By Shannon Boklaschuk
A University of Saskatchewan (USask) student is inspiring others with the ways she has adapted and innovated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aleksi Ann, a Bachelor of Fine Arts student majoring in studio art in USask’s College of Arts and Science, has created more than two dozen artworks showcasing Canadian travel locations—despite never leaving Saskatchewan.
“I just want to encourage people to embrace creative solutions, and creative problem-solving. The pandemic hasn’t been a ball of sunshine—but finding ways to keep doing what you love in new ways is exciting, finding new things and hobbies you didn’t realize you could love is exciting, and innovation is born from limitation,” she said.
“This pandemic is not permanent—and being able to look back on what I chose to do during it with a sense of some pride, maybe even nostalgia, makes navigating it a lot less miserable.”
The idea for Ann’s Digital Road Trip series was developed after she was forced to cancel a planned trip to several Canadian national parks and other tourist locations with her best friend due to the global pandemic. Ann’s friend, who lives in New Mexico, had never been to Canada before, so it was disappointing when the trip—which was set to start in early June 2020—was indefinitely postponed.
“Having something exciting cancelled was disappointing, and I was initially pretty upset about it. After the death of a different friend in July that was COVID-related, I snapped out of my self-pity, transitioned into grieving, and quickly thereafter realized having to postpone plans can be disappointing, but new plans can always be made,” Ann said.
“Things have been put on hold for a lot of people. Realizing and accepting that the pandemic has impacted everyone’s lives to varying degrees does provide a sense of togetherness for me. We are all in this together, even if we don’t want to be.”
After the trip was cancelled, Ann took up plein air painting during the summer months. Sometimes, following shorter shifts at her job in North Battleford, she would pick a backroad, drive until something caught her eye and then paint.
“I never had much of an interest in landscape painting before the pandemic, but between the plein-air exercises I tried, and my desire for escapism, it has become something I really enjoy. Digital Road Trip, which is what I’ve called my series of paintings of Canadian locations, was inspired by my desire to explore, the road trip that never came in 2020, my love for fast-paced painting and a newfound love for landscape painting that came out of plein-air exercises,” she said.
So far, Ann has created 25 acrylic paintings for a USask art class she’s currently enrolled in— ART 473, taught by Prof. Allyson Glenn in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Art and Art History—as well as three drawings. She uses random Canadian Google street view images for her source material, since travelling across the country to see the locations in person isn’t advised right now.
“This was done for a few reasons, mainly to get a wider variety of landscapes—including some I otherwise would not have thought to paint or wanted to. It also made me feel a bit like an explorer,” said Ann.
“I’ve never travelled east of Ontario in person, or very far north, so this gave me the opportunity to travel to new places, and some places I would not think to ever go in person. Most of the paintings are on highways, and I think that captures the reason I love travelling so much. The destination and tourist attractions are great, but the driving and the journey are just as interesting, and underappreciated.”
Glenn, who has taught Ann in several art classes, said she was impressed to see her student take “the initiative to develop an idea and a project that could satisfy her desire to connect to land.” Meditating on a subject or place can inevitably deepen the real experience of it, Glenn noted.
“Many students have experienced adversity in the pandemic and this story might inspire them to find something in their situation that can be reimagined as a creative project. In her loss, the postponement of the trip, another possibility was unveiled to Aleksi—the inspiration to make an inner journey,” Glenn said.
“For those of us missing family or friends in other parts of our country, these images can trigger memories reminding us of how important land and geography is to our sense of identity,” she added.
For Ann, who is currently living in her hometown of Cut Knife, Sask., while most USask classes are taught remotely, there are pros and cons to studying off campus during the pandemic. She appreciates the freedom to study from anywhere, but she is also experiencing some “digital burnout” and struggles with Internet connectivity in her small rural community.
While living and studying in Cut Knife is enabling her to spend more time with her family and to save money, she misses some aspects of in-person learning, particularly as related to studio art. However, Ann is also appreciative of the small studio space she has in the bowling alley in her community, which she calls her “private creative sanctuary.”
Ann advises other students who may be struggling during the pandemic to try new things, find “accessible outlets for stress,” eat well, exercise, develop a support system and reach out for help.
“I am not the authority on all things pandemic, but I’ve always had the attitude that doing something unconventionally, even if it’s not ideal, is better than not doing it at all,” she said. “Digital Road Trip was not as fun as a physical road trip would have been, but it was more fun than not painting or travelling at all—and for that I feel it has been a worthy, successful endeavour. During the pandemic, compromise has been my best friend.”
Ann will be posting her Digital Road Trip artwork on her Instagram account: @aleskiann.