In his best-selling book Into the Wild, American journalist Jon Krakauer recounts his summit of the Devils Thumb, a mountain in Alaska right near the B.C. border. In describing his adventure he writes, “Because I was alone, however, even the mundane seemed charged with meaning.” One Edmonton artist has been making his own journeys into the wild and translating that depth of meaning into his artwork. Ed Hunt’s Finding My Way in the Woods showcases work he created while undertaking a 100-kilometre solo trek in Jasper National Park’s Whirlpool River Valley in September 2016.
Hunt turned to art 12 years ago after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that affects the epithelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels. It’s called Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma—”or EHE for short”—and Hunt says it took almost 20 months for him to get a diagnosis.
“There’s no cure for it, so I went through a transplant,” he explains.
Hunt received a new liver from an acquaintance who stepped up to help him in his time of need, and he says the experience “changed everything.”
Before his diagnosis and transplant, the Edmonton artist was a forester, having previously worked as a horse logger. After he got sick, Hunt had to move back to the city, and he kept a promise he’d made to himself to return to school, where he took creative writing and a design class.
“I remember mixing colours with the teacher and … my brain just started to ‘pop, pop, pop’ and I was like ‘Ooh, I really like this,’” Hunt says.
As a result of his experience with cancer and the transplant, he volunteered to become an artist on the ward at the University of Alberta Hospital.
“I think I did that off and on for five years as a way of sharing my story with people, but also feeling and hearing things that were far worse or far less, [and] that sort of community or that ability to reach across and say, ‘I’m not just a visitor, and I’m not just a volunteer; I’m kind of just like you in some ways,’ really helped me understand what I was going through,” he says.
Hunt’s artistic practice includes relief printing, drawing, painting—with a variety of materials, such as oil paint, acrylic, and watercolours—and some photography.
But on his trip through the Whirlpool River Valley, all he carried into the bush was approximately 20 pencils, 24 watercolour paints, a lot of small-sized pieces of paper, and a children’s notebooks—which he used as a journal.
Finding My Way in the Woods also includes a number of the journal entries, which Hunt wrote upside down and backward. The result is not only visually interesting, but helped the artist access a different part of his consciousness while writing.
“It slowed my mind down to the point where the writing sort of became something very different,” Hunt explains. “It didn’t really sound like my voice at times when I re-read it.”
Going back to Krakauer’s observation about the mundane becoming charged with meaning, Hunt describes an incident while he was training for the hike. He was hiking on 97th Street toward the River Valley when his boot laces became tangled and he tripped.
“I thought to myself afterward, that kind of mistake in the bush could be fatal,” he says.
By training beforehand, Hunt was able to anticipate and prevent little mistakes that could have led to a serious injury while he was alone in the wilderness—but the training also insured that he was fit enough to hike many kilometres in a day while still having the time and stamina to observe and capture the natural world around him.
Still, Hunt says being out in the bush did limit the time he actually had to spend on each piece—he tended to work quickly—but the isolation of the solo trek freed him from the expectations of his audience.
“Capturing what I’m seeing becomes less important than capturing what I’m feeling in that moment,” he says.
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