Why do we crave wild and ungoverned spaces? Why does experiencing adrenaline suddenly activate us and cause ecstasy that leads to transcendence? My belief is that we are constantly searching to be overwhelmed by something that is bigger than us, because it’s those experiences that reveal our inner strength and self. When standing on the top of a mountain, all you can think about is that current moment. You look out and see not only how steep it is below you, but you feel the vastness of a space that you can’t totally wrap your head around. You feel small, yet larger than life simultaneously. It somehow changes you, or maybe it ignites something inside of you that you may not know you ever suppressed. This is what I attempt to capture in my paintings, a sublime experience that affects the viewer in a way nothing else is able. In other words, I am drawn to the places where I feel the most vulnerable and alive. I use natural phenomena as a tool to perceive, feel, and represent my own inner shifting. Through intensifying this relationship, I have been able to uncover similarities between my emotional experiences and the physical forces of nature. My paintings are descriptions, observations, records, and revelations - a snippet of how I would feel if I were dropped into the middle of one of those dangerous landscapes. 

In reality and in my paintings, I attempt to put myself in those exact spaces. I am an innate awe seeker and, like many of us, I feel the most connected to myself in nature. Last March I boarded a direct flight from my home base of Denver, Colorado to Reykjavik, Iceland, thinking to myself is there a better place to chase the wild? My paintings have been directly inspired by glaciers, ice, and tectonic activity so there really is no better place for me to explore or find inspiration. I expected to be encompassed by a foreign ice desert, black sand beaches, and maybe even the northern lights. What I couldn’t have predicted was my timing. As I slept on the plane, COVID-19 had been declared a global health emergency, and I emerged into the airport in a new reality. The types of fear and uncertainty I experienced in those moments changed my perceived experience of Iceland, but opened me up to a new type of vulnerability that would ultimately lead to an unforgettable adventure.

As a result of this declaration, many tourists were unable to fly to the small arctic island, and before the borders closed in Europe and the U.S. most of the travelers who were already there quickly fled to their home countries. My timing was so unique that my best option was to stay put. I will never forget how terrifying it was to think I may be trapped in an unfamiliar country for an undetermined amount of time while the rest of the world ran out of toilet paper. I was all alone and unsure of the severity of the situation. I was torn, standing on the brink of a journey I had worked diligently to plan over several months, with no idea how I should feel. Adrenaline briefly took over and I decided that I had two options: I could stay sequestered in a small apartment in Reykjavik and work towards returning home, or I could seize the opportunity to see the island of fire and ice without the usual flood of tourists. 

Despite my fear of the unknown, I decided to go on as planned. The nature surrounding me was like something from a dream. I was captivated by waterfalls laced with icicles, piercing mountains in the distance and towering waves crashing against the black sandy beaches. I was in total awe. There were many moments I felt like I was transported to another planet, entirely displaced from what the rest of the world was experiencing. However, in between the scenery I could still feel a small pit in my stomach, an overall nervous feeling that this negative thing impacting the world would find its way to me, or worse to a loved one back home, and I would be powerless to help. There was more fear injected into my experience with this context, beyond the expected “no lifeguard on duty” approach Iceland has to warn tourists there is something dangerous ahead. I was overtaken by awe, while at the same time scared of the uncertainty myself and the world were facing. The combination of emotion and chaos I was going through, paralleled with such a profound, beautiful landscape distilled a feeling in me I won’t soon forget. 

By this time I had almost forgotten the highlight of my planned itinerary: exploring a glacial ice cave. This was the main attraction for me as I have been studying these geologic features through research and amazing photography for years, always hoping to one day set foot into the threshold of these beautiful ice caves. On the shores of a glacial lagoon, I met my guide, Ollie. He was driving what is called a “super jeep,” a specifically outfitted vehicle with tires as tall as my shoulders, designed to handle the ungroomed rocky landscape in the Vatnajokull National Park. Once we settled at the base of the glacier, Ollie instructed us to strap on helmets, harnesses, and most importantly crampons (these are the special spikes you wear on your boots that allow you to dig into the ice and navigate ice without slipping) and we proceeded to hike into the tongue of the glacier. I was swept away and nearly brought to tears over the beauty enfolding me. Ollie mentioned that it is extremely rare to witness these caves with no one else around. 

Exploring these transparent icy giants, with light echoing through them reflecting the most radiant blues, was the most profound sublime experience I’ve had to date. I spent hours staring into the layers of stone, ice and ash. I listened to the ice shift, crack, melt and drip. The snow around me seemed to fall in slow motion as I wandered through this truly remarkable frozen landscape. The fear and nervousness I was suffering was washed away by pure delight over a scene that my mind couldn’t fully comprehend. 

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is falling apart, chaotic, driven by fear. You are challenged, the environment is hostile or dangerous yet you are still drawn in. It is our usual distance from these spaces that creates the mystery, and allure to them. I believe I was meant to be exactly where I was at this given time, or else I may not have sustained my emotion with such depth. The chaotic feelings that led to such a vibrant moment of clarity are still with me. I carry them into each painting I create and how I live my everyday life now. I am forever transformed by this visit to Iceland in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I will always be in search of experiences like this to remind me that it is in my most vulnerable states that true transformation occurs. 

Using the environment to perceive, connect, and process my experiences has always helped me provide an explanation for my complex emotional states acting as a guide to my inner self. I believe in ways of healing that make no logical, or scientific sense. By seeking the experience of the sublime through adrenaline based sports, adventuring to untamed places, or attempting to recreate them through painting I am able to fully exist in the present moment, completely engaged. I think what we are all searching for is an experience of being alive, and I hope to capture this feeling through my paintings.

After safely returning to Denver with help from a local airline and the U.S Embassy in Reykjavik, I was driven to create artwork that would capture the experience I had in Iceland with the landscape, and most significantly the glaciers. I have since dedicated my artwork to the icy textures and glacial features I was able to witness firsthand. I will always seek to make artwork that is directly related to these types of experiences, and look forward to the next unguarded journey I am able to encounter.

Kendall Rose

Kendall Rose Kippley is a contemporary painter and muralist from Denver, Colorado. Her oversized paintings depict geological formations, amplified phenomena, and natural forces that form wild and dangerous landscapes. Her body of work surrounding phenomena is featured in Colorado State University’s Journal of Undergraduate Research, and her murals permanently adorn buildings in downtown Denver. You can find more of Kendall’s work online at www.kendallroseart.com, or on Instagram at @kendallrose.art.

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