Artists, Scientists Sail Arctic Circle Seeking Icepiration

Willona M. Sloan

photo courtesy of The Arctic Circle

photo courtesy of The Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle residency program first set sail about 10 years ago with a group of visual artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, architects and scientists bound for high seas exploration.

“We started out aboard a 100-year-old schooner. Lovely, yes—but it came with 100-year-old plumbing as well,” says Aaron O’Connor, The Arctic Circle’s director.

The program upgraded its vessel in 2011, when it partnered with a barquentine tall ship named Antigua. “Using traditional sailing methods is one aspect of our program. These ships are part romance and large part practical machine. Antigua, for example, is a beautiful vessel, but she is also a serious workhorse suitable for high-Arctic working expeditions,” says O’Connor.

The trip begins in the international territory of Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago just 10 degrees latitude from the North Pole, but the destination depends of the needs of explorers on the expedition.

“Once we sail, as a working expedition, there is no set itinerary. Not at all,” says O’Connor. “We determine the route of an expedition based on many factors, including ice and weather, but also the needs of the many projects taking place on board. So, the route involves a daily discussion once under way, and no two expeditions are the same.”

Through a juried selection process, the program offers spots to a wide variety of participants from around the world, who bring an exciting array of ideas, concepts and hypotheses onboard. Participants propose their own projects and research, and the close quarters provide plenty of space for fruitful conversation and collaboration.

The expeditions are held during summer and autumn. “Summer is 24 hours of daylight. If you have not experienced that before, it is weird and wonderful,” says O’Connor. “Autumn has increasing darkness every day, and, therefore, a shifting light found only at high latitudes that is otherworldly.”

One would think that stillness and silence would stand out as central characteristics in such a stark landscape, but O’Connor, a veteran of Arctic travels, sees it differently. “I believe the Arctic landscape—a desert, after all—is a fine place to seek out and experiment with the ideas ‘stillness’ and ‘silence.’ [They are] two things that really don't exist...but the closest I have come to peace and quiet is the high north,” he says.

As founding director, O’Connor has been with the program since the beginning. “My role has changed significantly in recent years. Our Arctic team—all women, I'm pleased to tell you—has taken over expedition leading, essentially putting me out of a job. Now, my challenge is to create new opportunities for this amazing community that has evolved within The Arctic Circle,” says O’Connor.

He has also witnessed some changes to the region over the years: “more hard hats, less ice,” says O’Connor.

While exciting and life-changing, the experience can at times be challenging for participants who might feel homesick, seasick, overwhelmed or overstimulated as they take in every detail of the incredible journey.

“There’s no toning it down. It can be hard work and an intense period. We provide the expertise and logistical support, and we consult with our participants with attention to the practicalities of project work,” says O’Connor. “My advice? Arrive prepared; be present; work hard; bring chocolate.”

Education and outreach are also important aspects of the mission. With a goal to “foster the explorer’s spirit and analytical mind within today’s youth,” The Arctic Circle offers lessons and resources to educators at the primary and secondary levels.

O’Connor has learned some important lessons of his own. “The residency program has taught me humility. The Arctic has shown me the importance of collective action and the consequences of human hubris,” says O’Connor.

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Photo courtesy of The Arctic Circle

Photo courtesy of The Arctic Circle


Willona M. Sloan is a writer, editor and literary host.