011," oil, acrylic and metal leaf on canvas.

Each night before bed, artist Kirsten Furlong would close the wooden shutters on her cabin in the Denali National Park, squeezing out the never-ending summer sunlight. Though the shutters were studded with nails to keep out curious bears, she could still hear the shrill squeals of rabbits as a lurking lynx snatched them up.

Furlong, a BW Cover Auction Grant recipient, spent two weeks in the summer of 2010 participating in an artist-in-residency program at the East Fork Cabin, deep in the 6 million-acre Denali wilderness. The rustic 14-foot-by-16-foot cabin she stayed in, located 43 miles inside the park on the East Fork of the Toklat River, was built in the 1920s and had no running water or electricity.

"For me, the best part about the cabin was just the ability to experience that wilderness area firsthand ... to just experience that rhythm of living every day in a very different environment without all of the electronic things that you tend to look at every day," said Furlong.

Though some might cringe at the thought of that kind of isolation, Furlong flourished in her remote residency. She spent her days hiking through the forests, observing and documenting the natural life that winds its way into much of her artwork.

For the last 10 years, Furlong's work has focused on the representation of nature in cultural places. Many of Furlong's pieces--including an installation of beige felt birds in the Boise Art Museum's Birds of a Feather exhibit--have had a recurring ornithological theme. The Denali residency allowed Furlong to broaden her scope and explore some of the forest's larger fauna.

"[Furlong has] always focused on animals. So this experience that she was provided to go to Alaska and take a different peek at what she had normally been interested in--nature, scale and how all those relate to her work--I thought it was a great opportunity to really have this direct experience and encounters with the land, with the landscape, with the animals that are in the wilderness," said David Hale, owner of the Linen Building. "It's a big jump going from your suburban/urban home to going out to Denali, that's just this beautiful wilderness."

A solo exhibition of Furlong's work, North to Alaska: Kirsten Furlong, recently opened at the Gallery at the Linen Building. The show incorporates a variety of media--everything from large-scale paintings to monotype prints to embroidered felt--but there's one noticeable new motif: rabbits. Prints of rabbits radiating geometric auras sit across from a giant embroidered painting of a gold-leaf rabbit, while a small, felt faux-taxidermy sculpture of a rabbit nibbles a gold mushroom in the corner. And while, superficially, it may seem like Furlong has made the jump from birds to rabbits, she explained that is not the case.

"I think people pigeonhole me. I did a couple of series on birds and people were like, 'Oh, you're a bird person,'" said Furlong. "I know there's these people that have these lifelong obsessions with one thing, but I am definitely not one of those people. I think the only reason that it maybe looks like I was doing birds and now I'm doing rabbits is I tend to work in series."

According to Furlong, the specific animal she focuses on is far less significant than what it symbolizes overall.

"To me, the animals are all a stand-in for something else ... I think, in a way, they symbolize me as the artist and me trying to understand or identify with the natural world," said Furlong.

Another thread that runs through North to Alaska is the ample use of shiny gold leaf. Though Furlong has worked with this medium in the past, it gained a particular relevance with this show.

"The history of people of European descent going [to Alaska] has a lot to do with gold ... I'm using the gold to sort of represent what I perceive as the true value of Alaska and that wilderness ... As far as the United States is concerned, [it's] the last big undisturbed area," said Furlong. "What will probably be its ultimate demise is the fact that there are resources there, not so much the gold, but now it's oil."

In addition to addressing these weighty environmental and political issues, North to Alaska also turns a critical lens on the way animals are portrayed in the media. After returning from Denali, Furlong began to notice sensationalized stock photos of bears roaring or wolves with sharp fangs flashing. She explored this phenomenon in the piece, "News from the Wilderness: Grizzly Bear 2011," (pictured at left) which features a growling bear surrounded by gold, silver, red and brown canvas circles.

"I think it's really just part of living in the West, where in particular, these big predator animals--whether it's the cougars or the bears or whatever--they're presented in this way that's us vs. them. I find that dichotomy really strange," said Furlong. "You don't hear that 99.9 percent of the time, the bears are just peacefully minding their own business."

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