February 25, 2020

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Northern narratives

Hand-drawn postcards make for moving travel tidbits

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/5/2018 (640 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The beginning of summer might not seem like the ideal time to read about living north of the 60th parallel during winter, but Alison McCreesh’s illustrated travelogue, Norths, is the perfect format and tone for relaxed summer reading.

At first glance, this thick, small-format (18 by 13 centimetres, or seven by five inches) book is simply a collection of illustrated postcards McCreesh sent back to friends from artist’s residencies and side trips in six Northern European nations: Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

But there is much more going on here than a simple collection of postcards. Between November 2016 and May 2017 McCreesh, along with her husband and toddler, left her Yellowknife home to experience life in the six European circumpolar nations.

McCreesh applied for grants and to short-term artist’s residencies, promising new fibre artwork and sound/video documentation. To cover the rest of the family’s expenses, she came up with an inventive crowdfunding plan. For each of the 180 days she would be away, she offered to write and draw a postcard for her friends on a pre-selected date chosen by them, and for $20 they would receive this original work of art in the mail.

This book collects all of the postcards together so that they read as one cohesive illustrated story that chronicles in pictures and words the many joys, frustrations, surprises and disappointments of nomadic family life on a shoestring budget.

McCreesh was born in Quebec and moved to Yellowknife after she graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi in 2009. In her work as a fibre artist, illustrator and cartoonist, McCreesh explores living and travelling across the North. Her first book, Ramshackle: A Yellowknife Story (2015), uses comics to document the city’s historical and contemporary development, from off-the-grid shacks to downtown office buildings.

In Norths, the postcards depict everyday scenes of the places she is living in detailed black-and-white illustrations of landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, people and common objects. Whereas postcards traditionally show grand and monumental scenes, these sketch the much more banal scenes of daily life in circumpolar villages, towns and cities, such as "Looking for the library in Qaqortoq (Greenland), walking behind a group of teenagers" and "The view from our bed. Petrozavodsk, Russia."

On the back of the postcards, McCreesh’s lively mini-narratives of that day’s events are written with the immediacy and intimacy of a diary. While she does draw some maps, provide historical and cultural information and reflect on the similarities and differences between circumpolar places, there is little of the classic travel writer’s wondrous or exoticized gaze on foreign places and people.

Instead, the hundreds of micro-narratives tell an ongoing story about the practical details of moving and settling time and time again in different countries, acculturating to artist-run centres and getting to know her studio mates, and the trials and triumphs of travelling with a toddler and husband who are often at a loss to keep themselves busy during the day.

Fans of Guy Delisle’s comics travelogues Shenzhen, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem will see parallels in McCreesh’s good-humoured depictions of parenting and working while travelling.

Although Norths does not use the traditional comics format, it is hard not to be drawn into this small, addictive book. The postcard illustrations are like film stills that project readers into the moments they depict, and McCreesh writes about her experiences with honesty and freshness.

As much as these are very specific experiences, readers who are artists, travellers and/or parents will all recognize elements of their lives in these small stories of a huge undertaking.

Candida Rifkind is an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she teaches and researches comics, graphic narratives and Canadian literature and culture.

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