When I first sat down to write this article, I was admittedly speechless thinking back to the talk that I was fortunate enough to attend hosted by Canadian artist and world traveler, Stephanie Rayner. Rayner goes down in Trent history as the first artistic recipient of the Ashley Fellow award for her piece “Yelth” inspired by an artistic expedition she was a part of in the late 1980s.
“You will notice I carry no notes for this because this story comes from the heart,” she said.
In this talk, Rayner takes us, by way of elaborate and skillful storytelling, through her recollection of the August 1988 Octagon Expedition in the glaciers of British Columbia. “There are parts of this story that you are going to have to just reach into your hearts and know to be true,” she said.
“This is what really happened on that mountain.”
Rayner then attempts to give the audience a bit of a reference guide to the story’s characters before starting her account. She does this by briefly showing a CBC special that covered the entire expedition back in the late 1980s, in which we are able to put faces to a lot of the names in the forthcoming story, as well as catch a glimpse of a young Rayner.
The tale truly gets interesting once Rayner begins to get into the finer details that weren’t covered in the CBC special, such as stories of scaling huge, slippery rock walls, hypothermia being a real and present danger and one artist even going into a state of shock and having to be air-lifted off of the mountain before reaching the summit.
However, after eight long and impoverished hours, the untrained climbers, along with members of the Canadian Search and Rescue Military team in case of emergency, reach the summit of the glacier sacred to the Kwakiutl people known as Queenesh.
It is here that many of the other artists found frequent and almost violent bursts of creativity. However, Rayner recounts how she didn’t get that feeling for the majority of the trip, and instead spent most of her time walking the glacier all day until it was unsafe to do so.
“You’ll notice that I’m not in a lot of the [CBC] shots while at the glacier. That’s because I was out walking, taking in the scenery, and getting very familiar and intimate with the glacier,” Rayner explained.
All other artists came off the glacier back to sea level with a complete, or near complete, piece of artwork, but Rayner may have got away with something even more precious. Although she was leaving empty-handed, Rayner takes us through how, on the second last day of the expedition, she was, through the help of prayers from a fellow explorer, privy to a truly life-altering vision.
I won’t attempt to do the story justice, as I will likely butcher a truly beautiful rendition by Rayner herself of a vision that spoke to her soul and gave her the idea for her prized possession from that journey. I am, of course, referring to her masterpiece “Yelth”.
After a year of creation, weighing over four hundred pounds, and at full extension spanning upwards of 15 feet in length, “Yelth” was a museum curator’s nightmare for display. Although it was displayed as a floor model in a Yorkville museum for some time, and attempted to be purchased by a number of both private as well as corporate art lovers, Rayner made a promise to the native people for whom it was created – that she would not sell this piece for any amount of money.
She has held true to her promise and upholds true artistic integrity.
As Rayner beautifully and passionately tells the story of her truly heroic journey up and down the slippery mountainside up to the glacier, as well as of her time on the Queenesh as a spiritual learning experience, she takes the time to bestow some of the knowledge that was passed on to her from the mountain to us in the audience.
I believe that the world needs more people like Rayner, whose passion is so sincerely infectious that it has us all sitting at the edge of our seats, hanging onto every word. I only speak for myself here when I say that it would be a true blessing if I were, in my life, be able to go on an excursion such as this for something I am so passionate about.