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Art Beat

September 1, 2005


The Pilgrimage


photo of Ingrid Nickelsenby LINDA MITCHELL

It was no more than a five minute walk, a painfully short distance, from the Doctor Rock Trailhead to the place our guides, the detectives who investigated Ingrid Nickelsen's death, described as her "survival nest." Ingrid's nest was the only shady spot on this section of the trail, a circle of earth and stones protected by a small, rocky shelf extending out of the mountain. A young Douglas Fir grew diagonally over this shelf, shading the nest, and small patches of vegetation encircled it. Ingrid rested here at the end of her long, arduous journey and continued to create. She tied fir branches together with her shoelaces, enhancing her space, and scribbled her final observations and wishes, with charcoal, on the back of a trail map. Like everything Ingrid chose or created, her nest was absolutely lovely. I touched the cool, copper-colored soil in the place where my friend had confronted her death, with her eyes wide open, and hoped I could do the same.

[Photo at right: Ingrid Nickelsen. Photo by Carrie Grant.]

My companions on this pilgrimage to Ingrid's final landscape were a small band of her family and friends, each walking where Ingrid had walked for reasons of their own. Some came seeking closure, I suppose, and others sought solace. As a member of Ingrid's painting "tribe," I was searching for a way to move beyond the circumstances of her sad and prolonged death, and back to the joy of her life. I hoped to discover what Ingrid had traveled here to see, the vistas she had come here to paint.

Like many of the places Ingrid recorded, Doctor Rock is both majestic and remote, located in the Siskiyou Mountains, two hours northeast of Crescent City. This is the high country, an area considered by regional Native American tribes to be the center of the spiritual universe, a sacred place where shamans are born. It was a perfect landscape for Ingrid, a seasoned explorer who spent a lifetime off the beaten path, yet too far off the grid for someone as timid as me. I suddenly recalled a conversation we'd had, back in June, when our tribe had last gathered at the Ranch. "I would never do what you do," I said, referring to Ingrid's solo treks into wild areas. "Never say never, Linda," she answered.

We continued following Ingrid's path, and I adjusted my pace to the unpredictable trail, which rose and fell, widened and narrowed, as it crawled around the mountain. The air was hot and thin. Along the way, Ed Fleshman and Bill Stevens, our burly young detectives, pointed out the evidence of Ingrid's effort to endure. They showed us where her body was recovered, a few feet outside her nest, and where her painting gear had been found, a mile and a half further along the trail, close to where she'd fallen on the first day of August. They pointed out the "drag marks" Ingrid left behind, after that devastating fall, as she inched her way, day after day, toward her truck and her supplies, back at the trailhead. Our guides were gentle, yet unflinchingly direct: Ingrid was really hurt. She shattered her ankle and threw out both hips. She couldn't walk. She tried really hard, but she ran out of water. "I struggled with how honest we should be," Ed said later. "But then I decided she'd want us to tell the truth." Yes, of course, I thought. Ingrid believed, above all else, in integrity.

Our detectives, like all those who hear her story, are touched by Ingrid's final days, humbled by the nobility of her struggle. They explained how Ingrid had used the frame of her backpack as a sort of crutch to propel herself forward, and how she'd created a splint for her ankle with another section of the pack, anchored by one of her paintbrushes. "Seeing that paintbrush ... wow ... it really got to me," Ed recalled. He shook his head, looking away.

photo of View of Ingrid's final landscape"In this line of work, you try not to get too emotionally involved, but this one felt personal," Bill observed. "We aren't always dealing with people who seem like they're just really decent." The detectives told of entering Ingrid's house in Eureka, in search of phone numbers to notify her next of kin. I imagined them there, surrounded by her exuberant garden, her quirky, colorful decor, and her monumentally expressive oil paintings. "When we saw her paintings, we kind of felt like we got to know her," Bill added. "She was really something."

Photo at left: View of Ingrid's final landscape.
Photo by Linda Mitchell.

Ingrid's passion for painting the natural world was, of course, what drew us together and cemented our friendship. We gathered with a group of women artists each year, to work and laugh and play in another majestic landscape, a remote ranch on the Mad River, under the Iaqua Buttes. Ingrid dubbed our group her "plein air tribe," trying to define a kinship, a level of understanding that's impossible to describe. At 62, Ingrid was an elder in our tribe, a fiercely independent free spirit whose stories about the mysteries of the wild fueled our imaginations and challenged us to heed our dreams.

Like Ingrid, the other artists in our tribe find inspiration in nature and are willing to take measured risks for an opportunity to explore and share our vision, yet few of us have ventured as far afield as our beloved Ingrid dared to go, in her solitary pursuit of vistas expansive enough to satisfy her spirit. As a devoted plein air painter, Ingrid knew better than anyone that nature has a dark side, always lurking in the background, waiting to pounce the instant you turn your back. She made her peace with that darkness a long time ago, assessing the risks with a cool head and then setting them aside, seizing any opportunity she could find to sleep under the stars and paint the dawn. Ingrid shared the glories of the wild with the rest of us, communicating with original, interpretive colors she insisted were really there, if people would only take the time to look.

When her painting gear was found, eighteen long days after her fall, the massive canvas Ingrid carried into the Siskiyous remained untouched. I studied the mountain vistas she'd journeyed here to record, those towering, timeless forms and infinite variations of tone. I tried to imagine which colors she might have used, had Ingrid lived to interpret the mysteries of the Dr. Rock trail. The silence echoed.

Ingrid Nickelsen's landscapes will be included in a Plein Air Invitational Exhibition throughout the month of September at the Cody-Pettit Gallery, 527 4th Street, Eureka, with an Arts Alive! opening on Sept. 3. She will also be honored with a solo exhibition of her work at the Morris Graves Museum in September and October of 2006.


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