Top of the World Exhibit

Vermont artist and Johnson State College Fine Arts Professor Ken Leslie has completed more than a dozen Arctic residencies over the past 15 years, creating paintings and artist’s books about light and time, both of which take on endlessly interesting permutations in the north.  Leslie’s paintings and unique book structures were created during residencies in the northern regions of Alaska, Canada’s Baffin Island, Iceland, Svalbard, Scandinavia, and – most recently – Greenland.

_The Last Umiak,_ Watercolor, Ken Leslie

“The Last Umiak,” Watercolor, Ken Leslie

Having experienced the Arctic in both summer and winter, Leslie prefers the dark time: “The first thing I noticed, and loved, about the Winter Arctic is the Quiet.  Snow muffles what little noise there is . . . the few roads are easy to escape; there are no trees for the wind to rustle, and the millions of summer birds have long since gone – the terns all the way to Antarctica.  That Quiet is the perfect sound track for the Dark.  When you hear of ‘24 hours of darkness,’ you get the idea of total, pitch-black darkness.  But the reality is that there are many kinds of darkness.  What the Winter Arctic loses in direct sunlight, it gains in twilights – the most amazing range of rich indigos and French ultramarines and cobalts.  The intensity of this blue seems greatest when there’s a cloud cover, and what little light there is reverberates back and forth between the sky above and the snow cover below.  The filtered light wavelength seems to multiply in saturation, and you feel as if you’re walking through blue, not merely below it or in front of it.  You breathe it in, bathe in it – become part of it.”

In speaking of his powerful watercolor “The Last Umiak,” depicting a spiritual journey by umiak, a traditional skin boat used by both Yup’ik and Inuit Eskimos, Leslie reveals, “I dreamed this last journey of that disappearing culture.”  Found in coastal communities from Siberia to Greenland, the large, open umiaks were traditionally used to transport groups of people and for crews hunting walrus and whales.  In the eastern Arctic, the umiaks were frequently rowed by women to transport children and family possessions and are sometimes referred to as “women’s boats.”  Umiaks, still made from Bearded seal (or sometimes walrus) skins but often fitted with an outboard motor, are sill very much in use in Alaska’s northern coastal villages during the spring whaling season when the large boats are launched by whaling crews from the ice edge of the open lead in pursuit of Bowhead whales migrating along the coast.

While many of Leslie’s works are typically flat, he has pioneered working on circular constructions that allow him to paint 360° panoramas that move through space and time.  While working on a particularly large drawing, Leslie realized that “if I cut a hole in the center, I could fold the work into what became my ‘doughnut accordion’ structure.”  These signature creations are, indeed, doughnut-shaped, narrative paintings, many of which focus on light and the way it changes with and through the Arctic seasons.  In addition to paintings, Leslie also creates one-of-a-kind artist’s books, which address a variety of themes, including “our place in the universe, a layman’s theory of relativity, the battle between nature and technology, and light and dark on or above the Arctic Circle,” explains Leslie.

Ken Leslie is a well-known artist who exhibits and lectures internationally.  He has received numerous awards for his work, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Arts Council, and the American-Scandinavian Foundation.  Examples of his work may also be viewed at his website.Also on display will be the charming and evocative watercolors and etchings of CCS associate Bianca Perren, an artist and paleoecologist who has spent the past 15 years working on lakes in the Canadian High Arctic, Greenland and Svalbard investigating the nature of the changing Arctic landscape.  Under the microscope and in visual art, Perren’s work focuses on exploring the environmental response to climate change, pollution, and more direct human land use.  Her watercolors, often done, en plein air, in the field, often near lake coring locations, Norse sites, or falcon eyries, mark her experience of the landscape more immediately, as snapshots of a day, or a fjord, or as a memory of time on the landscape.

This will be Perren’s second exhibit in Vermont; many of you may remember her previous exhibit at River Arts, Morrisville, VT in February 2013.  Perren’s work may also be viewed at her website.
"Wounded Caribou," Agyhagayu Cape Dorset 1961

“Wounded Caribou,” Agyhagayu
Cape Dorset 1961

Rounding out this exhibit are Inuit prints, loaned from the Sullivan Museum at Norwich University, which received the collection of prints as a gift from Dr. Robert Christie.  These wonderful works were printed in the 1960s and 70s, just as the Inuit printmaking industry was becoming established in the Canadian Arctic, especially in Cape Dorset, which remains a hub for artistic activity.  In the treeless Arctic, printing from woodcuts (in which a raised image is carved on a flat piece of wood) was not a practical option for printmakers; early on, the Inuit artists experimented with imported linoleum floor tiles, but they soon found the relatively soft and easily carved local greenstone to be ideally suited for creating “stonecut” prints.
Inuit artists have often used printmaking to illustrate myths and local history as well as to document traditional ways of life within the evolving cultural and social landscapes.  The striking images often feature animals, which were regarded as important spiritual beings; within this worldview, local communities were not simply surviving on the wildlife resources within their environment but were living in a highly structured relationship with them.

The Chandler Center for the Arts has additional activities planned to complement the exhibit.  A lecture on the topic of Northern cultures by CCS Trustee Kathleen Osgood will be offered (free of charge) at 7PM on Monday, 22 July in the Gallery, and a printmaking workshop (pre-registration and fee required) will be offered by Janet Cathey at 4:30PM on Tuesday, 30 July.

For more information, please contact Beck McMeekin (802.728.6464).


Coming Fall 2013: Anima Borealis

The Center for Circumpolar Studies announces the launch of a pilot course around humanities issues in the North. “Anima Borealis” is a 90-hour course focusing on spirit worlds and spirit masters in the North. Created by CCS Trustees Kathleen Osgood and Eleanor Kokar Ott, Anima Borealis takes an experiential approach to accessing other than-human worlds. The course has been built in collaboration with the University of the Arctic, using UArctic’s Virtual Learning Tool. While all the course materials are online, Osgood and Ott will lead the course at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library on Tuesdays, starting September 3. Course registration materials will be made available through the CCS website, where a complete course description will also be listed. Please contact Kati (  for more specific details on the course.


The Mongolian Tuvan Survival Project

RidingReindeerandHorsesIn March 2013, Santis Productions President Ed Nef approached The Center for Circumpolar Studies in hopes of generating interest and academic support for establishing a culture and language program around the summer grazing grounds traditionally used by Mongolia’s small population of Tuvan reindeer herders, or the Dukha, as they call themselves.  Having worked with Nef previously, CCS Trustees were familiar with his extensive experience in Mongolia (formerly with language instruction and more recently with the award-winning documentary Mongolia: Mining Challenges a Civilization), his obvious love of the country and its people, and his natural enthusiasm for tackling large projects.  We were both delighted and honored to become involved in such an exciting endeavor, and have recently accepted a contribution to help fund CCS participation in establishing the program this summer.
CCS Trustee Victoria Hust will soon be traveling to Mongolia to participate, first, in the international task force gathering in Ulaanbaatar for education conferences and, then, in the summer fieldwork and language instruction to be conducted on the taiga in the Khovsgol Province, in northwestern Mongolia, near the Siberian border.


During the days of Ghingis Khan, a Tuva nation straddled what is now the Mongolian/Russian border.  Disapproving of this nation within two nations, the Soviets established a border, which was strictly enforced, separating the Tuvan speakers inhabiting Mongolian territory from those remaining in Russia.  The small groups trapped in Mongolia, suddenly isolated from their more numerous Russian kin, were reluctantly accepted as Mongolian citizens.  Despite attempts to cling to their traditions and customs, their demise seemed inevitable as they were left without the possibility of contact with the larger Tuvan community remaining in Russia.
Over the next fifty years, until the fall of communism, Tuvan culture slowly diminished in Mongolia, but it also managed to achieve a character of its own, apart from the Russian relatives, becoming known to Mongolians as Tsaatan, or reindeer people. Tuvans comprise the smallest ethnic minority within Mongolia.  Estimates indicate that there are between 44 and 56 Dukha households in the Khovsgol Province, with the total population estimated to be in the range of 200 to 300 people.  With few of the younger generation conversant in Tuvan, many of the elders are fearful that their language and culture will soon be completely forgotten.

The Program

CCS will be collaborating with Oyunbadam, a native Tuvan speaker who is also a trained teacher, in her efforts to establish a language program in the traditional summer camps on the taiga, where the nomadic reindeer herders gather in extended family groups for the brief summer period.  The language program will encourage rich and meaningful use of the native language within an authentic cultural setting and assist in transmission of culturally relevant information from elders to the younger generation.
In this first summer, the language program will serve approximately 60-65 students, aged 8-15 years.  The students will be taught vocabulary and grammar and will be encouraged to use the Tuvan language in writing and in their daily communications within the camp.  By enlisting the participation of elders, the program will encourage traditional activities, customs and games, thus strengthening ethnic values and identity, which will also be reinforced by introducing the students to various genres of Tuvan literature.  Basic Oral language Documentation (BOLD) techniques will be used to record portions of the language training as well as to document summer camp activities with significant cultural relevance.  A documentary film crew from Santis Productions will also be present to record and document aspects of this innovative program.
International academic interest in this proposed language program has encouraged additional support within Mongolia, where the President recently issued a proclamation announcing governmental support for saving the Tuvan language and culture in Mongolia, focusing especially on the Dukha’s rights to receive education and committing his government to keep ancient cultures and traditions alive.  The Mongolian Ministry of Education has also committed to provide assistance after the program has been established this summer.
CCS will take the lead in assembling academic focus on the Tuvan culture and language.  Building on Mongolian experience over at least a decade, and drawing on experience from this fieldwork, CCS proposes to develop courses to integrate this program into the development of curriculum broadly focused on the Circumpolar North, where reindeer and reindeer-herding cultures are significant areas of interest.  The stature and credibility brought to the program through collaboration with international organizations, such as CCS and Santis Productions, will encourage continued interest from the Mongolian government, and the documentary film will publicize the program in Mongolia and internationally.  It is our hope that integration of this program into the broader curriculum at CCS will assist in recruiting scholars interested in the Tuvan culture and language, and CCS will encourage and nurture participation of native Tuvans as opportunities are developed.

Book Review: Eastern Alpine Guide

EAG CoverEastern Alpine Guide: Natural History and Conservation of Mountain Tundra East of the Rockies

M.T. Jones & L.L. Willey, Editors.
New Salem, MA: Beyond Ktaadn & Boghaunter Books, 2012.
xx + 348p, illustrated, paperback. ISBN 978-0-9883535-1-0. $34.95

Reviewed by Steven B. Young
Hikers on the northern end of the Appalachian Trail know that it reaches above timberline, into the Alpine Zone, in a few places such as the Presidential Range and Mount Katahdin. These tundra areas are similar to the true Arctic that lies a thousand miles to the north, and they have unique ecosystems that reflect this. What is less well known is that there are many more, and more extensive, alpine areas not so far north of New England, and they often harbor some of the iconic wildlife of the Arctic, such as ptarmigan, arctic hares, and the more widespread caribou.
Mike Jones, Liz Willey and several of their colleagues have spent the past decade in a labor of love, culminating in the Eastern Alpine Guide. This is a detailed, scholarly, and beautiful introduction to these alpine summits and plateaus. Some of the places they discuss are becoming well known, such as Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland.
Others are seldom visited and remain true wilderness. The authors subscribe to the view that these pristine areas are more likely to be appreciated and preserved if they become better known. The Eastern Alpine Guide is a major contribution toward this goal.
All proceeds from sales of the  Eastern Alpine Guide support the nonprofit mission of Beyond Ktaadn. The Eastern Alpine Guide may be purchased online (; copies may also be purchased at Center for Circumpolar Studies events.

The Common Loon Field Project

The  Center for Circumpolar Studies is delighted to announce recent acceptance of a $26,000 contribution to support Dr. Paul Spitzer’s on-going work with the Common Loon (Gavia immer), also known as the Great Northern Diver in Britain. Summering in Vermont for the past 30 years, Spitzer has long conducted observations and collected data on the habits of loons that come to mate and breed on pristine northern lakes, but he more recently began to focus on the non-breeding biology of the Common Loon, and this work has him collecting data from Vermont (summer) to Maryland (autumn) to the warm Gulf waters of Florida, where many loons overwinter.

Because loons nest on freshwater lakes of the northern interior and winter on salt water, often far south of their breeding range, some long-distance overland migrations are unavoidable. As Spitzer points out, “These are critical events in loon life history.” Heavy, solid-boned loons require from 30 yards to a quarter mile (depending on the wind) in order to accelerate across the water for lift-off; such habitat is required for any migratory stopover. Once airborne, migrating loons have been clocked at speeds of 70mph; sustained strength and thermoregulation during overland flight are essential.

Loons are vulnerable to downing in torrential storms, and to exhaustion or confusion before they find adequate water for landing and subsequent takeoff. “Their annual migrations must avoid these lethal situations,” notes Spitzer, “and thus are on the cutting edge of natural selection.” In addition to these limitations, many loons migrate singly or as a few dispersed individuals, and Spitzer has come to view the overland migrations as a sort of loon intelligence test. “Is hard-wired instinct sufficient to guide this specialized, long-lived, slow-reproducing diver, or are flight and stopover decisions based at least in part on a lifelong learning process?” wonders Spitzer.

The Center for Circumpolar Studies is grateful for the generous contribution to support fieldwork on this iconic northern species, and we welcome Dr. Paul Spitzer to the Summer 2013 field season!

University of the Arctic Growing Around the Circumpolar World

Among the founding participants in the University of the Arctic, CCS Board members Steven B. Young and Kathleen Osgood continue to be active in developing Circumpolar education. When Young and Osgood first participated in the workings of UArctic at the beginning of the millennium, the handful of members could all literally sit around the same table, but twelve years later, representatives from member institutions voting on the Council business of UArctic can barely fit into a university lecture hall, and its programs are increasingly sophisticated and far-reaching.
UArctic is a network of universities, colleges, and institutes around the circumpolar world dedicated to education “In the North, For the North, By the North.”  At the Council meeting at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in early June, UArctic admitted 21 new members, bringing the membership to 162 institutions, including the first six Chinese members.
UArctic’s flagship undergraduate program in Circumpolar Studies, a suite of seven interdisciplinary courses, is still going strong, using the best in online teaching technology to share resources and instruction.  The Scandinavian countries have provided strong support for mobility and outreach programs, which means that students participating in UArctic programs have the opportunity for mobility scholarships to member institutions elsewhere in the Arctic.
UAF is picking up the leadership for graduate programs, which include shared programs and degrees, as well as field schools.  The Barents Region has provided endorsement and support for research networks, which range from Arctic Law and Aboriginal Public Administration to Northern Tourism and Indigenous Images.  In the best cases, the research networks include field opportunities for graduate students and shared learning objects for all participants.
As an active member in the University of the Arctic, The Center for Circumpolar Studies has access to all of UArctic’s programming.  By sharing the costs of instruction or organization or outreach, all UArctic institutions have greater capacity and are better connected across the North.  Within a year, CCS hopes to provide access to UArctic’s Circumpolar Studies and mobility programs, alongside its own original academic and public programming.


Coming Fall 2013: Story Matters

The Center for Circumpolar Studies is currently working with staff from the Fairbanks MuseumCatamount Arts and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum to develop a storytelling course for local middle school students.  Working with the Fairbanks Museum’s Community of Observers, the students will be encouraged to hone their observational skills, which form the basis for both art and science, and to then reflect on their own interactions with the natural world, culminating in an story that places the students’ personal reflections solidly within the context of the natural world.  We expect the course to be available for the Fall 2013 program; course registration materials will be made available through the CCS website, where a complete course description will also be listed. Please contact CCS Trustee Victoria Hust ( for more specific course information or to participate in the team development of the course.