The rhythm of life

By Aaren Madden, July/August 2014

IceBear creates visual harmonies from a technical foundation and a spiritual vision.

In 1953, the International Standards Organization endorsed the vibration frequency of 440 hertz for the tuning of most music, and it has been so ever since. However, according to some music therapists, musicians and conductors like Ivan Kostadinov Yanakiev, there are good reasons to tune music to 432 hertz, as it has been in the past. There are theories that 440 hertz can even elicit subconscious fear or aggression, but listening to music at 432 hertz, Yanakiev says, “opens one’s heart as no other musical vibration does.” 

Vancouver Island artist IceBear has observed that we are living in dissonance. He has created an acrylic on canvas painting titled “432”. In it, a swirl in high relief; it moves between abstract form, a nautilus suggestive of the Golden Mean, and a bird swirling in flight. In the opposite corner, if you look just right, a turtle emerges in rippled water, bringing tumult into balance. The artist describes it thus: “The beginning of all things, the creation of the cosmos, the sound of the cosmos. This painting highlights the spiral shape forming; it echoes that of galaxies, sea shells, water flowing, even the human inner ear. Nature in natural balance has a gentle and soothing vibration at a megahertz of 432. Human created radio frequencies, music recordings are created and broadcast at 440.  It seems a small difference, but is definitely discernible.” 

Tuning into the quintessential to create harmony is how IceBear approaches his art practice, which is inseparable from his life: “It’s like breathing for me,” he smiles. In painting, IceBear ranges from an accomplished realist in wildlife and portraiture to his more recent work, which combines some realist elements with captivating abstract expressionism. Among his public and private mural commissions is the iconic Nil/tu,o (“as it was in the beginning”) in Sidney, at the corner of Beacon Ave and Resthaven Drive. He also sculpts in various media, including cedar, soapstone and bronze. His large sculpture “Four Winds” sits at the foot of Swift Street.

There was never a time when IceBear was not creating art. “It’s how I used to communicate when I was very young,” he says. “When I was taken off the reservation it’s the only way I could communicate, because I couldn’t speak English properly. The people on the reservation called me a dreamer. In our culture, the dreamer is the closest thing to an artist. You would go to the dreamer and tell them your dream, and they would draw pictures in the sand and tell you of your dream.”

IceBear is a member of the Chippewas of Nawash, part of the Anishinaabe Nation, and grew up in foster care, spending some time on the streets of Toronto. Being in the system kept him in constant contact with a group of nuns, whom he credits for recognizing his talent and ensuring he gained formal art training. He attended the Toronto Artists’ Workshop as a teen, and later Sheridan College and the Ontario College of Art. After 25 years in commercial art, he moved west in the early 1980s, finally settling on Vancouver Island ten years later. Since then, he has exhibited and sold works locally and internationally, including at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

When he moved west IceBear started concentrating on his own art practice—though he does not lay claim to the work he creates with his given name. He credits “that totem of mine, the IceBear totem. That’s where I get the gift from. Our people, we celebrate the gift we are given, we don’t celebrate ourselves,” he explains. IceBear is the conduit for the Creator, who has gifted him with visions that follow him constantly. They emerge for him to make material in the medium they most call for, in either two or three dimensions. 

Often, his paintings combine both. “Tree of Life” shows a slip of sky blue upon which a burst of yellow roses emerges from the painting in relief due to a modelling compound combined with paint. “I wanted them to burst from the canvas—so they do!” he laughs.

Depending on what speaks to him, IceBear’s work can range from joyous to contemplative to tempestuous, but always with a balance that seems as much compositional as emotional. “Worlds,” for instance, combines flung-on splashes of burnt orange and impasto with blue-grey spaces of calm and clarity. His training allows him the range of expression necessary to convey the final product. “Learning all the techniques and types of execution, it’s like music, where you learn the harmonics and the melodics, all those skills, and you know the essence of the language you are using, and you can go and jam, you go into what they would call the zone.” He explains. 

Often, in that space, he will use four brushes at a time, hooking two under fingers on each hand and moving his wrists to place paint on various areas of the canvas. His demonstration of it is like a dance. Or, he will visually lock onto a space on the picture plane, count out the right moment, and glide a brushstroke in just the right space. “There is a rhythm to it,” he says.

Still, “When I am ‘out there’ I have to be wary,” he continues, “Because it’s like going out into deep ocean. I have to keep my eye on the land. That’s what it feels like when I am painting and I am immersed, and I am watching what’s going on, watching what the totem is saying and creating, and being a part of that.” 

For IceBear, that is essential for understanding our natural world and regaining respect for “both this Earth and our fellow travellers on it.” He says, “I believe that somewhere along the line we got lost a bit. It’s a very irresponsible world that we are living in. We see all these things happen to us: our environment crumbling, people running away with our life savings, all of that sort of stuff. So it is my journey in life that I see other things.”

Therein, for IceBear, is the power of art. “I think I can say that for all artists—they have this desire to interpret events that go on around you—in a way, to make sense of it all. By making sense for themselves, they make sense for other people.” 

From there, viewers bring their own stories. “Their interpretations and experiencing loves and losses and life, they will read that into the art.” What he offers the viewer in turn is a shift from dissonance to consonance by creating “that emotional connection, that feeling of being what it is to be free, what it is to be an artist. And for me, that’s what is really important.” 


IceBear’s paintings can be seen at Peninsula Gallery and, over the summer, at Brentwood Bay Resort. On July 26, 1-4pm, he’ll be at Peninsula Gallery demonstrating his hand detailing techniques. 2506 Beacon Ave, Sidney,

Aaren Madden was fascinated to learn that A = 432 hz is called Verdi’s pitch; it was originally used in a great deal of classical and ancient instruments. She has been listening to the 432 chamber orchestra online at