Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited national park last year, welcoming 11.3 million people to its swath of Appalachia. By contrast, Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve saw just 10,047 people—one for every 1,100 of Great Smoky’s draw. Artist Ben Shattuck was one of them.
The park’s low turnout has nothing to do with its beauty or size—at nearly 8.5 million acres, all of Belgium could fit comfortably inside Gates of the Arctic—and everything to do with its remoteness.
Located entirely north of the Arctic Circle, the park has no trails (unless you count those made by caribou), roads, or services—so you must either fly or hike into the park and be ready to fend for yourself. While Alaska Natives have lived off this land for thousands of years, a trip here is not for the faint of heart. The website warns: “Visitors to the park should be PROFICIENT [emphasis theirs] in outdoor survival skills and be prepared to care for their own life and their partner(s) if an emergency arises.” Yikes.
But those who do brave the journey get to see a landscape that “remains virtually unchanged except by the forces of nature,” the website promises. Each year, the National Park Service invites a lucky artist to share these abundant natural and cultural wonders, and last June, writer and painter Ben Shattuck made the trek north. He came to this vast, forbidding wilderness to focus on humble, delicate wildflowers, often smaller than a human finger.
Shattuck’s interest in ephemeral blooms began with the ghost flora of the Iowa prairies. While attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he learned that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s prairie remains. So he began painting old-fashioned still-lifes as a kind of memorial to wildflowers like the 10-petal blazing star, ladies’ tresses, and prairie smoke that he found—ironically enough—in graveyards throughout the Hawkeye State.
Shattuck discovered that Gates of the Arctic was home to wildflowers with similarly spectacular names (frigid shooting star, Lapland rosebay, rock jasmine, windflower), and soon he was spending two weeks with two intern rangers tracking them down.
Lugging 65-pound packs, they hiked through the park along a caribou migration route to a Nunamiut town. In the land of the midnight sun, they saw grizzlies, watched caribou streaming through the valleys, and stumbled across ancient cairns and hunting blinds. At night, Shattuck says, the sound of millions of mosquitoes brushing against the tent gave the impression of a rainstorm. In the mornings, they’d step outside to find fresh wolf prints nearby.
“The only way I can describe it is like a hallucination of beauty,” Shattuck says before walking that description back. “Beautiful is not even the right word. It’s, like, scary—awful, in the old sense of the word.”
The seasons in Gates of the Arctic are full of awe, too. They move fast this far north, and Shattuck’s trip had to be carefully timed to catch the wildflowers in bloom. Because of the severity of the park’s weather, when Shattuck asked what kind of camera to bring, he was told “an underwater one.” (He opted for an iPhone sealed in a Ziploc bag.)
The idea that tundra is a barren, desolate, snowy landscape couldn’t be farther from the truth, Shattuck says. “It is actually, for a brief period of the year, one of the most beautiful, life-affirming bursts of flowers and animals and creation.”
Since returning from the trip, Shattuck has turned several of his sketches and photographs into still-life oil paintings. The objects in traditional Dutch still-lifes were symbolic—a freshly peeled orange, for example, signified abundance and wealth. Shattuck says using this format today gives him an opportunity to layer the paint with purpose. “It seems wrong to just paint a flower as a flower these days. It has to mean something.”
So, what do his wildflowers mean? Well, taking in mind that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, triggering complex changes to its ecosystems, and that the melting of sea ice could intensify exploration and extractive activities, Shattuck describes his floral paintings as “pre-memorials.”
Paintings from Shattuck’s trip to the Arctic will open at the Steven Amedee Gallery in New York City on March 2.