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Today we’re traveling the Klondike Gold Rush Trail. Corrie Francis Parks is an artist based out of Montana. Last year, she applied for the artist residency program offered by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. The program contracts artists to hike the famous 33 mile Chilkoot Trail, and create an interactive artistic work with their fellow travelers. Francis Parks chose postcards as her medium.
“What I had people do was at the top of the Chilkoot Pass, I gave them all postcards and had them write or draw a postcard to somehow solidify one memory from the trail that they wanted to have. And one year later, this summer, I put them all in the mail so there’s this physical reminder that shows up in your mail box a year after you’ve been on the Chilkoot Trail,” says Francis Parks.
Her goal was to focus on memories, and to use the postcards as a way to capture them. She believed that a personal drawing or written entry after the three to five day hike would cement the memory better than then any other method. Francis Parks says the card authors hailed from all over the world, and that the ages ranged from 6 years old to 82. This created some interesting post cards.
“Some of them were very confessional. There were things about their past or they had an epiphany. Others were as mundane as ‘I’m so excited to eat this snickers bar,’” says Francis Parks.
She created a website, klondikeletters.com, which features some of the cards. The entries are all anonymous, but some of them are still very powerful. One of them reads “I’ve made it. Two years to the day from when Ric died. He made his own choice to drink himself to death. I make my choice to live.” Francis Parks says the woman who wrote that letter read it out loud to her.
“Those are the sorts of things that as an artist I just say ‘Wow, I just have to let this happen.’ I feel like I sort of become a keeper of people’s secrets, dreams and deep thoughts that they wouldn’t necessarily express, but because they have a venue to do that anonymously it really frees people up,” says Francis Parks.
She wasn’t just out on the Chilkoot Trail to collect post cards; she was there to collect material for a series of animations that she’s currently making. Francis Parks’ art background is wide, but she’s been an animator for 10 years, and uses mixed materials to create them.
“So I’ll use hand drawn stuff. I’ll use collages with photographs in this particular project. Because there’s so much historic reference material I’ve been trying to incorporate some of those historical photos of the Chilkoot Trail, and bring those into the animation to give it that textural quality,” says Francis Parks.
Each animation, about a minute long, is based on a different Chilkoot Trail post card. The most recent entry features one hiker who agonizes over how much vertical ground she has just covered.
“That was the thing she wanted to remember, but she was also remembering the other people who went up and what they were carrying,” says Francis Parks.
Francis Parks says the Klondike Letters Project was more than just a summer gig to her. Not only did she get a chance to explore Alaska and its people, she was able to grow as an artist.
“I’m an animator so I don’t like to be in front of the camera, I like to be behind the camera most of the time. So for getting out and talking to people, I needed something for a catalyst for that and that’s why these postcards were really a great opportunity to start a conversation,” says Francis Parks.
And what will Francis Parks remember from her experience on the Chilkoot Trail? Perhaps a way to slow life down a bit, and make a great memory.
“It’s just our human instinct to keep going and think about the end of the journey rather than to stop and think about where we are right now and reflect for five minutes. And to be able to actually write something down or draw something or make a physical artifact I think is just so solidifying in our mental process,” says Francis Parks.
An example of Francis Parks’ video work: