Geographer and landscape painter Alec Blair is inspiring students to make connections with the world around them through art.
The Toronto-born, Vancouver-raised PhD candidate and sessional lecturer crafts oil paintings and sketches ranging from lush Vancouver forests to sprawling Kenyan rangelands.
Blair takes advantage of UBC’s enviable locale, frequenting campus wilderness hotspots like Tower Beach and Pacific Spirit Park to paint mountains, forests, sea and sky.
“There are super dramatic landscapes just nearby,” said Blair. He often leaves UBC’s urban expanse after work for the nature wonderland that lies at the edge of its borders.
“I really like that juxtaposition of the environment that surrounds us all the time and that we take for granted,” he said.
For Blair, landscape painting is more than a hobby. It’s a passion equal to his love of geography and it impacts his approach towards teaching and research.
“I see them as very similar… I think that art is a way to be passionate about the same things that worry me so much in examining some of the environmental crises that I have to teach about,” he said.
Blair’s research focuses on community conservation in central Africa. The interaction between humans and their natural world is a topic he incorporates into his teaching by encouraging students to engage with art.
“I absolutely love the stuff that I get to teach,” he said.
As part of a recent course, he took students to the Hatch art gallery to examine works by Canadian landscape painters EJ Hughes and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. The purpose was to get students thinking about the ways in which different artistic portrayals of the landscape shape our understanding of our environment, said Blair.
While teaching at a field school in Kenya, he had students keep a natural history journal to foster engagement with the natural world.
Blair believes geographers have much to gain by engaging with their environment through art, whether as spectator or artist.
“I think it’s a good insight into learning what people value or how people connect to the environment,” he said.
“It fosters some sense of connection.”
Blair credits a childhood spent outdoors and among art galleries for sparking an interest in traditional landscape painting, especially the work of famed Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris, whom he cites as a major influence. For the past several years he has worked with Harris’ estate to catalogue his work.
As a plein air painter, Blair experiences the same close connection and emotions that are present in much of Harris’ work.
“It’s a similar feeling in the [Harris] paintings that I’ve felt in the mountains, where you feel small but sort of vulnerable. There’s some almost overwhelming beauty but at the same time fear or reverence for these places and your role in the overall picture.”
Blair believes the lessons he’s learned in the field as a landscape artist — like the value of observation and self-reflection or the importance of understanding how we relate to and shape our environment — are equally applicable to the study of geography as the study of art.
“I think geography can examine those connections, can examine how people value the world around them, can examine ways to inspire connection and inspire environmental concerns or concerns more broadly about how the systems we’re a part of work,” he said. “Fundamentally, you can learn a lot about what people value and what people know.”
While teaching at the field school in Kenya, Blair was surprised by the many references his students made to the 1994 film The Lion King. It’s another example of how art shapes our ideas, expectations and connections with a place, and there’s a direct relationship between what people value and whether they take action, he said.
“These are connections that shape an idea and an ideal that has real effects on people’s relationships, has a real effect on funding, has a real effect on power.”
Art and geography are inextricably linked, and Blair’s efforts to combine his passions come naturally. While his landscape painting may be more than a hobby thanks to its academic impact, it’s still fun.
Exploring UBC’s dense forest and serene beaches between classes, hiking in pursuit of awe-inspiring views and getting to paint BC’s incredible natural landscape is all part of the thrill.
“The only real challenge is finding other people to do that with and convincing other people that it’s a fun thing to do.”