VISUAL ARTS: Smokey gets the hang of the unhinged Arctic

Cabin Fever: Renderings of an Unhinged Man not only shows an illustrator hovering around the top of his skills so far, it’s also an inspiring exercise in recycling, both physical and cultural.

Its artist is Nickelas Johnson, who wears the name Smokey when he’s out fighting crimes of apathy, which he, like most creative people, is busy in the attempt to destroy. Along the walls of the ARTery at 9535 Jasper – the actual beating heart of the Quarters – Smokey’s subject matter makes use of both history and the antique, chipped-frame windows he’s painted on. In striking colours and cartoon horror, the subject matter is early polar explorers, all of them since haloed in questions of cannibalism and the mystery of their ultimate whereabouts.

“My – I don’t even know what to call him – my girlfriend’s dad is really excited about them. He keeps telling me I need someone to promote them,” he says. At the opening, comments and enthusiasm were rampant. Who shivering among us, after all, can’t imagine the gnaw of eternal winter?

Among other suggestions from real adults in Smokey’s vicinity: put labels explaining the stories of his iced subjects. While the artist understands the desire for a pop-up shortcut, he likes the ambiguity of how they hang. “Their names are there and that’s enough. I kind of want people to look them up themselves,” he says, clearly excited about learning in a way teachers wish they could bottle.

Smokey’s imagination is running free to the extent he’s starting to write comics in his head about these unfortunate devils. He imagines scenarios where the first of them to disappear subsequently hunted and ate the newcomers — which he explains is a lucky bonus when you do so much dedicated and narrowly-focused figurative work.

“I like that one the most right now,” he says of a pair of grasping hands, severed below the wrist. I don’t even bother asking him who or what they represent; there’s no need to know.

The funny thing is we almost lost Smokey – up in Ft. McMurray in his youth he was selling enough art to pay his way through school. But the commercial side demoralized him, long story short, and he turned to music for years. He now plays in Field + Stream and under his superhero secret identity. Ironically, as it’s taken him six years to finish the F+S album, drawing is floating his ambitions. As an example, he recently did a piece for the New York Times, not to mention this show.

“What I came to is I didn’t want to think about it any more,” Smokey says about why he does art. “I was feeling really bad when I was looking at other artist fiends, at their work. I feel like I’m a good renderer, but it’s a strength I haven’t gotten respect for.

“My favourite stuff I will never be able to achieve. Genuine folk art. I’ve been an artist on some level since I was four. Because of school, I know too much to make the art that I like. My ideas are usually, well, there’s nothing behind them. There’s no artistic angle.”

But what he says next is one all artists should use as a mantra: “Ultimately, I just started drawing the stuff that I liked.”

The show runs through March 6.