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Water, solidified

The SLO Art Center displays depictions of ice



For nearly six years, J.J. L’Heureux has filled chaste white canvases with ice, distributed in swirls and flecks, winding veins across abstract landscapes. She calls her creations—which span nearly every shade of blue and sometimes lapse into softer hues of pink and purple that crescendo into violet and plum—bergy bits, named after small masses of ice disowned by larger icebergs. For the first time since she began the series, L’Heureux’s bergy bits are out and about, on display at the SLO Art Center under the title Ice-Thetics: Paintings Inspired by the Ice Fields of Antarctica.


For an abstract painter to dedicate years to explore the subject of ice might sound excessive—particularly in Central California, where the substance generally takes the form of small cubes that keep drinks cool. But L’Heureux enthuses that ice is, in fact, vast in its moods.

“The pieces are bergy bits before they turn into nothing,” L’Heureux explained. “The water is melting so the things in the ice are melting out and the colors of the ice change.” Krill makes the ice pink, and entombed algae tints the ice green. To L’Heureux, the experience of looking at a body of ice is akin to the spiritual thrill of viewing a cathedral.

The fascination began during a trip to Patagonia, where the painter and photographer traveled to view glaciers, fjords, and penguins. While there, she was persuaded—by an inanimate object—to travel to the globe’s southernmost region.

“There was a photograph of an ice-breaker and it said ‘Join the Russians. Go to Antarctica.’ And I said ‘I’d love to do that.’”

The following year, she embarked on a 30-day trip, the first of what she now estimates to be seven or eight annual treks. During her first tour, there was a resident artist aboard the ship, a position she assumed during subsequent journeys. Traditionally, the purpose of the resident artist was to draw a region’s flora and fauna and map the coastlines. L’Heureux happily maps her interpretation of the ice.

The painter considers herself fortunate to work with a subject that necessarily whittles her color palette to blue and white, with a few hints of purple and pink. But she makes up for this simplicity by playing with texture in her paintings and adding smatterings of glitter to make her bergy bits glisten like snow. To achieve the rough raised texture, she applies as many as 30 layers of paint, pointing out that ice is rarely smooth, and particularly not after it has been ruffled by the wind.

Despite the fact that her interest is purely artistic, there’s a decidedly scientific aesthetic to L’Heureux’s numbered paintings, which would not be amiss at the bottom end of a microscope—or on a screen of swirling cloud patterns behind a weather forecaster. The elevated surfaces of the images read more like topographical globes, a not altogether inappropriate interpretation of these unusual portraits of place. But in Bergy Bits 8, dominated by white with faint suggestions of slate blue, a lengthy perusal reveals figures—running, kissing, a fish, even a celestial orb or two, suggesting that L’Heureux discovered worlds within Antarctica’s ice and now wants to delve into other people’s perceptions of her snow-clad world. Her somewhat prosaic titles—Bergy Bits 17, Bergy Bits 4, Bergy Bits 23—lend credence to implied commingling of science and art suggested by her status as resident artist aboard a ship.


While she’s uncertain how long her preoccupation with ice will continue, L’Heureux’s interest shows no indication of waning. While her paintings express her view of ice in San Luis Obispo, she is in Antarctica acquiring fresh inspiration.

“Over the years, life changes,” she acknowledged. “For five or 10 years I’ll work on something or go to a certain location and then that changes. Maybe I won’t be invited back to Antarctica. But there are 17 species of penguins, so I’d like to see more. And I’d like to see more ice.”


INFOBOX: Blue veins

Ice-Thetics: Paintings Inspired by the Ice Fields of Antarctica, by J.J. L’Heureux, are on display at the Art Center through Dec. 3. The Art Center is located at 1010 Broad Street. For more information visit or or call 543-8562.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach thinks the world will end in ice. Defend Frost at [email protected].


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