How does it feel to stand on the edge of the world? Between the place where humans belong and where we do not. Alaska asks this question daily. Each ridge, passage, and coastline both beckons and warns. We are not in charge here. The Alaskan landscape is generous with its beauty yet asks us to approach it with caution and reverence.
Whenever I travel, I’m searching for inspiration. The magic of being in a new place is that it easily allows you to keep your senses aware, to bring a place inside of your body and hold it there for a moment. But that isn’t why I went to Alaska. I went to Alaska to introduce other artists to that feeling, that experience, at a creative retreat.
In July of 2020, I flew into Anchorage, Alaska, landing just after dusk, suitcases full of paints, brushes, and art supplies. At this time of year, the light stretches nearly round the clock with the sun only setting for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. The landscape stretches even further.
My partner in this adventure, Tanya Val, is a local Alaskan and creative powerhouse. She’s a photographer, florist, and painter. Tanya and I were leading a natural painting retreat for a group of artists in the mountains south of Anchorage. The plan was to gather pigment from the earth, forage for plants to make natural inks from, and create art under the tall pines together.
In Alaska, we spent several days with this group of creatives doing things that might have looked a bit odd to passersby. But then again, this is Alaska, where nature is deeply cared for, so maybe not. We walked on paths barefoot and cupped ice-cold stream water in our hands. We smelled the sweetness of fallen logs, admired sculptural, coral-like lichen growing on sticks and stumps, and waded through waist-high wildflower patches while gazing at the tree canopy and admiring the shimmering light through mist.
Every morning, we gathered along the side of a mountain, fully immersed in nature. We ate all our meals outside, each prepared by a local chef. The whole world seemed to have an extra dash of vibrance in it. Black bears lazily visited the site each morning. Moose strolled down the roadside. We were not alone in this landscape, and we walked it with care.
- Emily Jeffords
As an artist, I approach the world differently with every sense involved: Touching, seeing, tasting, listening, and smelling it all. After intentionally being present with the landscape—toes in the earth, listening to the wind dance through the foliage, tasting berries gathered along the way—the inspiration that flows through me is generous when I return to the studio.
I always approach time in nature with that intention at the forefront of my mind so that the richness of the present moment can fully sink in. However, when leading a creative retreat like this, I often put my own hunger for inspiration and connection to the landscape on the back burner, so that I can help others access these skills. I always walk away from a retreat fulfilled and grateful, but I don’t always expect to come away with fresh inspiration for my own artwork. But Alaska was different.
On the third day of the retreat, we adventured north to a place called Hatcher Pass. We drove through mountains, past rushing rivers, until we got to green, green fields dotted with red A-frame cabins. The air was cool and smelled like winter and sun and earth. Even in July, there was a chill surrounding us, asking us to move quickly, but to stay present to take everything in. We hiked along the edge of the mountain, walking carefully along ice and steep slopes and avoiding the small blooms that seemed to defy everything to thrive there.
The landscape was so undeniably ripe with deep inspiration. The lush textures, rich colors, and layers in the terrain filled our eyes and our minds. Enough that, even while immersed in the duties of leading a retreat and facilitating that kind of experience for others, my whole heart and mind were filled with ideas for my next collection of paintings.
I found myself crouching close to the earth studying colors and textures, wanting to open my chest and safeguard the beauty deep inside of me to bring back to my studio across the globe. So I consciously absorbed it. Fully present. Deeply immersed in the intricacies around me. Photographing, seeing, walking, feeling, and talking with the retreat guests as a way of sharing and deepening all our awareness. And it worked.
When I found a moment of quiet that night, snug in our home again with a hot shower behind me and a steaming mug of tea in hand, words about this intensely beautiful, spiritual day flowed out of me in something like poetry.
Now, I am not a writer. And yet, I write to remember—not to document or to chronicle events or times or places, but to feel a specific time and place again, to feel it now. Like the vast expanse of the landscape, the words lay themselves open like generous, endless possibilities. Here’s an excerpt of the poem that came from the visit to Hatcher Pass:
…Even when the landscape unnerves me
With the edges she is asking me to explore.
Even when adventure wraps itself in unfamiliar foliage.
I step outside of my mind
And the endlessness of my concerns
To focus on each footfall.
Small blooms to be avoided (they are too pretty to squish).
A deep hole, just the right size for a snake.
A rock to climb. Then another.
We’re a little too high now.
A rusty-red puddle.
The sound of wind in the thousand-mile-field.
…I call it a Quiet Adventure…
I walked through a field that was wholly unfamiliar to me.
But I knew myself in it.
I knew that I would be brave.
I knew I would let it change me.
Later, when I got back to my studio and unpacked the paints from the retreat, I found that quiet inspiration that I tucked inside of me in Hatcher Pass ready to become artwork. The complex details, washes of color, and emotional forms that I took in so carefully flowed onto my canvases nearly effortlessly. I called the work the Quiet Adventure Collection, made up of oil paintings on canvas featuring lush landscapes and sweeping skies. And it remains one of my most impactful bodies of artwork to this day.