Abington artist explores another world in the Arctic

Bonnie Levinthal Abington

Bonnie Levinthal, associate professor of art at Penn State Abington, spent almost three weeks near the North Pole last fall.

Credit: Courtesy Bonnie Levinthal

ABINGTON, Pa. — “It was probably the most incredible thing I will do in my life,” Bonnie Levinthal said quietly, reflecting on the 18 days she spent last fall aboard a tall ship, exploring a cluster of islands a mere 10 degrees latitude from the North Pole.

The associate professor of art at Penn State Abington was joined by two dozen other international artists and scientists for a residency, which allowed them to pursue personal projects while exploring collaboration with others.

“It’s almost hard to talk about. There are no words to describe the immensity of the experience,” Levinthal said.

Levinthal gravitates to these hushed northern spaces, which inform her work. Since 1995, she has been to the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Newfoundland, Labrador, and she has traveled to Iceland three times. But the Arctic Circle was a “sacred space.”

“We hiked over pristine landscapes. I was in awe each day,”  she said, describing “the relatively flat expanse of white and the measured blue of the sky.”

Bonnie Levinthal

Detail of suminogashi Bonnie Levinthal created with seawater and sumi ink on the deck of a tall ship in the Arctic Circle. The unique patterns were made solely by the rock of the ship, and the colors reflect those in the Arctic landscape: snow, black rock, glaciers, ice, and the soft changing colors of dusk.

Credit: Bonnie Levinthal

Part of Levinthal’s teaching philosophy that she shares with her students is that travel occurs in three stages: the imagining, the experience, and the response.

“I go back through my journal and my memories,” she said. “I take time to reflect and respond to the landscape I just left.”

The artist, who has taught at Abington since 1984, also took photographs and used a Japanese marbling technique, suminogashi, as a type of “journal” of what she encountered in the Arctic. Suminogashi means ink floating on water.

“The environment where you find yourself can impact what happens on the surface of the water with suminogashi. It could be a breeze,” she said. “I wanted to be outside and work with the colors of the landscape. I let the rhythm of water and wind impact it. I was trying to record something about melting and the fragility of the northern landscape that we take for granted.”

“I make art about or of the place, and it imprints itself. Suminogashi is a direct response to the place, and then I paint from memory of that place. It’s emotional and personal,” Levinthal continued.

“It took me a long time to figure out how to respond. It’s overwhelming and fabulous at the same time.”

Bonnie Levinthal

Bonnie Levinthal created this piece as a response to her Arctic residency.

Credit: Bonnie Levinthal

Levinthal said the snow hides the blanket of trash that has invaded the north. As her group hiked they would pick up bits of trash that otherwise could find their way into the food chain.

“Snow is a metaphor hiding the ugliness and battles over political dysfunction over saving and protecting our environment,” she said. “It really left me with what I feel will be a lifelong mission that I’ll work to always bring awareness to this beautiful, fragile part of the world.”

Levinthal’s Arctic-inspired exhibit, "Another World; by a route obscure … ", is on view through Feb. 24 at Napoleon gallery, located at 319 N. 11th St. in Philadelphia.

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible, and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 4,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 19 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.