Artist captures spectacular subtleties of Antarctic light

FORTY-KNOT winds barrel across the Polar Plateau, slamming into Alan Campbell's tiny dome tent. Only the hastily gathered rocks inside and a few singing ropes outside prevent the shivering nylon shelter from being whisked off a 1,500-foot cliff. ``Alone, and feeling very much alive,'' Mr. Campbell scribbles in his journal. Moments later, Campbell is back dabbing paint with half-gloved hands and peering out the Plexiglas window of his canary-yellow studio.

Welcome to the adventures of a watercolor artist in Antarctica.

Campbell recently returned from 2 months of traipsing about the world's coldest and most desolate continent. Sponsored by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), Campbell joined the annual Antarctic summer migration of about 4,000 scientists who flock to study everything from penguins to the infamous ozone hole.

Occasionally a few politicians, writers, and photographers are flown in too. But artists are a rarity on the ice-capped continent. Campbell is only the second artist in the last 13 years sponsored by the NSF (which manages all US Antarctic scientific studies).

There was a time, during the early expeditions, when artists were essential as documentors. Perhaps the finest Antarctic painter was Edward Wilson, who journeyed with Robert Falcon Scott's 1911-12 expedition. But in modern times, the camera has replaced canvas and palette - although not with entirely satisfactory results.

``The scientists were thrilled with the idea'' of bringing along Campbell, whose training at the University of Georgia has been in color and luminosity. ``They'd always been disappointed that their photographs hadn't captured the spectacular subtleties of light,'' Campbell related during the first public exhibition of his initial 20-odd pieces at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is the staging area for the US and New Zealand Antarctic expeditions.

So how does one paint with water in the Antarctic chill?

Summer temperatures occasionally dip to 20 degrees below zero, C., but mostly hover around the freezing mark, Campbell explains. When he's snug in his tent, out of the wind, polar-painting techniques aren't much different from painting elsewhere. But it has its moments:

One day near Cape Royds, ``my shadow was being thrown on the paper, the watercolor froze in the pattern of my shadow,'' he recalls. ``And in the sunlight, it was performing as normal watercolor. At one other location, it actually started crystallizing on the paper. You can still see the crystal color patterns on paper.''

But what makes Antarctica remarkable for an artist, isn't the cold. It's the light. ``I have never seen such clarity of air and light,'' declares Campbell in his native Georgian drawl.

As far away from the industrialized Northern Hemisphere as one can get, the Antarctic has the cleanest air on earth. Low humidity means there's seldom any obscuring moisture haze.

The sunlight slices through this pristine atmosphere, then hits snow and ice crystals, scattering in a piercing glare. And for six months, the sun never sets. It constantly changes in intensity and angle of projection, but never quite dips below the horizon.

It's an artist's ``heaven'' of shifting pastels and shadow patterns, says Campbell. ``I saw Mt. Erebus turn into a bright pinkish gold, and then, 30 minutes later, it was bright yellow. After another 30 minutes, it went a pale silvery white.''

He discovered that his best work was done between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when the sun was lowest and the colors most dramatic. Bed would come at about 10 a.m. - if he slept. Often, a helicoptor would drop him at a particular site for only a few days. Campbell visited areas of the Antarctic no artist since Edward Wilson has painted. Not wanting to waste a moment and encouraged by the continuous light, he frequently put in 18- to 24-hour days. On about a dozen occasions he stayed up 36 to 48 hours on end. ``I found that with this constant daylight, I could go for long, long periods without sleep,'' he recalls.

Still, Campbell was unable to capture some of his most stirring Antarctic moments with brush or sketch pencil. Far from the scientific bases, the old expedition huts, and teeming penguin rookeries, Campbell recalls a 2 a.m. session alone by a frozen lake in the Taylor Valley.

``The sun was down behind the mountain range, but it was still light. The first thing I noticed was the sound of the pencil on the paper. That got my attention. At that point, I stopped and asked myself, ``Just how quiet is it out here?

``The next thing I heard was the slight crackling of my parka as I was breathing. It was moving a little bit. Then I held my breath. At first, I didn't hear anything but the faint ringing sound in your ears when it's real quiet. But then I heard a very faint whispering, whooshing sound. And I remembered the scientists had said you could hear your heart beat when things got quiet enough.'' He pauses, and asks with a hint of frustration, ``How do you paint absolute total silence?

And he wonders, ``How do you paint the absence of smells? Or convey the amazing stimulation of being made to feel insignificant by a geographical place? The shifts of time and space are so far out of our normal context.''

Antarctica has been described as just one stop short of the moon. And Campbell points out he'll be sharing gallery space in Thomasville, Ga., with moonscapes rendered by former astronaut Alan Bean in September.

A sampling of Campbell's work was on view at the Auckland Institute and Museum, Auckland, New Zealand, until yesterday. Campbell now heads back to his Athens, Ga., studio with his notes, sketches, and photos to flesh out his Antarctic exhibition with large oil paintings, more watercolors, and possibly a 50-foot wall mural of the Royal Society mountain range.

The US exhibition tour starts in September in Georgia (at the Thomasville Cultural Center; Oglethorpe University in Atlanta; and Macon Museum of Art & Science); before moving to Washington, D.C. (Addison-Ripley Gallery); Chattanooga, Tenn. (Hunter Museum of Art); and possibly on to New York, California, and London.

But don't expect Campbell to be shepherding the exhibit for long. He's already making plans for another foray onto the icecap. ``I've run headlong into a subject so exciting and with such potential that I haven't even begun to scratch the surface.''

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