Higher Art

As Jonathan Marquis wanders the Mountain West, his work is informed by the remote landscape he’s tracing

The first time I met the artist Jonathan Marquis was in a remote corner of Glacier National Park, near one of its namesake ice masses, at the end of a long off-trail traverse in the mountains.

It was the culmination of a big, tiring day when our paths happened to cross, but I distinctly remember that he and his companions had seen three grizzly bears and three wolverines, critters that eluded me even though they couldn’t have been more than a contour line away.

Trained as a painter and drawer, Marquis was deep into his “Glacier Drawing Project,” an effort to draw all of Montana’s fleeting glaciers before they disappeared, including the two dozen or so remaining in Glacier National Park, which he frequents during the summer months.

It’s an interesting concept, the artist’s immersion in a landscape he’s portraying. I suppose for me it furnishes the craft with a degree of authenticity, especially when it’s a hard walk to get there. But, as I’d later discover, the relationship between artist and subject that Marquis was contemplating that day is a lot more interesting and complex.

Even though I hadn’t seen any bears or wolverines, and I’d crossed the same chunk of country as Marquis, I had seen the artist. Later, when I saw his depiction of the glacier on display at an art gallery, I found a deeper connection with the work because I knew about that dynamic — the artist removed from the confines of his studio, the full weight of his subject bearing down on him, the fourth wall knocked over.

Since that random encounter in Glacier, Marquis has been pushing the button forward, experimenting with new concepts and exploring different media while crossing landscapes that are both foreign and familiar. Somehow, he’s become more deeply immersed in his subject while further removing himself from the end result.

His use of cyanotype processes to record images of glaciers in what he describes as “10-minute light paintings” gives the wild features he’s depicting an even more direct conduit to the canvas.

His work will appear in an upcoming book about the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (abatlas.org) and in another titled “Earth Eaters.”

Check out this recent conversation with Marquis, and follow him on Instagram @jonathanbmarquis.

Flathead Beacon: Where are you in the world?

Jonathan Marquis: Keeping track of me is pretty tricky! I spend the majority of my summers in Western Montana, mostly out of Missoula. However, I also spend time in East and West Glacier and visit different glacial areas, predominantly those in Glacier National Park, but I also wander various wilderness areas where glaciers still remain, like the Missions and Absaroka-Beartooths.

This past summer, I spent two weeks as an artist-in-residence in the Selway-Bitterroot at a backcountry guard station and airstrip. The program was with Open AIR Montana — a newly founded residency program in Montana. (www.openairmt.org). There are no glaciers in the Selway-Bitterroot, so I was not sure what I would produce, but the experience proved invaluable, in thinking about the multiple currents, both natural and cultural, that keep such places working as wilderness. I ended up making a series of cyanotypes with wildflowers and the large saws used to maintain the trails in the region.

Beacon: I’m familiar with your Glacier Drawing Project, and with the influence of glacial and mountain landscapes on your work and adventures, but catch me up to speed on what’s new. The cyanotypes in particular stand out as a unique medium to capture those landscapes.

Marquis: Cyanotype is an interesting medium. It was one of the first photographic processes invented that was able to fix an image to a surface and became a popular method of recording the taxonomy of plants, notably by Anna Atkins. Later it became the primary method of distributing architectural plans — blueprints. I grew up with blueprints around the house because my father worked in construction, and I remember being fascinating by their lines and smoky blues. I do not use them to expose a negative like in blueprints or in a traditional photographic sense. I am trained as a drawer and painter, so I approach them like 10-minute light paintings.

The cyanotype produces a receptive surface that when exposed to ultra-violet light turns various shades of blue depending on the length of the exposure. Other materials that come in contact with the surface can affect the exposure as well — water, for example. In the series “Downwaste,” I did not want to represent glaciers with drawing or painting, like in my work with the Glacier Drawing Project. A drawing takes a point of view, isolates it, and pictures it from an anthropocentric gaze often interpreted as a pristine landscape, a beautiful relic of the past, rather than as a dynamic agent in the present. Such views feed into glacier-ruin narratives that revel in fantasies of loss rather than the realities on the ground and do little to spark the dire changes necessary for all forms of life to thrive on this planet.

Rather than make a drawn representation, I use the receptive surface of the cyanotype to create a situation that lets the glacier draw itself. I think of the cyanotypes as collaborations and believe they offer a way to imagine glaciers as meaningful actors tangled in the myriad life currents that shape the landscape — not just the physical terrain, but the lives that depend on them and the ways we think, see and come to terms with ice in an accelerated, changing planet. The ways we imagine ice has real ramifications on the ground.

Beacon: Do you find that your work gains something by creating it in a natural setting? Is it, or are you, more honest in its depiction?

Marquis: I think being there and bearing witness is crucial in my work. I remember when I first got into drawing glaciers, I started looking at other artists doing similar work, and many of them relied on photographs taken by others, from satellite images, or got to remote glaciers by ship or helicopters. I did not like that. Expensive, carbon-heavy expeditions to glaciers in Greenland or the Antarctic seemed silly when climate change was happening in my “backyard.” I wanted my body on the ground and in conversation with glaciers, to feel its cold with my fingers, to embody the shape of the land by walking it, to breathe hard, to struggle, to return annually with a commitment to these places for the long term. I wanted to know firsthand what we are losing.

I like making art outside the controlled, pristine environment of the studio. In the alpine wilderness there are all sorts of conditions that can affect the production of light-sensitive images, like wind, rain, clouds or rocks that are tumbling off the glacier. Some days the weather shuts me out. I am not sure if this is more honest, but I like the responsivity that is required