The iconic artist Ted Harrison died on January 15, 2015, at the age of 88. His distinctive, colourful portraits of the Yukon are well-known across Canada: most kids first encounter his work in the illustrated editions of Robert Service’s classic poems “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
Harrison was born in County Durham, in northeastern England, in 1926. After the Second World War, he completed an art school diploma, qualified as a teacher, and wound up travelling and teaching around the world before settling in the Yukon. His first exhibit was at the Whitehorse Public Library in 1969.
His work focused on the classic fixtures of Yukon life: ravens in flight; foxes in a snowy landscape; dog teams and mushers on the trail; the Old Log Church in Whitehorse; and “The Duchess,” a vintage train engine, in Carcross. Often, the Northern Lights boiled in the sky.
In 1987, Harrison was named a member of the Order of Canada. In 1993, he moved south to Victoria, where he remained for the rest of his life—but Northerners still count him as one of our own. Up Here asked several Northern artists to share Ted Harrison’s impact on their lives and work.
“When I started as an artist back in 1982-83, it was Ted Harrison who encouraged and helped me believe in myself. He actually bought one of my first pieces,” says Jim Logan, whose artistic career took off when he began depicting the social condition of First Nations life while serving as a lay missionary to the Kwanlin Dün First Nation outside Whitehorse. “He and [his wife] Nicky attended all my exhibitions in the Yukon and always spoke positively of my work, even though it was rather raw back then. He was a very kind soul and even though our paths only crossed for those brief Yukon years, I am saddened that our paths won’t cross again in this world. Thinking back now I am not sure where I would be as an artist today if it wasn’t for Ted—he opened doors for me.”
Yellowknife-based Robbie Craig, who comes from a line of painters, has childhood memories of his grandfather reciting Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” “It was through this poem that I first found Ted Harrison’s artwork,” he says. “I recall one of my elementary teachers reading the class an edition of this poem brought to life by Harrison’s colourful and unique illustrations. I was not only drawn to the vivid lines of Harrison’s work, but also to the place and people his artwork represented.” Raised in Ontario, Craig came north to teach in Wekweeti, NWT, years later, and those childhood memories returned. “I found inspiration in so many areas of my new Northern home and pulled on artistic influences from my childhood. I feel that Harrison has influenced my love for bold colours and strong use of line.”
Dan Bushnell, a Whitehorse-based tattoo artist and the owner of Molotov and Bricks Tattoo, also grew up with Harrison’s work. Bushnell’s grandmother knew Harrison through the local paper, “so when I was growing up we had black and white Ted Harrisons all over the house, just sketches and stuff that he would do.” Harrison’s style, he says, “altered the way that I looked at drawing. He was a master of ‘less is more.’ He just kept reducing and reducing and reducing the detail, and just letting a picture be simple.” Bushnell recalls drawing “dozens and dozens of ravens, but not drawing ravens by looking outside, drawing ravens by looking at Ted’s work. And just trying to capture the simplicity.”
Bushnell recently inked a tattoo of a highway, rendered, at the client’s request, in Ted Harrison style. “He was one of the defining voices of what it was to be from the North… The work he did here was so powerful, and it captured, in that simplicity, the voice of the Yukon so well. For me it’s part of what it is to be a Yukoner.”