Karen Austen’s 2009 Yukon Quest poster puts you in the mushers shoes

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A soft steady crunching of snow, pink and orange rays of sunlight looming ahead through the trees, little puffs of breath rising from each dog as they keep the pace gliding the sled along the trail. A feeling of quiet serenity as the cold mist hangs in the woods around you.

Whether you’ve experienced this scene, as many Alaskans have, out on the trail with a dog team or you’ve only heard stories of mushing life, you can feel the peace and inspiration when looking at the image on the 2009 Yukon Quest poster, created by local oil painter Karen Austen.

“I wanted to capture the sound, the temperature, the quiet solitude on the trail. I wanted it to be real and intimate so it feels like you are the musher with the team in front of you,” Austen said of the image she created on request for Yukon Quest directors.

The image will be used on all promotional events for the 2009 Quest, such as brochures, fliers and posters. Proud to be a part of “such a terrific race,” Austen said she thinks it is important for Quest supporters to have an image to associate with the mushers and race news.

“The race itself is such a wonderful visual experience, but a lot of people read about it or listen on the radio, so it helps to have a visual,” she said.

Sue Sprinkle of Fifth Avenue Design and Graphics agrees. A long-time supporter and board director for the Yukon Quest, Sprinkle for years sought an annual system for art acquisition. Quest art has ranged from “good to frightening over the years,” she said, and the fact that a budget and system took “a while to get some legs” is representative of the race itself.

“That’s the beauty of the Quest, we work by our bootstraps, and say, ‘Let’s get together and do this,’ and we do,” she said.

Sprinkle herself was asked to create a poster one year, and at one point the Quest issued an open invitation to anyone who was interested. School children were included some years, but “a lot of it was not really usable,” Sprinkle said, especially if you are trying to capture “the grandeur of the race.”

“So there were were, with nothing, but you don’t get what you don’t pay for,” she said with a chuckle.

She aimed to create a unified promotional image, and she was persistent.

The start of a new tradition

Hoping to “brand the race,” as she called it, Sprinkle kept at her cause, requesting the board agree to cast a single image for all the printed material for one year. The approach was “Marketing 101,” she said, and eventually it worked. The first few years, local artists agreed to participate with the promise their work would be printed. After about three years, the Quest board agreed purchasing art was the way to go, and ever since there has been direct vision, with Quest directors choosing yearly themes for artists.

“Four years ago we purchased some photography. Last year we went with an image painted by Todd Sherman, a local artist that teaches at UAF,” Sprinkle said. “He’s a part of the community, he knows dogs, it was very nice.”

Keeping the work local is an important part of the process, Sprinkle said. Someone who knows the mushing lifestyle, is “immersed in the life and the dogs” is so beneficial to creating the right image. That, Sprinkle said, is why Austen was a perfect choice for this year’s image.

“She’s worked with animals, mostly dogs, for years and has her own team of dogs. She has a complete understanding of the relationship between mushers and their dogs,” Sprinkle said. “I love her work and she’s always been a supporter of the Quest, so I just said, ‘This is her year.'”

Austen certainly did not disappoint. In about a month and a half she turned the directive provided by the Yukon Quest — to create an image that focused on the trail, from a musher’s persective — into a broad oil painting canvas, showing an entire team of dogs in “the moment a musher really enjoys, on the trail with the dogs, in peaceful quiet,” Sprinkle said. Austen said she leaned heavily on her own love of dogs for inspiration.

“I had a hard time finding an image of dogs running from the back that looked realistic. So I took our own dogs out (on a trail near Chena Hot Springs Road) and took a picture,” she said. “The photo really captured those quiet magical moments, going into the evening light with the distant branches along the edge of the trail.”

She also noted the nearby taiga spruces covered in snow that, to her, “look like snow creatures” that also come to life in her painting. That magical wooded background was her starting point, and she integrated the light, the dogs and the front of the sled into the image.

A challenge, Austen noted, was making each dog look unique, and realistic, from a the back. She practiced with sketches, playing with various angles and, again, took inspiration from her own dogs.

“I love the way their tails look when they run,” she said with obvious appreciation for the animals’ beauty.

Getting the position of the dogs in motion required Austen to refer to anatomy books as well as spend time imitating dogs’ movements. Eventually, she said, with the help of computer images and neighbors’ photographs she as “able to put all ten dogs in their proper positions pulling the sled.”

The beauty of the trail

Asked about the importance of the chosen image for the Quest, executive director Tania Simpson said the artwork shares “the nature, the beauty, the serenity of the musher’s experience.” While the 2008 poster theme was “Heros,” depicting a musher taking care of his dogs, the decision to focus on the trail itself was important to Quest planners because of complications mushers faced with the condition of the trail last year. At one point in the race trail groomers fell behind mushers due to the weather. The image in 2009, Simpson said, is meant to remind everyone “what the trail means for the Yukon Quest.”

“We want it to put you in the shoes of the musher. We hear stories from the trail, how peaceful it is, just you and the team, it is phenomenal and it is hard for a lot of us to appreciate having never experienced it,” she said. “But listening to mushers can give you an idea and a feel for it, and this poster really depicts that.”

Sprinkle said part of the goal was to “show something positive about the trail; the trail is going to be our hero” in 2009. The pressure was on Austen to present “that moment on the trail, the trees overhanging, when you see the point where you are headed, the beautiful landscape, the trail makes it all happen.” And, she added, Austen nailed it.

“The mandate was met. That peaceful moment is perfectly captured.”

The role of the image

Austen’s creation now exists as an original oil canvas, currently hanging in the Yukon Quest office, as well as print reproductions and thousands of posters. It will also appear on the brochures and fliers used throughout race promotions and take center stage at the banquet held after completion of the race. Simpson noted it is an important promotional element, and has been selling quickly.

“We’ve gotten so much positive feedback, and people have been buying the posters like crazy,” she said, noting posters are available at Cold Spot Feeds, Pleasant Valley Store and Alpine Lodge as well as the Quest office.

Sprinkle noted the posters have already “paid for themselves,” and they will be used for mushers’ autographs before and after the race — to begin in Whitehorse Feb. 14 and end two weeks later in Fairbanks — and prints will help commemorate the race. The toughest part of her job through the poster’s creation, she said, was finding a way to put text on it.

“The tough part for me is to take this beautiful painting and fill it with type and logo. It is almost painful,” she said.

Type or not, Sprinkle said Austen’s creation helps everyone, mushers and nonmushers, live and relive that “magic moment.”

“There is nothing heroic about it, it is just about being on the trail with the team. That is the musher’s high, that peace with nature,” she said. “It is those golden moments that keep people doing this again and again and again.”

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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