Saying goodbye to new friends
Yesterday I found myself sitting in the shuttle bus looking out the window at whiteness. I turned to see my husband wipe the condensation off his side of the window to see better, but it remained as it was before. White. As I sat blindly gazing out at this alien world of white rushing past my window I was reminded of our arrival a month ago. It was snowing heavily and it was difficult to distinguish anything apart from swirling snow mounds of snow and blowing snow. This journey felt like being blindfolded and brought to a hidden and secret place so you don’t know how you got there. But instead of being blindfolded by darkness, we were blinded by whiteness. It’s about a half hour drive from Skagaströnd to the town of Blönduós, where the main bus stops that goes to and from Reykjavik. I have absolutely no clue what the landscape looks like between these two places. Not on the way there. Not on the way back. Somehow this makes me strangely happy.
It has been a full last week at the residency. This past Sunday was the January 2020 Opid Hus (Open House). It was a wonderful event and many local people came out for it. I had some lovely conversations with people about the work and about living in northern Iceland. One gentleman asked me an interesting question, “But what is it about whales that make people connect with them? Why not other animals? People don’t feel the same way about fish that they do about whales.” I guess this isn’t really something that I have thought much about before. Why whales? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this question. I think there are many answers, but I think that people are drawn to things we can empathise with, things we reflect ourselves into, common struggles and successes, etc. Whales are mammals, like us. Whales breath air, like us. They generally have one baby at a time and their life cycles are very similar to human life cycles. They are intelligent and learn, they pass along information and have strong family bonds. Whales grieve their losses and seek to develop relational bonds. I think it is going to be different for every person that answers this question. But for me, it also has to do with knowing about something. They more I know, the more I connect. This is why I create art about these amazing animals. Sorry for the tangent. The Open House was lovely! I have some images below of some of the other artist’s in their spaces and my studio space at the end.
Images from the Opid Hus
I was also asked if I would like to give a drawing class to a girl from the town. I was happy to be asked and enjoyed putting together some drawing projects. One of the artists at the residency came with her daughter and so I extended the invite to her as well. It was such an enjoyable afternoon. The young women were so dedicated to their art and it was a pleasure to be creative together. This was a real highlight for me and I am I had the opportunity to do this.
I traveled back south to Reykjavik with 6 of the other residents and 1 resident traveled north. We said good bye at the Blönduós bus stop and headed in opposite directions. Artist Katya Kan (Kazakhstan) traveled to Akureyri where she and I have an exhibition at the Art Ak Gallery this weekend! =) The perfect way to end my time here in Iceland.
I have been in Skagastrond for three weeks now at the Nes Residency. I feel like my projects are starting to be picking up momentum. Since my purpous on this residency is to explore I have been allowing myself to create whatever I had the urge to make. I have ended up with some very strange creations that were not nessicarily what I would call
“successes”. But I feel like it is sometime nessisary to create unnessisary things. Even when I know from the beginning that it is probably not going to turn into something interesting. In the studio everything becomes connected. One thing leads to another and another and so on. Sometimes your brain needs to let go of the pressure of trying to force out a “good” idea and just become engaged in a process. Any process. I find that very often that when my mind in engaged in this way it is able to wander and that is when I find inspiration for new projects. I have been trying to be conscious of this and allowing myself this space and freedom.
Another way to find creative inspiration is through research. Earlier this week I had the privilege to meet with Mr. Halldór Ólafsson, founder of BioPol, a marine biotechnology company here in Skagastrond. BioPol is involved with a variety of projects studying marine life that live in the water in Húnaflói Bay. Industry in Skagaströnd has always revolved around the sea, but over the last few decades fishery after fishery has had to close their doors. BioPol’s goal is to find new ways of creating sustainable industry through the sea. It was fascinating to be shown around the facilities. There is even an experimental kitchen–something between a scientific laboratory and a chef’s day dreamy clean kitchen. Halldór showed me around the different rooms of microscopes, people in lab coats and specimen containers. One research project that they are working on is trying to discover the lifespan of lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus). What? You’ve never heard of the lumpfish before? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, I hadn’t either.
Lumpfish, image from icefishnews.com
Female lumpfish are caught commercially for their roe which is sold as caviar. Actually a pelagic fish (living in the open sea), these fish come into the bay annually to spawn. The males arrive first and seek out the best place for a nest, often in kelp forests. Later the much larger females arrive and choose the most attractive partner and nest. She lays her eggs and heads back out to sea, leaving dad to fiercely guard the nest and helping to circulate oxygen-rich water over the eggs. BioPol is trying to discover how long these fish live. To do this they are using a well known fish-aging process: counting the annual rings laid down on otoliths–like counting growth rings on a tree. An otolith is essentially an ear bone of a fish–acting similarly to our inner ear as it is used for balance.
Cod Otoliths at BioPol
Depending on the species otoliths come in a broad range of shapes and sizes. In this image on the right Halldór is holding a range of specimens from cod. This labour-intensive work of counting otoliths is difficult when it comes to lumpfish as they have particularly difficult rings to distinguish between. It is absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much to BioPol and Halldór for allowing me to come and see what you are doing. =)
While we are on the topic of learning and discovery, I just wanted to share one more thing with you. Yesterday as the winds of the current storm were beginning to pick up we spotted a strangely glowing cloud in the sky (centre in the image above). I have seen this a few times already since coming to Iceland. It is a rare nacreous cloud, also known as an “iridescent cloud” or a “mother-of-pearl cloud”. The cloud turns into a rainbow of colours as light passes through frozen waterdropplets, skattering the light.
Here is a little peek at the little town of Skagaströnd. The town population is around 400. There is a church, a gas station and a grocery store, a gym, an outdoor heated pool and “hot pot” (hot tub), a bank, a pharmacy, and a post office and the residency. Usually the only people I see outside are kids walking back and forth from school, unless it is a rare calm and clear day and then the town starts to buzz with activity! The towns’ economy is largely centered around fishing (which has fluctuated throughout the centuries). An idyllic setting nestled along a natural harbour at the base of towering Spákonufell (Prophetess Mountain). The mountain is dedicated to the first woman of Skagaströnd that lived here in the 10th century. Apparently she has left a treasure chest hidden by a spell somewhere on the mountain.
Veiw from bedroom window
I have never seen the wheels of this car
It is always very windy here
Ice covered snow
A tthe back of the studio (the studiouilding used to be a herring factory)
Looking to the Westfjords
Looking south (this is where the sun rises and sets)
A tiny world
Our street and Spákonufel mountain behind
Towards the town
I have been at the Nes Artist Residency now for almost two weeks. It is only now dawning on me how lucky we were to have good weather when we arrived. I feel like since our arrival there has only been a handful of “calm” days between stormfronts. The weather is constantly changing here. Being an isolated island located somewhere between two massive continents along the most northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean it isn’t a wonder why storm follows storm follows storm. The roads have been closed most days it seams, cutting Skagastrond off from the rest of the country. The snow comes down swirling, spinning and blowing past in a fury of white. Sometimes the storms are predicted a day or two in advance. Sometimes they just come.
Two days ago I arrived at the studio to enjoy one of these rare “calm” moments. I gathered my watercolour supplies and a stool and headed out to the edge of the breakwater to paint and watch sunrise turn the sky pinkish around 11am. By 2pm the sky was thick with white and gale force winds were slamming into whatever stood in their way. The houses here are built especially solid to withstand the wind and yet the wind tries her best to test them. Creating noises that sound like the house is loosing. The storm lasted for approximately 20 hours. Not once did the wind take a breather or the snow stop falling. Blizzarding conditions. A complete whiteout at times. But where did it all go? The snow was sure on a hurry to get somewhere, but maybe not here. Oh yes, there are massive piles of it scattered throughout the town (often finding the perfect location in the middle of a path), but I can only imagine that the majority of the snow is stuck fast against the side of a mountain somewhere. That day the weather hit, we were in the studio. Eventually we decided we either had to sleep in the studio or brave the weather outside. Without any snow or ice or head winds I am sure this journey should only take two minutes to walk between. It was a battle. Jackets pulled up, hats pulled down and with scarves securely fastened around our faces, the three of us stepped from the warmth of the studio and into the dark forces. My husband, the lovely French artist Sandrine and myself locked arms and headed home. “All for one and one for all!” (And yes, you would be right in supposing that the book I brought along with me is The Three Musketeers). What an exhilarating experience! We were thankful to be home, to make dinner and to be able to sleep in our own beds. Sandrine mentioned when we were in the kitchen that evening that it feels like we are in an igloo–the windows were plastered with snow!
The storm is over now and there is again a certain calm over the town (although the wind waves are still high). There is nothing quite like weather to make you really feel like you are in the present.
Skagastrond before storm
It is hard not think about whaling while being in Iceland. I was doing some research yesterday and discovered that some of the whaling vessels that hunt minke whales stay at port in Hafnarfjordur, a 10 minute walk from where we stayed at our Airbnb. There are two commercial whaling companies here. One company hunts minke whale and one hunts the endangered fin whale. Minke whale is what you can buy in restaurants and in the grocery stores here (no, I will not be partaking) and fin whale is exported and sold to Japanese markets. This past year though there was a temporary, year-long pause on whaling in Iceland, but it is set to begin again in the spring. The pause came because of a lack of demand for the meat. I was surprised to discover that actually very few Icelanders enjoying eating whale meat and the biggest market are the tourists that come here. It is marketed as an exotic delicacy and a “must try” while visiting the country. It is hard to see why the whaling industry continues though when the income generated by whale watching companies is significantly higher than selling theme for meat (and is much more sustainable). While researching I came across this recent documentary called Hard to Port about the current whaling situation in Iceland. It is worth watching if you are interested in this topic.
But how do I process this….
While listening to these documentaries I was thinking about a recent series I made this winter of whales in Christmas sweaters. I was speaking with a gentleman who was looking at them and he said something that stuck with me. By clothing these whales he felt like they were being cared for or nurtured. Forgive me if I am sounding sappy, but I love it when someone makes me a homemade gift like a hat or scarf. These gifts keep me warm on the outside as well as on the inside because I know they take a lot of time and care to make. So I created this small watercolour of a minke whale and a fin whale wearing iconic Icelandic sweaters. I am planning on making two more similar drawings. One for each of the three countries that still continue to practice commercial whaling (Iceland, Norway and Japan).
Whales wearing sweaters… huh… I think might possibly be my most political work yet.
The upper whale in this drawing is a minke whale and the lower whales is a fin whale. Fin whales are still considered endangered. They are the second largest animal in existence (only loosing out on the champion title to the blue whale). This drawing shows the size difference between the two species.
8.5″ x 11″, ink and watercolour on rag paper
Today we gave artist talks as a group. It was amazing how different and interesting everyone’s practice is. I thought I would just quickly share this group photo. We are six artists and represent six different countries!
Left to right: Sakari Heikka (Musician from Finland), Indigo Perry (writer from Australia), Sineád Bhreathnach-Cashell (visual artist from Ireland), Sandrine Elberg (photographer from France), Katya Kan (visual artist from Kazakhstan), Natasha van Netten (visual artist from Canada)
Today is the forth day that we have been in Skagaströnd and I think I am starting get more used to the way things work here. For example: going outside. It’s not as easy as I used to think. To go outside requires: long johns, pants, base layer and a sweater or two, then rain paints, scarf, bulky winter coat, hiking shoes, crampons for the ice, gloves and toque. So, as you can imagine it is a process to go outside. And coming in is harder because everything is covered in snow or rain. In Victoria I would consider this a lengthy ceremony, but here it’s not a big deal. It’s just part of life. But I still don’t think I understand the lack of daylight. Since coming here I have been having trouble sleeping. The first few nights I thought it was because the wind was incredibly loud. The next night I blamed it on the fact that there was not any wind at all. The strangest thing that I can’t figure out is that despite the lack of sleep, when I wake up in the morning I feel rested. All day long I feel good. In fact it is difficult to go to bed because I simply don’t feel tired. I think it must have something to do with the excess of darkness… but I am not sure why.
Things are going well in the studio. Well, they are really just getting started so maybe it is hard to say how it is going. But I am enjoying it and finding that ideas are coming. During my time here I am focusing on experimentation and “play”. Yesterday I was finally able to collect some seawater by carefully climbing down a breakwater because the sea was relatively calm. We were also able to walk out of town along the beach to see what has been washing on shore. There was lots of seaweeds and a few shells, like barnacle and clam, a starfish and a recently eaten sea urchin. I brought back a couple shells and a holdfast to draw in the studio but they smell incredibly strong, so I have decided to rinse them and leave them outside for the time being. Maybe I will have to brave the cold and draw them outside. We will see.
It is just after 4pm and I will be heading back to the residency house soon because a storm is possibly coming around 8pm. We were going to have artist talks tomorrow but that has been postponed in case it is too difficult to go outside tomorrow. So I will wrap up this post now and collect some supplies in case I will be working inside tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes in my next post. 😉
It is about a 4.5 hour bus ride from Reykjavik to Skagaströnd. We departed at 9am and after two hours the horizon started to lighten, revealing backlit rugged mountains and great expanses of snow. It is difficult to understand perspective here because there is not much to compare the scale. Every once in a while there was a house tucked next to a mountain with a warm glow coming from lights in a window in the shape of a star. As the bus was about to turn into the town of Blönduós the snow began in a torrent. I am still not sure what that town looks like other than a few vague, dark shapes that I suppose must be houses and possibly shops. We pulled into a gas station where we disembarked. My husband, myself and three other ladies bound for the NES Artist Residency and a pile of snow-covered luggage. We had called the bus company ahead of time to arrange for a shuttle to pick us up and drive us the last 20 minutes of our journey to Skagaströnd. Two cars pulled up with a sign in their windows displaying the bus company’s symbol. The drivers were father and son. Again, I have no idea what is between these two towns as it was so white. I could not even see the car’s lights driving in front of us. As quickly as it started snowing, it stopped. We arrived at one of the houses of the residency. We will all be staying in this house, along with three other artists that will arrive later. Kerryn, co-director at the residency, met us at the front of the house and helped us in. There was a foot of snow to wade through to get to the door. It’s a big house, warm and cozy. We had a quick briefing and got settled in. I am still finding it hard to adjust to the daylight hours (or lack thereof). I feel like I have no proper sense of time anymore. We have been getting up when we wake up, eating when we are hungry and sleeping when we are tired–none of which is conventional. It is a strange thing. But I think that we will find a good rhythm soon. We spent the rest of the day settling into the house and then went for a couple walks around town. I am now very glad that we packed warmly. The roads were the only cleared areas and Kerryn said it is normal when it has snowed to walk on the roads. The cars will respect you. It is a small town of about 400 inhabitants. I should also mention that it is extremely windy here. All the time. Dark, windy and snowy. During the daylight though, there is a dramatic and rugged landscape of snow-covered mountains and an icy sea.
The next day I happily explored the studio space, which is a 3 minute walk from the house (although it took much longer as we picked our way across the icy roads and snow drifts). It is a large, open-concept studio space that used to be a fish factory for the port. A perfect place for the studio. And no, it doesn’t smell like fish at all! There were a few spaces to choose from and I settled myself in a nice space in the corner. I spent a very pleasant day in the studio with a few of the other residents. The weather here is incredible! Even inside you can feel it deep inside of you. The buildings are built strongly to withstand the intensity of the arctic winds. But that doesn’t block out the sounds. Powerful gusts that sound as though they would knock you over. The studio, as you could probably guess as it’s being an old fish factory, is built right next to the sea. I am in heaven!
While I am at the residency I will be working on a drawing project centred around the ocean and winter weather here. I will be incorporating elements of nature, allowing them to intervein and manipulate my work. I am not 100% sure exactly how this will look or how I will go about doing it… but that is part of the point of my project. To experiment! There will be some challenges though for sure as I will have to figure out how to tackle the cold weather. Right now my biggest challenge is to figure out how to safely access and collect seawater when it is so stormy and the water so rough. I’ll get back to you on that. =)
As I write this post I am sitting in our room at a lovely Airbnb. In the dark. Listening to what I can only describe as a colourful array of an assortment of various firecrackers and fireworks. Booming and echoing and re-echoing across the city of Reykjavik.
We left home in Canada before the crack of drawn with my brother–so generously giving up his sleep to drive us to catch an early ferry. As my husband and I sat at the stern of the boat talking, something incredible happened. The point of water I had chosen to stare at, not far from the vessel, erupted. A giant, orca suddenly burst from the waves, turning his body sideways and reveling a striking display of black and white on his belly. They were everywhere. Giant creatures! The pod must have consisted of about 12 individuals. It was an amazing send off. =)
After flying for about 8 hours we arrived in Iceland’s capital. Greeted by a thick blanket of heavy, misting rain and a driving wind. And, of course, darkness. What a relief to finally have arrived. I no longer need to worry about how I will be able to pack my belongings and art supplies into a single carry-on bag and “personal item”. We did it! Success!
The sounds of the fireworks and firecrackers are growing in intensity. It sounds like they are going off just outside our window. And I think they actually are! There is literally no silence between the sounds of exploding anymore. It is 9:30pm and there is a feeling of growing anticipation for midnight and ringing in the New Year! It is a nice feeling to look forward. I hope that you are also looking forward to the New Year and I wish you all the best. May 2020 bring you new revelations, feelings of hope, joys and purpose. God bless you. =)
It has been a very busy fall for me. I have been working nightshifts, which has allowed me the opportunity to spend my days focusing on my art practice. I had a long list of things that I was finally going to get around to doing, like organizing images, documenting work, applying for shows/residencies/grants, being more regular with my blog posts (oops), and of course spending extra time drawings and painting. I have now come to realization that I am absolutely terrible at estimating the time it takes me to complete administrative tasks. I am afraid to say that my list is still long, and I am starting to feel like it will always be that way. It has been a good experience to actually buckle down and try to tackle some of these tasks that I always used to put off. It has been a season of growing and for that I am very thankful. Unfortunately I haven’t spent as much time working on art as I would have liked, but I remind myself that things come in seasons. And I actually have gotten to make work–it is just never enough time. It is not probably a good thing not to be content, because it pushes you ahead. It really does feel good to complete some of these things I have been putting off. I absolutely recommend checking off that task that has been secretly eating away at you. Just be careful not to let your list get you down and discouraged. You can only do one thing at a time. (I say these words of advice for my own benefit.) I struggle with finding a balance between the administrative side of my practice and studio time. I tend to spend time focusing on either one or the other, not necessarily integrating them. A new season is just around the corner.
Skagastrond, image from NES website
Which leads me to announce that I am honoured to have been offered a residency at the NES Artist Residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland, for the month of January! A new season. I am looking forward to totally focusing on creating work again and experimenting in the studio. I will be participating in this residency with at least four other international artists. Also, my amazing husband is coming with me! Doing residencies have been some of the most rewarding experiences for me in my art practice: trying to find art supplies, being pushed out of your comfort zone, meeting other artists and talking about my work. I will write more about my project in the upcoming weeks. Receiving this residency has prompted me to do some new things that I haven’t done before: writing grant proposals, setting up an Etsy shop for my new Christmas cards, and participating in holiday artisan markets. It has been a learning curve! But well worth it.
NES studio, image from NES website
My list is still long. But it is okay. One thing at a time. And you know what? Now I can check off “write a blog post” from my list.