I first met Jim Robb when he came to Whitehorse in the late fifties. Our first encounter was at the end of a shovel. Shovels actually. We were both labourers with the Canadian army, moving dirt piles from point A to point B in Camp Takhini.
Neither of us knew why. It was a summertime job for me while I was going to school and an introduction for Jim to a Yukon make work project. Thank goodness for the Candian Army and their make work projects.
He was a quiet guy. At least I can’t remember any lasting conversations. Our focus was on moving dirt. He showed no hint of his later brilliance of capturing Yukon scenes and characters. Our paths rarely crossed after that. To me, he became this strange guy who carried art supplies and a camera under his arm as he strolled the back alleys of Yukon communities. Who knew why!
Years later we all knew why. He had captured the Yukon as it had never been seen before. His work took time to catch on. Great art and artistic interpretations usually do. Picasso’s strange faces and lopsided caricatures were not an instant hit around the world.
Neither were Jim’s scenes of Wigwam’s table dance, or shacks at Moccasin Flats, that seemed to tilt far more than science would allow. Mining camps no one had seen for years became grist for the ceaseless pen and ink sketches of Jim Robb. Faces of characters long since gone took on new life and meaning.
For whatever reason, and no one knows the reason for the acceptance of artistic endeavour, Jim’s work came into vogue. Pretty soon everyone wanted a Jim Robb. Everyone! Today, the entire Yukon looks like a Jim Robb sketch.
Our conversations today are more focused than they were in the fifties. The last time I saw him, he greeted me with the observation that I must now be older than all the rocks on Grey Mountain.
My comeback was that he had been in the Yukon longer than the Tintina Trench. He drew a sketch of me. I looked like Mr. Magoo. He said it was an accurate portrait. I drew a sketch of him. He looked like a hobo. An accurate portrait, I said.
He showed me his collection of Yukon artifacts; things that long since would have ended up in some dirt pile had he not picked them up. Jim’s persistence in sketching and collecting and picture taking finally paid off when Canada recognized his immense contributions by awarding him the nation’s highest honour; the Order of Canada.
I’ll bet that when the Governor General fastened the pin on his suit, he must have recalled those days with a shovel on a Takhini dirt pile and recognized that the Yukon really does hold out the promise that with persistence and dedication, a person can be what they want to be.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.