Falling in Love with the Canadian Mounties–and Their Paper

When I was little, my dad worked in the printing and publishing business. Later, he started his own small print shop. He brought home big, boxed paper samples for me to draw on. Different sizes, weight, texture and opacity. Dad showed me the difference between cover stock and card stock, and named all the colors—much different than my Crayolas. “Canary yellow” and “Salmon” were specific in those days to paper. My father knew that the gift of paper would be far more appealing than a new Barbie.

Among those samples from Northwest Potlatch Paper Company were beautiful prints of Canadian Mounties astride their horses, often alongside muscled Native Americans astride their own steeds. Every now and then, a print would feature a Mountie playing with huskies.

To a nascent artist and animal lover, this was heaven. I sat on the living room floor and sorted through the papers over and over again, deciding which to color on first. I studied every detail of the printed images, drinking in the evocative vistas and adventures. The experience reinforced my interest in art (not to mention dogs and horses). It also puffed up my chest a bit, since we lived in Minnesota and the images were just like “home.”

Of the 16 artists hired by Northwest, the artist whose work I distinctly remember was Arnold Friberg. He was the most prolific of the artists commissioned by Northwest (Potlatch) Paper Company, so it’s no surprise that his work showed up most often in the boxes my dad brought home. Over the course of 33 years (between 1937 and 1970), he sold paintings or reproduction rights on 208 Mountie subjects to Northwest Paper. Friberg was also well known for his Western and Biblical illustrations. The latter interest led to a monumental painting and costume design project for Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments, which earned Friberg an Academy Award.

His style was distinctly representational and overtly masculine. Men and horses alike boasted chiseled jaws and soulful eyes. Postures were perfect. Manes and tales ripped across his oil paintings in a deft display of motion, while the implacable Mountie sat strong and tall. He was the yang to Norman Rockwell’s yin, but their styles were similar, in that their subjects were both heroic and routine. No surprise, they studied together in New York before WWII. 

Friberg’s narrative (most likely assigned by Northwest Paper management) ranged from Mountie as rugged outdoorsman (warming himself in the shadows of the night by a small, hand-made fire, snowshoes upended and wedged securely in the snow); to upholder of the law for Native Americans (victims of cattle and horse rustling); to Mountie as proselytizer (reading the Bible to a group of Native American children); to something of a cross between mom and handyman (reattaching the arm of a doll for a Native American girl). Always, binoculars and a map were at hand. Northwest Potlach Paper, with the help of Arnold Friberg, had created the quintessential manly man. And no surprise that Native Americans were expressly featured in Friberg’s paintings—a Potlatch was a Pacific Northwest Native American festival with weddings and stories, feasting, dancing and trading.

  The flesh and muscles of Friberg’s horses rippled with hues of amber, sienna and umber. The effervescent glow of Friberg’s white snow, contrasted against shadows of cobalt, ultramarine and violet, evoked intensely frigid scenes. His colors suggest the palette of forerunner Maxfield Parrish. Friberg’s palette, like his vista, was rich with depth. Of course, the Canadian Mounted Police wore bright red, which again speaks to Friberg’s palette—vivid. Contrasting. Intense.

To my immense pleasure, horses were a recurring theme in Friberg’s work. One of his most famous pieces featured a dappled, white horse exhaling through his nostrils a warm mist into the cold, night air. Beside him, George Washington kneeled in snow. “Prayer at Valley Forge” was designed for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial.

Friberg died in 2010. But his memory and my childhood memories live on. I continue my love affair with paper and paint through my own work. And I think about Dad almost every time I run copies through my printer.

Arnold Friberg, “Mountie and Native Leader.”

Arnold Friberg, “Prayer at Mount Vernon.”

Click on the text below for more images. (Better yet, visit the Univ. of Minnesota, Duluth museum in person!) http://www.d.umn.edu/tma/collections/mountie.html

Does anyone remember these images from childhood? Were they as evocative and resonant for you as they were for me? I’d love to hear from you!

Running to keep up with the keyboard

Dijbouti. Suez Canal. Night vision goggles. Combat rescue. Cargo ships. International flights. Missed flights. Arab culture. Clans. The mechanics of heat and missile speed. All the things a good writer should know. Like David L. Robbins. And me.
Me?
Yes, I write. And I don’t write in the genre of David Robbins. Good thing, because not only would I never be able to steer a ship the size of five football fields under the smile of a whimsical, indulgent Arab captain (I am, after all, a woman), I would never be able to keep pace with David Robbins, who has the energy of five cruise missiles and the stamina of five football teams.
I felt like I’d had five cups of coffee after I’d listened to his talk at Christopher Newport University today.
To say that I enjoyed his talk immensely would be an understatement. To say that I felt inadequate would be, too. I write about art. Family. Gardening. Health care. Mental illness. Asperger’s. A bit of science fiction. And yes, I have had a short story published about an honor killing in Pakistan.* I blush to think that I had to look up the spelling of Kalashnikov. David Robbins I am not.
I focused on the protagonist as a woman in a harsh and unfair culture, a woman as a mother and a poet, a pure spirit, an individual. I researched the type of food a typical, if poor, Muslim housewife would make in Pakistan, the smells of that food, the smells and colors and noises of the marketplace she so seldom sees. I focus on the place she hides her forbidden poetry–so near, so intimate, and so undiscovered–beneath the bed in her own home. I write about the beautiful embroidery she stitches to sell behind her husband’s back.

These are the things I know. These are the things I weave into a story of willpower, family, betrayal, terror, despair, faith and love.
And then it dawned on me, why should I be David Robbins? I have no desire to aspire to his scope of of travel, level of production or genre. “Write what you know” is a well-worn phrase, to the point of cliche’, but it is so true. I know art. I know embroidery. I know marriage. I know children. I know nature. I know dogs, cats, and horses. I know what it feels like to stitch in haste, to prick my finger with a needle, then observe a single drop of dark red blood spring from my fingertip like magic, to wonder what would happen if my blood were diseased, or if I accidentally smeared it on an expensive fabric that were to be given as a gift to a head-of-state, or if I licked it and found that I’d developed a desire and addiction for it.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to send my imagination into a flight of creativity, a what-lf situation that leads to a story or a description that leads to a poem or painting. I take it for granted; I was born that way.
So with David Robbins in mind, and not in spite of his animated, high spritited adventures and his engrossing story telling skills, I continue with my smaller life, my quiet paintings, my detailed descriptions. Shame on me for thinking I have to keep up with the Joneses of the writing world. There is no need to run to keep up with the keyboard. I only have to make sure that it’s there, waiting, each time I’m ready for it. I only need to keep pace with myself.

*http://www.livewirepress.net/