By Jess Johnson
Hues of green and blue light the way and guide curious students along the walls of “North by Nuuk,” exhibition gallery in the John Myers Fine Art Museum. An intimate, contemporary look into the landscapes of Greenland, 70-year-old artist and tenured professor of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, Denis Defibaugh presents his exploration 300 miles north of the Arctic circle and his journey of meeting new faces, seeing new sights, and engulfing himself in the culture of Nuuk to the settlement of Illorsuit.
Inspired by Rockwell Kent, an artist who took three voyages to Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland in the mid 1900s, Defibaugh’s work shows a more recent look into the landscape of Greenland overwhelming the human figure, the change in the environment surrounding settlements due to global warming, traditions and culture, untouched remote arctic communities, and a modern, inside look into its capital, Nuuk.
“I liked seeing the difference between Kent’s trip, and the Nuuk’s photos, and how they compare,” Senior Studio Art major Victoria Lafave said. “Most of my work and my subject matter is organic and nature based, so it definitely helps me see different variations of what I wanna put down when I’m painting. I paint from my mind and what I can remember, and [the exhibit] gave me a different view.”
Artists like Lafave draw inspiration from explorers such as Kent, who sailed to Nuuk, Greenland in 1929, in a small 33-foot cutter named Direction, where he stayed until early 1935. He resided in Greenland and produced an extensive collection of photographs, art and literature describing and illustrating his time in the Uummannaq district. eighty five years later, Defibaugh, who had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received a traveling grant through Polar Field Services, flew to Greenland, following in Kent’s footsteps and staying in the same small communities as he resided. Once there, Defibaugh traveled to the distant communities of Illorsuit and Uummannaq, two small island settlements about 50 miles apart. In 1931 when Kent arrived in Illorsuit the population was about 165, and in 2016 the population was about 75. Defibaugh was able to meet many of the residents and immerse himself in their culture and traditions.
Defibaugh was out photographing on his birthday, Oct. 4, 2016. Birthdays are an important occasion in the small population of Illorsuit, and he had not mentioned to anyone it was his birthday. One of the first community members he saw knew it was his birthday, and had a gift to offer him. It was a necklace with a handmade, inuit drum on it, Defibaugh describing it as “really beautiful.” Although there was a language barrier, because the Illorsuit people speak Greenlandic, others had spoken to him as well and given him candy bars during the day. A man even had invited him to dinner to eat a wolf fish he had caught earlier in the day, an image that is featured in the Nuuk gallery.
“From there I left, and went on top of this hillside to do a panorama,” Defibaugh said, explaining one of the landscape photos from the exhibition. “And it was an amazing day all the way around, from photographing to how nice everyone was to me, to getting this panorama that I had probably photographed half a dozen times. It was a very good day; a very good birthday.”
Getting images like these were a visual representation of his journey while navigating getting to know the community of Illorsuit. Originally inspired by Kent’s lantern slides from the SUNY Plattsburgh Kent archive, he wanted to do a comparative study based on the photographs by Kent and Defibaugh’s more recent exploration to the same communities in modern day Greenland.
He was in four different communities during his 16-month voyage; Nuuk, the capital of Greenland with a population of about 16,000, to Sisimiut with about 7,000 residents, to Uummannaq with about 1,200 residents, to Illorsuit with about 70 residents in the community, spending most of his time in Uummannaq and Illorsuit. Defibaugh’s goal was to “document the inuit culture and the cultural and primal landscape.”
“There were similarities in things I did and things that Kent did, but the main similarity was the four communities I photographed,” Defibaugh said. “I had never been to Greenland before, so I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what I was going to go and photograph. I just knew that I wanted to photograph the contemporary culture of Greenland, the contemporary Inuits, and the cultural landscape that includes people, not so much the primal landscape.”
For Defibaugh, who has also received a prestigious National Science Foundation award for research, it was a learning experience about the culture and what’s important to those residing in Greenland. Axel Jeremiahson, a collaborator on the National Science Foundation Award, was an integral part of the project, a Greenland native that helped educate Defibaugh on the area and introduced him to some of the residents, culture and activiy of Greenland, as well as how to really immerse himself into the ways of the communities.
“I did everything I could to become part of that community,” Defibaugh said. “It was funny because when I first got there, I didn’t know anybody. By the time I left, in the heliport in Illorsuit I knew everybody. In the heliport in Uummannaq, I knew probably half to three-fourths of the people in the airport. I would alway know people in airports by the time I left, whether they were Inuit, or American, or Danish. I got to meet a lot of different people, and be a part of their lives.”
Defibaugh says he is still in touch with many people in Greenland, and this past weekend, one of them sent him a note about downloading a video game to be able to play together. He explains that his project has made quite the impact, and he’s even sent books to Greenland to people he’s worked with and who were photographed in the project. He also did photography workshops with about 140 students in Greenland and created exhibitions for their work in the schools there.
“I wasn’t just there to take their pictures; I was there to do more than that,” Defibaugh said.
The North by Nuuk exhibition is open in the John Myers Fine Art building until March 11, and is free and open to the public, Tuesday through Sunday, noon until 4 p.m.
“It’s a wonderful show, I’m really happy that we have it here,” Tonya Cribb, the director of the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, said. “Right now we have global warming and we’ve got glaciers sinking in Greenland. Rockwell Kent had a lot of contact with the Indegenious people there. Thinking about their lifestyle and how they’re impacted… There are just so many students that can be impacted by this show. I want to encourage everyone to come.”
North by Nuuk is an art exhibit experience to see first hand, as “there’s a type of fearlessness about both artists, as they went outside of what they knew; they went outside of their comfort zones and had these amazing experiences they were able to share with other people.”
The exhibition will soon be moved to Cooperstown, in the Fenimore Art Museum until the end of the year. Defibaugh is looking to set up more exhibitions to spread more of his imagery all over the country, and is currently working on contacting different museums in Florida and Maine. His objective is to find as many museums as possible to share his findings to inspire others. He would love to visit Greenland again, as he’s already received invitations to come back.