Memory & Masterpiece: A professional painter inspires cruisers to discover the art of travel

by Janean Flowe
Kirah VanSickle paints in Alaska

By Jen Tota McGivney

Imagine it: You stand on the bank of a glacial river that’s aqua blue and crystal clear, flowing over boulders and cascading into falls. On the other bank are two mama grizzly bears and their four cubs. You have no reason for fear; the bears seek salmon for dinner, not you. The mamas catch leaping fish from the air with their giant paws while their cubs wrestle and splash in the water.

For most of us, this is the scene of a National Geographic documentary. But for 24 travelers aboard Holland America Line’s Land+Sea Journey in September 2018, it was a scene they experienced first-hand during an excursion to Alaska’s Chilkat River.

The moment didn’t only inspire the memory of a lifetime, but the souvenir of a lifetime. Among the group that day was Kirah Van Sickle, a professional artist from Wilmington, North Carolina. Even while the travelers’ jaws still dropped open and they could barely speak, they took out notebooks and cameras. Van Sickle guided them in creating sketches while professional photographers led them in wildlife and landscape photo techniques. Later, in a private classroom aboard the cruise ship, Van Sickle helped the group turn those sketches and photo inspirations into paintings using a variety of media — including watercolors and acrylics — as well as prints.

Travel and art are inseparable to Van Sickle.

Kirah VanSickle demonstrates painting to those in her class

Art of Travel

“As artists, we have an explorer mentality,” she says. “Travel is a disruptor, and a disruption for artists is what feeds us. When you’re traveling, you see things differently and open up to a different perspective. You experience life in a much more mindful way.”

Van Sickle’s life isn’t a rotation of travel and art. She travels the world, sometimes as a traveler and sometimes as a teacher, to experience the totality of a place – the food, the sounds, the colors, the culture. She spent three months exploring Europe, including an artist’s residency in Venice, as she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in painting. She’s been an artist-in-residence at Yosemite and Denali national parks. She’s led art workshops in prehistoric caves of France.

“By consciously recording travel, we tap into our creative selves,” she says. “It makes us human. We all have that desire to say, ‘Hey, I was here.’”

As a frequent traveler, Van Sickle became a fixture in AAA’s Military Cutoff branch in Wilmington, where she exchanges currency, purchases travel insurance and gets her car serviced. While there, she would often visit with Karen Thomas, an agent at the office, as well as the daughter of a local artist. When Thomas learned about Van Sickle’s art workshops, she had a brainstorm: What if they could combine one of the most scenic vacations — an Alaskan cruise — with an extended art class?

Turning the idea for the art-inspired cruise into a reality involved a lot of research. It was the kind of research that most of us only dream about. Van Sickle and Thomas traveled to Alaska to evaluate locations, brainstorm excursions and learn about indigenous art and culture. Soon, the two women devised a plan and itinerary for a once-in-a-lifetime trip: Go to Alaska to see some of the world’s most stunning scenery, and then come home with an original painting.

Painting of Denali by Kirah VanSickle

Painting of Denali by Kirah

A Plan Comes to Life

AAA was the sole booking agent for the trip, which quickly filled. Sixteen artists joined, as well as eight of their guests. Some artists were true beginners. Others were fellow professionals. Van Sickle created an experience that would be accessible to artists at all levels.

“What was nice about this trip was the land and sea combination,” Van Sickle says. “It’s the best way in a short amount of time to cover a lot of geography. This isn’t a trip you can do on your own.”

The land portion of the trip began in Anchorage, where travelers boarded luxury dome cars of the Alaska Railroad to head to Denali, which, as a designated wilderness, has the highest preservation status offered by the U.S. government. There, guests saw the wildlife and geography of Alaska’s interior, learned about the importance of sled dogs to the state’s history and watched the northern lights dance across the night sky.

During the sea portion of the ship, the group enjoyed small-group excursions and activities. They went whale watching, and gasped when one breached close to their boat — an unexpected treat. They watched bald eagles soar, while professional nature photographers coached them in capturing the perfect picture. They invited local and native artists to talk about indigenous culture. And, of course, they got a close-up view of grizzlies.

From excursion to excursion, the group toted sketchbooks. Van Sickle taught the group how to create a journal of travel experiences through drawing and art journaling. “We were kid-like,” Van Sickle says. “It tapped into a sense of play. For kids, everything is new. Everything is ‘Oh wow!’ Travel gives you that experience. It’s priceless.”

Future Adventures

It’s August, and Van Sickle is telling me about the grizzlies and the northern lights and the whales. Her enthusiasm for the 2018 cruise is so fresh you’d think these moments happened yesterday. But her voice quiets at one point: When she mentions that she should be on that trip at this very moment. Like so much else last summer, the 2020 cruise was cancelled due to COVID-19.

To allay their disappointment over the trip’s cancellation, Van Sickle and Thomas have already planned the next cruise for August 2021. They’ll host a cocktail hour and other events this winter to tell interested travelers about the itinerary of the next Land+Sea Alaska cruise with Holland America. Thomas has transformed the AAA office into an art gallery: Hung on the walls are paintings of landscapes, wildlife and northern lights.

“A painting becomes alchemy,” Van Sickle says. “You’re taking a memory and you’re reconfiguring it into something new. It’s a piece of you, and it’s a piece of that place.”

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