Robert Guest: A Voice in the Wilderness

by Wendy Stefansson

Robert Guest in the high country on a summer sketching hikeWhen Robert Guest speaks of the wilderness it is with a passion others might reserve for a lover. He speaks of her changing moods; the subtle shifting of light over her surfaces; her colours, tones and textures.

He knows of what he speaks. Guest has spent 23 summers working on fire lookout towers where it is his job to observe nature. Adam’s Creek Lookout, where he has been stationed for the last 10 summers, is located atop a 7000 foot mountain in Willmore Wilderness Park. Willmore lies just north of Jasper National Park in the north-eastern slopes of the Rockies. There, his tower is accessible only by helicopter. He spends his summers alone except for his dog, and goes months without seeing another human being. You would think this would give him lots of time to paint, but not so, says Guest, if the summer is warm and dry. His first job is to watch. Reporting on everything from fire starts to the weather, from lost backpackers to the incidence of the mountain pine beetle; the entire ecosystem, from the upper atmosphere to the bedrock is his to observe.

Changing Weather, oil on canvasNo wonder, then, that this is what he paints. Guest reflects on the remote landscapes in which he has been privileged to live: “From an artistic point of view, it was all fresh. It wasn’t something in books and postcards. You would have to start from scratch, and learn from nature.”

So learn he did “…of the mosses and the crusted rocks, and weathered, gnarled trees; of the erosion channels and crusted and drifting snow. These things have character. They reach out and you can feel them, and trust me they’re gritty. They’re sharp. They make a noise if you walk on them like a scree slope or loose rock.” In observing and in painting the landscape. Guest absorbs its sights, its sounds and its feel.

When Guest leaves the fire tower in the late fall, he takes with him a sketchbook full of drawings, about 40 oil paintings, and his memories of the place. Having trained his eye to take it all in, and his memory to contain it, Guest works from these sources to create finished paintings during his winters at home in Grande Cache, Alberta. Guest chooses not to work from photographs. Working from memory helps him to simplify his subjects which, he feels, helps him to get to the essence of things. He is not trying to be exactingly literal in his work; his desire is not for realism. Rather, he tries to convey the feeling of a specific place and time, and the mystery, “…especially the mystery.” Guest is widely known for his nocturnes, painting the landscape as it appears at night as well as in the daylight. In these works in particular, the sense of mystery is palpable. Like musical nocturnes, they are quiet and moody works. In them, Guest captures the light, the colour and all the nuances of the darkness.

Morning Sun on Adams Lookout, watercolourInterpreting the landscapes he loves and distilling them to their essences, Guest achieves a kind of symbolism. Like Tom Thomson’s Jack Pine, Guest’s trees and mountains and moons stand for what is still wild in the world. Perhaps in the case of the pine tree, these paintings will be a sort of requiem.

Guest cites Tom Thomson as one of his greatest influences. He points to Thomson’s “colour enrichment, strong composition and rhythms” as qualities which he has made his own. In many ways, Guest picks up where the icons of Canadian landscape painting, the Group of Seven and Emily Carr included, left off; not following in their footsteps, but rather breaking new ground. Like them, he follows his love of the land into increasingly remote wilderness areas, makes sketches en plein air, keeps the works small because they need to be, and returns to his studio to make richly interpretive finished paintings which depict and honour the places where they began.

Moon Over Grey Wolf Summit, oil on masoniteGuest’s art career has spanned more than four decades, and placed him first on the scene of many significant developments in Alberta art. Born and raised in Beaverlodge, Alberta, he graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1963. Following that, he was on the original staff of the Provincial Museum (now the Royal Alberta Museum) as a display artist when it opened its doors in 1967. He was one of the nine charter members of the Alberta Art Foundation in 1973. He obtained his degree in Art Education from the University of Alberta, but never taught in schools. Instead, in 1974, he went on to become one of the original instructors at Grande Prairie Regional College. In 1975, he was one of the cofounders of the Prairie Art Gallery in Grande Prairie, having presented a brief to the Northern Alberta Development Council about the need for an art centre in the community. Then the following year he co-founded the Peace Watercolour Society, and continues to exhibit with them today. In 1995 he moved to Grande Cache and went on to found the Grande Cache Watercolour Society.

8 of 21 heavy metal hand-painted ‘Stamp Boxes’ to go on tops of local mountains at Grande Cache for the on-going sports challenge ‘Passport to the Peaks’Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, Guest completed two large series of oil paintings, 66 in the series Winter on the Wapiti, depicting the Beaverlodge area landscape in which he grew up, and another 74 collectively called Landmarks of the Hinton Trail. The latter were featured in a coffee table book for which Guest also composed the text. Published in 1995 under the title of Trail North: A Journey in Words and Pictures, it tells the story of the historic Hinton Trail, which once stretched from Hinton, Alberta to the Peace Country. This is something Guest cites as one of the highlights of his career.

In 2001, Guest created the artwork for the Passport to the Peaks program in the Grande Cache area. He painted a stylized portrait of each of 21 different mountain peaks in exterior paint on metal. These were displayed at the summits of the same mountains, where hikers could collect impressions in their ‘passports’ to show they had been there.

More recently, a retrospective show of Guest’s art work was exhibited at Picture Perfect in Grande Prairie. About this, Guest humbly says, “Life’s only so long, and that requires a celebration!”

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