Seeing the Arctic through an artist’s eyes

Cory Trépanier doesn't just paint the Arctic; he makes it come alive

  • Oct 05, 2021
  • 914 words
  • 4 minutes
“Ephemeral Beauty” (2020), by Cory Trépanier, captures the brief bloom of summer flora on the shores of Ellesmere Island (Umingmak Nuna), Nunavut.
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One doesn’t expect to pick up solo hitchhikers when sailing through the desolate islands of the Northwest Passage, much less someone who travels with oil paints and sketchbooks, but that’s just how Cory Trépanier rolls. 

It wasn’t my first encounter with the renowned landscape painter and filmmaker, but it was the most surprising. We’d first met at a media event in Toronto, where Cory gave a talk about his wild adventures capturing the Arctic expanse both on canvas and film. Here’s a guy who heads into some of the planet’s most isolated landscapes, brushing off hordes of mosquitoes, nerve-cracking isolation, unpredictable weather, and the occasional wolf or bear. His resulting artwork is, for lack of a better word, mesmerizing. Prized by collectors and exhibited from Washington, D.C. to Monaco, Cory’s realistic centrepieces reveal the Arctic in all its magnificent glory, from rocky spires, towering icebergs and rugged beaches to canyons, waterfalls and boreal forest.  

Light in the remote Arctic feels like it’s triple-distilled, with an atmosphere you feel in your bones. Trépanier’s talent — which wallops you over the head when you first encounter his work — captures each delicate curve of that illumination, extenuating a raw, untamed natural beauty. He’s hiked, rafted, camped and climbed deep and far to capture his masterpieces, somehow finding the time to film these journeys along the way. Trépanier’s Into the Arctic film trilogy is required viewing for anyone passionate about the Far North, art, and outdoor adventure.

“Light in the remote Arctic feels like it’s triple-distilled, with an atmosphere you feel in your bones. Trépanier’s talent — which wallops you over the head when you first encounter his work — captures each delicate curve of that illumination, extenuating a raw, untamed natural beauty.” 

“Wilberforce” (2017) reveals a hidden gem: Kattimannap Qurlua (Wilberforce Falls), Nunavut.
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You’d expect Cory to possess superhuman strength, bug-proof skin, and a broody, introverted disposition. Instead, he’s sprightly and slender, with a casual, quiet-spoken and charming demeanor. It reminds me of the time I met the singer Norah Jones, and had great difficulty reconciling the fact that such a rich, sultry and full-bodied voice could come from such a small, shy and quiet woman. Hardcore explorers usually aren’t this friendly, disarming and approachable. 

A devoted husband and father of two girls, Trépanier’s family has accompanied him on several adventures, including his first trip across the tundra of the Northwest Territories. Expected, perhaps, for one of Canadian Geographic’s Top 100 Living Explorers.  

This fall sees the publication of Into the Arctic, a stunning print companion to Trépanier’s art and cinematography. Fifteen years in the making, the coffee table book captures more than just 60,000 kilometres of travel across six remote national parks and the images and adventures that resulted from it. It is a lifetime’s work celebrating the landscapes and culture of a region undergoing dramatic environmental change.   

Alongside Trépanier’s own essays are contributions from anthropologist Wade Davis; legendary landscape artist Robert Bateman, writer Todd Wilkinson; Senators Margaret Dawn and Patricia Bovey; respected Inuit leaders; and Royal Canadian Geographical Society CEO John Geiger. As glaciers melt, permafrost thaws and temperatures rise, this collection of Arctic introspection is especially timely. New, ice-free shipping routes are going to have dramatic consequences for a region that has long escaped geo-political tussles. Russian, Chinese and American claws are being sharpened for what many expect will be a race to extract unparalleled new resources.  Arctic wildlife, landscape and culture are in the cross-hairs.  

“Sam’s Wall” (2015), depicts Kangiqtualuk Uqquqti (Sam Ford Fiord), Nunavut.
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The cover of “Into the Arctic,” a new retrospective of Trépanier’s work accompanied by essays on the changing Arctic.
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Why don’t you just take a picture instead of going through all that trouble? Trépanier has heard these words time and time again, typically after someone watches his documentaries and sees the daunting physical challenge he puts himself through. Most painters don’t lose weight, brave storms, or fend off wolves to capture their muse.   

He writes: “I am drawn to these wild places in search of inspiration and authentic connection with nature. There is a longing in me for places that invoke a feeling of humility in the face of vast wonder.”  

As a result, his work captures what Survivorman Les Stroud calls the Arctic’s “pure essence.” 

Wade Davis believes Trépanier’s art is “an inspiring and reassuring antidote” to our modern photographic frenzy, resulting from silent contemplation and sensing a spirit of place. The truth is Trépanier does take photos and video too, but his delicate brushstrokes convey more honesty and emotion than either, preserving and sharing spectacular landscapes that few will ever see, much less feel.

“At Rest, Beechey Island” (2017) depicts the warm glow of sunset on the beach where stand the graves of four members of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition.
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Trépanier hiking on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.
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Trépanier completes his large-canvas paintings in his barn studio located in Caledon, Ontario, funding expeditions through a combination of sponsors and collectors who have purchased future paintings that Trépanier has yet to experience, much less imagine into existence. Although I’m unfamiliar with the art world, viewing prints of his landscapes in the book leaves me in little doubt these collectors will profit handsomely. For the rest of us, learning about this unique perspective of the Arctic through the stories and images Cory Trépanier’s heroic art delivers more than its just rewards.   

Into the Arctic (302 pages, $75) is available to purchase on Cory’s website

You can watch Trépanier’s award-winning Into the Arctic film trilogy free on YouTube

Shortly after this column was published, Cory Trépanier passed away after a courageous fight with cancer, a devastating loss for his family, friends, and all who knew him. Just 52 years old, Cory packed in many lifetimes of adventure, leaving behind an invaluable legacy of Canadian art and wilderness storytelling. 

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