The scent of lilac wafts through the air as Michael Markowsky observes the verdant, peaceful surroundings from the verandah at the century old Mackie Lake House in Coldstream.
Using the full floor of the screened-in space, he places his brush into the can of latex acrylic paint, and adds a squiggled line to the 10-by-20-foot canvas, one of two he is working on as the latest artist to take up residency at the Mackie house.
The serene environment is quite a departure from what the 36-year-old Vancouver-based artist experienced last July – back when his head was in the clouds, quite literally.
As a member of Canada’s Department of National Defense war artists program, he was the first artist to make art while flying at super-sonic speeds in a Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 hornet fighter jet plane.
His work at the Mackie Lake House continues on that journey.
“I’m trying to describe what it’s like to fly at the speed of sound,” said Markowsky, while taking a break from painting.“There’s nothing comfortable about that environment. Everything is stripped down and exposed.”
A self-professed “quick drawer,” Markowsky has explored movement through art for the past 15 years. He’s created while strapped to a car roof, on a bus trip through Europe, from a train travelling across Canada, atop Arctic snow drifts, and this latest super-sonic journey.
“I try to describe the landscape while travelling through the landscape,” he said. “Movement is how we experience the landscape. One hundred years ago, people were happy to stay in one place, now it’s not uncommon for people to travel 100 kilometres to work.”
Markowsky has travelled quite a bit farther in his career. A native of Calgary and graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Design, he studied overseas then moved to L.A. to attend graduate school at the Art Center College of Design. After completing his studies, he was offered a teaching job in California.
While there, Markowsky embarked on an art project where he retraced the footsteps and pathways of various well-known figures. One of those was retracing the car chase of murder suspect O.J. Simpson.
“I turned my art practice into an excuse to travel. My vacations turned into work,” he said. “I still approach art as they did 100 years ago. I ask myself, would Mattisse or Picasso be sitting in a studio or expressing art from the world they are living in?”
After spending 12 years in California, Markowsky said he felt the pull back north after a visit to Calgary. He ended up moving to Vancouver around the time of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“I had started my green card application. It was a long and expensive process and then the economy in California tanked. When I went to visit Calgary, everything was building up. California was hit hard from the recession and it was like the Titanic sinking and me waiting to get on board.”
That prior visit to Alberta served another purpose, as Markowsky was able to conduct an artist residency at the Banff Centre stemming from one of his “movement” projects, where he drew landscapes while taking a train across Canada.
After being accepted into the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP) five years ago, he joined the ranks of Canadian artists before him – David Milne, Group of Seven members, Alex Colville, among others – who have recorded the actions and landscapes of the Canadian military since the First World War.
“My grandfather was a mine sweeper in the navy in the Second World War and my uncle served, although he never saw combat. It was just an incredible opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes,” said Markowsky. “I think that’s the role of an artist, to go out and see, share and experience what other people do and to do it in a personal, subjective way.”
Markowsky’s first endeavour with the program was to visit the northern-most settlement in Canada, at CFS Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut.
Built as a weather station, CFS Alert was equipped with a distant early warning radar network during the Cold War and now houses between 40 to 50 military personnel.
In April, 2012, Markowsky donned a B25 suit (which insulates in minus 25 degrees Celcius), mukluks and gloves to paint the landscape.
“It was the most inconvenient, unimaginably hard process and I had to learn to work on the fly,” he said. “I like challenges and being outside the whole time in the freezing cold was definitely a challenge.”
Markowsky’s second deployment with the CFAP was to CFB Cold Lake, Canada’s busiest airforce training and firefighting base in northeastern Alberta.
Before arriving, he had to undergo intensive physical training and then went through a week of physical and mental preparedness at the base for what would come next – an hour-and-a-half flight aboard the CF18 Hornet.
Battling the weight of his G-force suit, which he compares to being trapped in a blood pressure band, Markowsky used a special knee pad to conduct his sketches, 100 in all, while in the air.
“It was mind boggling for a million different reasons. It was a different way of flying than I had ever experienced before,” he said. “I was putting myself in a situation where I could die to make a couple of pictures… but there was also trust and an incredible amount of comfort.”
Markowsky says he was able to overcome his nerves thanks to the piloting skills of Capt. Adam “Manik” Runge, a member of the CF-18 demonstration team who flies a specially painted Hornet to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“As an artist, I was surprised I had more in common than expected with these men and women. Some of them became good friends,” said Markowsky, who describes himself as a pacifist. “The whole program is to honour and acknowledge those people, whether you agree with (the military) or not, they put their lives on the line to protect us.”
Besides his three-week residency at the Mackie house, Markowsky is sharing his experiences with the CFAP program in the exhibition, Faster Than the Speed of Sound, which will run at the Vernon Public Art Gallery until June 27. He is showing the two giant 10-by-20-foot paintings, which are based on the 100 drawings he made in the fighter plane, currently being created at the Mackie house, and 10 of the drawings he made during the flight.
A video of footage from inside the plane will also be screened.
A reception takes place Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. and will also be the opening of three other exhibitions: UBC Okanagan fine arts graduate show, Ellipses, Restless Fables by Powell River’s Meghan Hildebrand and Before and After, figurative work by Vernon’s Barbara Rety.
Saturday, from noon to 1:30 p.m., Markowsky will be joined by musician Sam Davidson, of Vancouver band Brasstronaut, whom he met while at the Banff Centre residency, for an artist talk and performance at the gallery. Markowsky will discuss his journey to the North Pole with the RCAF in 2012, and will show a floor-to-ceiling video projection of photos and video from the trip, and do a live painting in response to the images. It will be followed by a live musical performance by Davidson’s latest project, electro-dance-jazz outfit Skim Milk.
More on Markowsky’s CF-18 project can be found at: www.F18art.com