Chasing sunlight-shaping shadows
As he makes his last brush stroke, signing his name to another northern landscape, Kevin Bolstad steps back to look at his painting. “I wish I had more time,” he says.
One might think he was talking about needing more time to paint. While that’s probably true, he’s actually reflecting on his 2019 road trip from Dawson City, Yukon to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. His painting is inspired by the Tombstone Mountains. Two weeks off to drive, hike, photograph and immerse himself in that vast, colourful, and very diverse northern set of landscapes along the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Ocean was just not enough time. He names his painting to capture that feeling: There Should Be More Time.
By day a Professional Engineer, Kevin plans and develops telecommunications network solutions, assesses communications needs, stays on top of emerging technology, and solves complex math and engineering problems to help Northwestel put in place technology to move more data at faster speeds. In this context, Kevin “draws lines” to guide complex technical installations and, ultimately, to connect people.
Working from home, due to the pandemic, I understand why, by day’s end, Kevin says his brain is full. He closes his computer to signal that he is finished for the day, or maybe to separate work and home — but he is still quietly distracted. Keeping Canada’s northern territories connected is top of mind, but then he begins a shift and withdraws from work. He will soon be painting lines that connect landscapes to moments and memories, because Kevin is also an artist.
With work over, Kevin will perch at his easel or head out with his camera, taking long drives to walk and to enjoy and observe northern landscapes. Sometimes I am invited, but I have learned after 40 years of marriage that a walk with Kevin is not about getting fresh air, exercise, or catching up on the day. Kevin’s walks are slower. The purpose of his journey is, as he says, “to chase sunlight-shaping shadows, trying to capture a unique moment through the eye of my camera or in my sketchbook to later revisit on canvas”. When he pauses, these quiet moments are about capturing what he sees and feels.
Kevin is in his happy place in front of his easel. Revisiting moments where he has connected with the land, he layers vibrant colours on canvas, sometimes with acrylics, sometimes with oils. Occasionally, he pulls out paper and dabbles with watercolours. He almost always wears earbuds so he can enjoy a good audio book while he paints. A cryptic crossword is always nearby, and a pause to let paint dry sees him shift his attention to that. He completes at least one of these puzzles every day.
Kevin is a quiet man, but underneath, his creative juices are always bubbling. His love for art began when he was a young boy in rural Alberta. His grandparents purchased his first set of oil paints as a Christmas present when he was 14. His grandmother, a schoolteacher, saw potential in his drawings. She was the first teacher who encouraged him to paint.
Back then, there were no online courses or video-based classes like there are today, so Kevin learned art through correspondence courses until he relocated to the Yukon in 1979. His father, a pastor, accepted a call to serve at Trinity Lutheran Church in Whitehorse. Leaving one’s hometown can be hard for any teenager, especially one in his graduating year, but for Kevin, camping, hiking, fishing, and hunting experiences enjoyed with new friends quickly grounded him and northern landscapes inspired him. Better still, in Whitehorse, art classes were not only offered in high school, but they granted credits for graduation. Art class is where he connected with Ted Harrison, the second teacher to encourage him to paint.
Kevin says that Ted’s drawings, at first glance, seemed rather simple, but as he got to know Ted and learn from him, his perspective changed.
“Ted’s teaching and his art had a huge influence on me,” says Kevin. “He gave his students lots of freedom to explore all kinds of art and our own capabilities through art. Ted convinced me to believe my art had potential to be way more than just a hobby, and I saw the Yukon through his art in a whole new way. He made strong statements with simplicity.”
In fact, it was Ted Harrison who took Kevin’s first painting to the Yukon Art Gallery. Ted introduced Kevin to Bill Braden, then the gallery’s owner, and both encouraged Kevin to bring more of his paintings in. And so he did.
Kevin went on to complete a Bachelor of Education at the University of British Columbia, even as we married and began raising a family together. He began his career as a teacher, but in 1990 returned to university in Edmonton, Alberta, completing a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.
As a newly graduated engineer, Kevin accepted a job at Northwestel in 1994 and we moved to Yellowknife. Northern landscapes there were vastly different from the mountains and rivers he had grown to love in the Yukon, but this North still somehow connected with him. Kevin didn’t have a lot of free time in those early NWT years, so his painting often took a back seat to family commitments. Despite this, outdoor activities enjoyed with family remained an important part of his northern lifestyle and photographs taken to capture warm feelings and memories still inspire art he produces today.
Though Kevin has little formal academic training in art, he has a large collection in his library about artists and artwork. He reads and rereads his books with great pleasure. Once his family had grown up, Kevin also pursued workshops, community art programs and seminars inside and outside of the NWT. These pursuits have shaped his artwork, honed his skill, and developed his artistic style and vision.
Among those providing instruction and influence, he says there are too many artists to name, but inspirations include Ted Harrison, Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven (especially Lawren Harris), and the Impressionists. Kevin is also particularly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who serves for him as one shining example of how engineering and art can coexist in one mind together. I think Kevin is another.
In November 2020, Kevin held his first solo art exhibit in Yellowknife. “Under Northern Skies” included 40 original art pieces painted over about three years. Art lovers of all ages were invited, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Kevin was pleasantly surprised when, by the day’s end, more than 200 people had come safely through his large exhibit space at the Explorer Hotel and 32 paintings had sold.
I could see that talking with the people who came to see his work brought Kevin great joy.
“Painting is a language I use to convey what I was feeling when I was in a particular place at a particular time,” he says. “To hear others express what they are feeling or seeing when they look at my paintings connects me in new ways to the landscapes and moments I have painted.”
His painting, There Should Be More Time, was sold to a gentleman in Calgary, Alberta, who once lived in the Yukon, saw the painting, and was reminded how he, too, wished he had had more time there.
There Should Be More Time. Near Tombstone.
November 2020: Kevin’s “Under Northern Skies” exhibit saw 32 of 40 paintings sell in less than 24 hours. The full exhibit and new paintings can be seen at kevinbolstad.com