Remembering Yukon artist Libby Dulac and her ‘incredible’ eye

The late Libby Dulac in 2012, at work on ‘The Way Home,’ a large painting that now hangs in the visitor information centre in Haines Junction, Yukon. Dulac lived and painted in the community for decades. She died this month at 75. (Government of Yukon)

Even in her final days, beloved Yukon artist Libby Dulac couldn’t help offering her family some tips on how to arrange the flowers around her hospital room.

“Her love and appreciation for colour and nature was so ingrained in her,” recalled Libby’s daughter, Claire Dulac. “It needed to look right. And her artistic eye was just incredible.”

Libby, who died earlier this month at 75, made a name for herself in the Yukon and beyond with that artistic eye. Her evocative and colourful paintings, created over a decades-long career, were often directly inspired by the landscape she fell in love with and the place she called home — Haines Junction, Yukon, and the St. Elias mountains.

“She couldn’t believe anybody else would live anywhere else in the world. It was the most beautiful place in the world for her, and she just wanted to share that beauty with everybody,” said Claire.

Libby had been born in Pearly, England, into an aristocratic life far removed from the rugged Yukon landscape she would later embrace. According to Claire, Libby’s parents were “completely appalled” by their daughter’s rustic and outdoor lifestyle in Canada.

But Libby was adventurous, and when she met her husband Claude, from France, they decided to make the move to Canada. Claude got a job in Edmonton. But Claire says that city wasn’t quite what they were looking for, so they hit the road north.

An undated photo of Dulac, working on a sketch after being dropped off by a helicopter somewhere in the backcountry. (Dulac Art)

“Their dream of Canada [was] with mountains and a lake in the front yard with animals coming through, and just constant adventure,” Claire said.

They found that in Haines Junction, and it would be home from then on. They just “instantly fell in love with it,” Claire said.

Libby didn’t start dabbling in painting until after her kids were born. Initially, she painted on old gold pans and eventually moved to canvas. A career was born — first working in oils, and then watercolours because they dried more quickly.

‘Pillar in the community’

Garnet Muething, art curator for the Yukon government’s tourism and culture department, got to know Libby about a decade ago when Libby was commissioned by the government to create a piece for the new Haines Junction Visitor Information Centre.

That piece, a large landscape entitled The Way Home, depicts the Auriol Range as seen when driving toward Haines Junction from the east, under a late-winter sun. The painting now hangs over the entrance inside the facility. Muething says Libby chose the subject of that painting, and it captures a view that was very special to her.

“It forms a sort of welcoming, and [is] the last thing visitors will see when they leave the building,” Muething said.

To Muething, Libby’s work goes deeper than just realistic portrayals of mountain landscapes. Her works somehow manage to capture the more ephemeral qualities of the northern environment.

Inside Dulac’s studio in Haines Junction. (Dulac Art)

“You can tell from her work that she’s somebody that spent so much time sort of admiring and appreciating and just being in that space, having lived in Haines Junction for so long that her work shows such a sensitivity and such an understanding of it,” Muething said.

“Part of that is her colour, but certainly the way that she uses light to represent the constantly changing conditions in that environment and the changing of seasons is quite special.”

The territorial government now has two of Libby’s artworks — an oil, and a watercolour — in its permanent collection, and many more of her works hang in government buildings and public spaces all over the territory. Visitors to the Yukon are almost sure to see her work at some point during their visit.

You might even have some of Dulac’s work in your pocket. In 1992, a series of quarters were issued to commemorate Canada’s 125th anniversary, and Dulac designed the Yukon quarter.

Muething calls Libby a “pillar in the community” of Haines Junction, and someone whose generosity and warmth had a huge impact on the wider visual arts community in Yukon.

“She is someone who really dedicated herself to her art practice, and in a lot of ways was rather quiet with what she did — and then just created these pieces that had such a huge impact on people,” Muething said.

Libby at work on another large canvas. ‘She just wanted to share that beauty with everybody,’ said her daughter, Claire Dulac. (Dulac Art)

Muething also sees Libby’s artwork as an expression of a deep spirituality. She believes Libby’s faith gave her drive as an artist.

Claire Dulac agrees.

“Her journey with God and her faith are very, very close to her, very important to her,” Claire said.

Claire recalled a hike she took with Libby and Libby’s granddaughters last summer, higher up in the mountains than Libby had been in years.

“All the wildflowers were out and she just was astounded at the beauty … she just hadn’t seen these flowers for decades and she was just in awe,” Claire said.

“We stayed up there for hours while we puttered around, identifying over 30 different variations of flowers with her. And just taking that time, that time of appreciation of beauty and God’s creation, is just something that my mom always appreciated.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: New podcast series spotlighting Inuit artists to launch in January, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: German project to house everything published in Siberian and Arctic languages to seek new funding, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Award-winning novel set in Sapmi to get Netflix treatment, Eye on the Arctic

United States: American cartoonist says his new book on Canadian Indigenous history helped decolonize part of himself, CBC News

Paul Tukker, CBC News

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