Growing up on the north end of Saskatoon, it never took Curtis Van Charles Sorenson too long to get down to the South Saskatchewan River.
“I spent most of my time down along the river ... just kind of the endless expanse, like the ability to go out and get completely lost and try and find your way back was really exciting for me.”
But that was the eighties, it was normal for kids to go out and explore — something Sorenson took full advantage of.
“I’ve always been really comfortable being alone and I've always felt, like it didn't really matter if I fit in or not, because I was happy just finding my own place in the outdoors and it always really grounded me.
“So looking back on my childhood growing up that's something that has really made me who I am today.”
Sorenson’s love for the outdoors happened to collide with one of his talents — drawing.
“One of my first drawings ever, it was some kind of bird, a Cedar Waxwing or something like that. And I was really young. I was nine or ten.”
“I spent most of my time down along the river ... Just kind of the endless expanse, like the ability to go out and get completely lost and try and find your way back was really exciting for me.” -Curtis Van Charles Sorenson
That relationship with the wilds of Saskatchewan inspired Sorenson’s art, which eventually led to him pursuing a career in graphic design in Calgary. But Sorenson wanted to express more than that career allowed. So now he’s returned to where he began as an artist, promoting wildlife conservation in Canada.
The idea that art could be a career for Sorenson took root in high school.
“I remember I think it was Grade 10 or 11. I was goofing off with my friends in class, having a good time, not taking it too seriously. And the teacher called me out in the hallway,” said Sorenson. “He calls me out there and I'll never forget the look in his eyes, it was so intense.”
“And he said ‘you know you're really good at this right?’
“And if you want to do something with it you can — but you need to take it seriously...I came back into the class and I think from that moment on everything changed because he gave me the confidence to know that I can do something with it.”
The pursuit of a career in creativity led him to the graphic design program at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary.
Before he graduated, Sorenson and a friend started their own business. Sorenson continued to paint on the side. However, he gradually lost interest in graphic design.
“I was so unhappy doing it that as the years went on I started to do more and more work on the side and doing more and more exhibitions on my own and just trying to get my work out there.”
A decision had to be made.
“Towards the end of my design career I was literally working on my art work in the morning before work, before my 9:00 to 5:00, at noon, I was working on it, and as soon as I got home. It started conflicting with my job and I got to a point where I just had to become a full-time artist and made the decision to just dive in head first.”
However, Sorenson wanted his art to standout.
“A lot of what I was seeing, a lot of what I didn't want to do, was make the same landscape painting that you see everywhere. Everything looked the same to me,” he said. “And there were really a lot of things I wasn't seeing — with regards to craft, emotion, depth and composition.”
It took Sorenson awhile to figure out how to take all those things and put them into his art. He believes graphic design helped him do that – putting viewers in the scenes of the natural beauty he paints.
Sorenson incorporates digital photography into much of his work. For Sorenson, it’s a way of getting sharp details into his paintings.
The piece he’s working on as I interview him has the photograph laid in the foreground of the piece. Everything else is being painted with acrylic paint. Sorenson’s work includes a significant amount of depth — so much that each painting seems to tower above you.
And that’s the point.
“One of my big frustrations was that it was so hard to recreate the experience, and that's what I'm really trying to do in my work, so that when you see the work it reminds you of being out there, and you really feel like you are out there.”
"I owe everything to my wife — she really helped me get to where I am today.” -Curtis Van Charles Sorenson
This was all easier said than done. There was no financial safety net for Sorenson, whose only recourse was to work construction. The prospect of doing something other than painting still makes Sorenson cringe.
“The fear of me going back to work in construction or doing another design job was so intense that I was either going to make it as an artist or die trying. To do or die, literally.”
Fortunately, he wasn’t alone.
“You know, there's an expression ‘I'm a self-made man.’ I'm certainly not that. I owe everything to my wife — she really helped me get to where I am today.”
Sorenson’s wife, Andrea, is also a self-employed artist. She understands most of the risks involved.
“It didn’t really seem foreign,” his wife says. “We’re both people that really like to evolve and pursue dreams.”
That encouragement has been key to Sorenson's ability to sustain his career as an artist.
“A lot of times when I'm painting, or running to grab supplies, or out in the backcountry — I think about the alternative, and where I used to be. I used to be locked down, and I had to do very specific tasks related to something that I really didn't care about, that didn't mean anything to me. And it really didn't mean much to the end user either,” says Sorenson.
“So now doing this I get to create something that hopefully will mean a lot to the client. Because it certainly means a lot to me.”
Occasionally Sorenson has time to trek into the wild for photographs and inspiration. His goal isn’t simply to spend time outside. Photography is the first step in a process that will allow Sorenson to recreate, not just a scene, but an experience. Sorenson then takes these photographs and collages them with painted objects.
Sorenson has decided to give back to the wilderness that inspires him by being an ambassador for it. He plans on doing it through his work, which he wants to grab “people's attention and hopefully lead them to thinking about protecting these natural spaces.”
Currently, Sorenson is working on a series that includes incorporating endangered species into his paintings.
“That's my way of trying to figure out how I can help and make a difference. I'm trying to bring these animals out from the grasses, from the woodworks right into the focal point of an artwork and make them larger than life — make them cropped really tight.”
“What I'm trying to recreate is you know the sound of the bird's’ wings as it has its landing. And just kind of capture the emotion and action of these animals in the wild.
Why did Sorenson want to do it?
“Really, I wanted to do something, really important and bigger than me in my work. So I think that's why this endangered species series came to life.”
With this, Sorenson believes that he will be able to reach people, and inspire them to think about our local wildlife. Sorenson also hopes this will motivate people to learn and enjoy our outdoor spaces. For, it will be intrepid citizens who, much like how Sorenson did, will learn to love our outdoors, that will ultimately save it.
“If you think about it there's an endless amount of things to explore. Really in just your own backyard.”
- By Brian Wells