The first thing you spot in Rigmor Clarke’s house is a painting.
In most modern living rooms, it’s a large TV that hangs on the wall. If there’s art, it’s hung up to the side, smaller frames scattered around it.
But in Rigmor’s house, the painting is the focal point. There’s a TV, but it’s tucked in the corner in a cabinet. The large scale painting of a landscape from somewhere in northern Saskatchewan dominates the room, like a flat-screen TV, a window to another world.
It’s one of many large landscape paintings drawing the eye in the little farmhouse.
In a second room, a clarinet rests on a case, sheet music to the side.
Painting is more Rigmor’s style, but she likes music and is trying to learn the instrument.
The renowned Saskatchewan artist lives in this house on the farm her husband worked for years before his death, just west of Shell Lake, Sask.
Other than the raven at her gate, there are few visible signs of Rigmor’s vast body of work from the tree-lined grid road or long winding driveway.
It appears like any other farmyard, the gravel drive meandering past farm equipment, fields and a well-manicured lawn decorated with pristine gardens. It ends at an unassuming bungalow with maroon trim and a faded yellow door.
A handful of outbuildings dot the landscape, with a few pieces of art, including a set of wind chimes made of silverware, hanging off of their slightly-weathered eaves.
A knock at Rigmor’s door is greeted by enthusiastic barking.
The black and white dog is introduced as Willow two.
This is the site of Forest Raven Art Studio, the home of one of the latest recipients of the highest honour in Saskatchewan, the Order of Merit.
For decades, Rigmor Clarke has been painting, printing and sculpting from this studio buried deep in rural west-central Saskatchewan.
She’s been exhibited internationally and nationally, but this latest honour might be the one that means the most.
Clarke didn’t intend to come to Saskatchewan.
Her family moved from Sweden when she was 14, settling in B.C.
Rigmor had always loved art and had always painted. She was first inspired by paintings of the stunning Swedish landscape hanging on walls of museums in her native Sweden. She also loved to read stories of the ancient Norse gods, but especially of Odin and his ravens.
She got her first set of oils when she was 10 years old.
In her early 20s, she took a train as far as she could. It let her off in Shell Lake. She met her husband, John, moved to his farm and started her family.
She still painted, but it was a hobby, not a career.
Rigmor went skiing on her 40th birthday. She spent some of the time reflecting on what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
“Something I always wanted to do was be an artist,” she said.
“Being serious is dedicating yourself to it.”
Rigmor took classes with Bob Christie, Myles McDonald and George Glenn. She attended art camps at Emma Lake.
Mostly, though, she began to paint. And paint, and paint. Rocks and trees and landscapes. She would go to northern Saskatchewan and sit and paint — Plein air paintings, they’re called. She would return home and paint them on a bigger and grander scale, each work taking on a life of its own.
“Everyone was very generous,” she said.
That included her family, who dealt with fresh paintings covering every available inch of space in their house, the living room filled with drying paint.
Eventually, Rigmor needed more space.
Her husband lent her $5,000. She got a Quonset to store her paintings. She put a door and windows in, facing away from the farm, out into the bush.
The Forest Raven Studio was born.
Over time, the studio grew. Rigmor’s practice evolved, as she experimented with screen printing and began working with clay.
A kiln now rests in the corner.
She ran out of room again and had to build onto her Quonset. Today, its front room has racks and drawers and shelves, all covered, floor to ceiling with paintings.
Jesse Campbell has visited Rigmor’s studio on about three occasions.
The former curator and director of the Mann Art Gallery in Prince Albert spent several years visiting, speaking and exchanging images with Rigmor as she curated a retrospective of her work.
That show debuted last year at the Mann. It showed all sorts of pieces and styles, from floor coverings to tile mosaics to large scale paintings and the Plein air originals.
“The passion that she has for being in nature, for respecting nature, for understanding the natural world, especially in northern Saskatchewan, I think is what is really inspiring about her,” Campbell said.
“What she does is so raw, it’s pure, it’s who she is. She has the experience of really being in nature and getting to know it, so you can think of her art as this experience of being within it as well.”
Campbell said that exhibition could have taken about 20 different forms. With both that exhibition and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, people will get to see the story of Rigmor’s development.
Rigmor’s Order of Merit biography says she contributed “significantly” to the province through her life and work. She has shown her painting in a host of solo and group exhibitions, organizing initiatives that encourage the creation and appreciation of art.
To this day, Rigmor maintains an open studio, welcoming artists, tourists and locals, talking about her work and sharing her love of the Saskatchewan landscape. Rigmor has inspired many and, her bio says, “is one of the most significant and influential artists in Prince Albert and north-central Saskatchewan.”
Rigmor is also generous with her time, mentoring dozens of artists and making time for amateurs as well as professionals.
Her main piece of advice is to just paint.
“Don’t worry if it’s good or bad, don’t worry about critique, just keep on painting,” she said.
“Paint lots. Just keep on painting. Many times I said, how many other rocks and trees do you want? Now I wish I had a thousand more. Just keep going. People think they have to be accepted. I don’t think you have to be accepted. Just paint. Or dance. Or Sing. Or whatever. Don’t worry if you’re good or bad. Don’t worry about it. Just paint.”
Rigmor also loves to collaborate, as she says having another brain to work with lets both feed off each other. She’s worked with dozens of artists and always welcomes people to her studio.
“2019 marks 70 years since she and her family came to Canada from Sweden, and she’s had a wonderful and inspiring journey since then that is not slowing down either,” Campbell said.
“I have a feeling that her impact will expand for a long time into the future, more than we can know right now.”
When she was 80 years old, Rigmor attended a dog sled race.
There, she met Miriam Koerner, a writer and illustrator originally from Germany and living in northern Saskatchewan.
“She told me she was an artist and I was just starting out in my career,” Koerner said.
“I asked if I could visit her studio and she talked about the love of northern Saskatchewan and how she used to go out to paint right on the land. She hadn’t been able to do that since her husband passed.”
Koerner told Rigmor that she had a cabin, and invited the seasoned artist to come paint.
“She did, and basically taught me Plein air painting. From that a friendship and mentorship developed,” Koerner said.
While Rigmor had just turned 80, Koerner had just turned 40.
“Forty was the year she decided to become a serious artist.”
That was also Koerner’s goal.
The two began working more together, applying for mentorship through CARFAC, a non-profit corporation that serves as the national voice of Canada’s professional artists.
They were accepted.
“I have to thank her,” Koerner said.
“It’s not easy when you live rurally. I think that’s where she really deserves credit. She’s been a great help to people in rural areas. She taught me what it means to be an artist and the dedication to create a body of work was the most important thing. To be an artist, you have to make art. She’s always looking for opportunities, not just for herself, but for the artists around her. That’s what makes her really deserving of this.”
Koerner has since won multiple awards for her books When We Had Sled Dogs and Yellow Dog, which are written and illustrated from her own experiences raising and racing sled dogs and learning about life in the north.
“Lots of that I have to thank Rigmor for,” Koerner said.
“I have to thank Rigmor really for … seeing me through creating consistency in my work. She’s so encouraging, generous and sharing.”
Koerner has spent weeks at a time at Rigmor’s studio.
“She opened up her home, her studio and her heart,” Koerner said.
“She’s become more than just a mentor in art. She’s become a mentor in life.”
While stories like Koerner’s are not uncommon, one thing Rigmor has become known for is the Thickwood Hills Studio Tour. She founded it, 20 years ago, after seeing something similar in Ontario and bringing it home with her.
“I saw all these wonderful artists all over the countryside,” she said.
“I was really interested and wondered how we can bring this all together. I said that’s what we should do.”
Rigmor brought artists together to launch the studio trail. That’s how she met Leona Wieler, who joined the tour ten years ago.
Wieler coordinated the effort to nominate Rigmor for the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.
“Her contribution to the arts in our province and beyond has been enormous. Having someone like that in our community is a true honour,” she said.
The tour showcases artists in the area while bringing people to the Thickwood Hills, a beautiful visit during the summer.
“To have our members open their studios and spend those two days with the public is a real pleasure.”
Wieler was “thrilled” when Rigmor as named to the order of merit.
“This has been in the works for years, and we were terribly disappointed last year when she didn’t receive the award, so we’re very happy to see her receive it this year.
This year was going to be the 20th anniversary of the Thickwood Hills Studio Tour, and Rigmor was going to come back to the tour for the anniversary.
Unfortunately, the tour was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While more people may be introduced to Rigmor’s art through the award, Wieler said that’s not the point. The point is to give back to someone who’s given so much to this province.
“She’s recognized internationally and in many national collections,” she said.
“The fact that it’s a Saskatchewan award is really meaningful to Rigmor.”
Sitting on a couch in her Quonset studio, Rigmor said she, at first, did not believe it when she was told she was a recipient of the order of merit.
“I didn’t believe it. I thought it was one of those scams,” she said.
“It was totally unexpected.”
She says the award isn’t just about her. She says it’s for everyone.
“It’s for all the artists who made it happen,” she says.
Rigmor doesn’t go out on the land to paint much anymore. Still, she has 30 years of Plein air paintings to work from.
She’s still active in her studio. The advantage of having one, she said, is when you’re done you can just leave everything there. There’s no need to put everything away.
Your subconscious will keep working on it, she said, and when you’re ready, you can go back and head straight to work.
While she still paints, she now does more work with clay and screenprinting.
Her studio today has a large square outline on it, perhaps six feet in width and length.
On to it is sketched a winter scene, blocked out by colour.
It’s her latest clay piece. Rigmor doesn’t sculpt, per se. Rather, she creates large scale mosaics, made up of smaller pieces of clay, individually fired and painted, and then assembled like a giant puzzle.
While she earned her reputation painting, the tile collages are something she always wanted to do. She started small and learned as she went.
One thing that’s clear in all of her works is scale. Rigmor starts small, then begins to reproduce the works on a large scale. As the pieces grow, they change. What can be done with a small brush can’t be repeated with a large one.
“All the big ones have a small one somewhere,” she said.
“The big ones will have more detail.”
Rigmor also spends her time in the garden.
Hidden behind the trees is what she calls her secret garden.
“It’s like walking into a movie set,” she says.
She gardens in the morning as the sun comes up, and returns as the last light of the sun goes down. She grows vegetables, as well as several native plants.
If it grows in the ditch, she says, it will grow in her garden.
Even with her gardening, art is ever-present. She has planters on her deck made of blankets and towels dipped into concrete.
Rigmor has always felt a connection to the land.
The garden is no different.
“My garden is very important to me. It’s peaceful. It’s mending,” she said.
She looked out over the farm she has called home for more than 40 years.
“I think Saskatchewan is the best province,” she says.
“We have everything, we can be self-sufficient.”
That’s why, people who know her say, being named to the Order of Merit is so appropriate.
“She has an impressive exhibition history but still, her career is a quiet one. It’s always happening from the back of her studio in Shell Lake. It’s not bout front, and quite often not visible.”
She did all this, Koerner said, despite not having the formal art education or connections that others benefit from.
Still, Koerner said, “she has become a great landscape artist.”
“For an artist to get that recognition, the highest order in Saskatchewan, is significant. There are many deserving people and worthy recipients, but Rigmor is so dedicated to what she does, and I think most importantly, she is so in love with Saskatchewan,” Campbell said.
“It’s who she is and who she has become. I know for her it was a really special honour.”
Just like Rigmor gets lost in the beauty of Saskatchewan, viewers get lost in her paintings.
“When you look at her pictures it’s not that you get a sense that there’s a picture in front of you, but that you’re in the scene as well. That’s a really unique thing to show about her work. Focusing on her artistic achievement is just a really great honour and achievement.”
That’s the feeling delivered by that painting that draws the eye in her living room. Sitting on the couch, her far wall lined with windows and plants, you can’t help but keep looking at the painting as a second window, one into the beauty of the land.
It’s somehow bigger than it is, inviting you to explore further.
As you wander the property, you start to notice the ravens are everywhere. They’ve followed Rigmor throughout her life.
Her first major exhibition was based on the raven, spotted by a Prince Albert curator and sent across the province.
They’ve been with her from the start.
When she moved to Canada, she learned that ravens also play a role in First Nations beliefs and history.
Whether it’s her native Sweden, or Canada, or anywhere in between, the raven is always present.
“Wherever the raven has been, there’s mythology.”
In Forest Raven studio, that mythology has taken flight to an exploration of Saskatchewan, which has turned into a love story between an artist and the land.
“Saskatchewan is very beautiful,” Rigmor said when her retrospective opened in Prince Albert last year.
“It’s got tremendous beauty. I’ve seen the prairies. If I lived on the prairies, I would build on the emptiest, loneliest hill, and not let anything grow more than two feet tall, because the sky comes at you.”
Instead, Rigmor has built a home in the forest — she considers herself a bush painter, not a sky painter — and created a body of work reflecting the land that’s led to so much inspiration
“It’s all around you. It’s very powerful,” she said. “(In Saskatchewan) I felt like I was home.”