The Hafnarborg Center of Culture and Fine Art
ARTIST RESIDENCY I APRIL 2010
April 2010, I traveled to Iceland to stay for the month at The Hafnarborg Center of Culture and Fine Art, in Hafnarfjordur, in the southwest of the island.
I planned to spend the residency painting at geothermal sights with snow and ice on the ground, but warm enough to work out-of-doors. For several years I have researched conditions in Iceland, hoping to find dramatic color where the escaping steam from the earth's interior hits the cold air of the arctic landscape. I imagined geysers might replicate, in miniature, frontal systems that form from the same conditions; super heated air colliding with cold. April would be chilly, but optimal for painting geothermal vents on location.
“Careful what you wish for!” was a quotation that kept running through my mind as I took a tour bus to the sight of the eruption of the volcano Fimmvörðuháls, which preceded my arrival by a week.
The fiery lava and ash forcing its way between two converging glaciers was more than what I bargained for and challenged my working process. Wind chill at the viewing area was well below zero. Even the camera shutter was chattering from the cold. And as I scrambled to reorganize my approach to creating color studies of the event, Iceland and the world was forced to take notice of yet another volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, which made it’s debut with devastating consequences. By blasting its way through the earth’s crust, just below the massive glacial ice, a tremendous flash melt caused flooding of farmland down-stream. Vast grazing areas were covered with silt and ash, as the skies above turned black from soot. Farm animals bedded down for the night in barns were spared immediate danger, but as the eruption persisted, their plight became dire.
Nature’s insistence compelled me to focus my color studies on the landscape within reach or to experiment with some of the hundreds of images that were appearing daily in Icelandic papers. Photographs taken from planes flying just above the cloud of ash were the only visual signs of the volcanic force that grounded travelers throughout Europe and changed the lives of farmers in the south. As the world waited for Mother Nature to take its place in the background once again, I painted in my studio over the Hafnarborg Museum. Piecing together the spectacular colors that I found in the sulfur springs and lava fields of Iceland are the chromatic records of an island nation still under construction.
It was clear the moment that we touched down in Iceland that I had made the wrong choice to bring the small tube of Raw Umber! The deep brown is the color of every sun lit pile of rock, at the edge where the volcanic land meets the sea and the structural layer that contours the sweep of this rugged countryside. I had anticipated the cool blues and icy whites of April near the Arctic Circle, but did not heed the warning of the recent volcanic eruption and adjust my palette. Color lessons are learned the hard way while traveling!
From Keflavik Airport I took a bus towards Reykjavik and was left in front of the Viking Pub at 7:00 AM with 50 lbs. of luggage. Gunnhildur, who had helped me arrange the artist residency at Hafnarborg, explained in an email that it would be a five minute walk to reach the Cultural Center from this stop. But she neglected to tell me in which direction. Lucky for me I had an idea that Hafnarborg would be in the old part of town. I headed in the direction that looked most promising. I was spared the strain of wrong turns and the sleeping inhabitants; the irritating clickety clack wheeling clothing and art supplies over cobbled sidewalks. It seemed like a fitting arrival to find Hafnarborg’s stucco facade marked with the painted bands of the rainbow. This is were I hope to be inspired by Iceland’s natural sites and learn a new way to use color. I ‘ve finally made it to Iceland!
I seem to arrive in unfamiliar territory when it is a holiday. This is Easter week and most everything is closed until Tuesday (and most museums are closed on Tuesday as a general rule). So the next few days is a time to catch up on sleep and organize myself for the work that I would like to do here in Iceland. It’s difficult to imagine the best approach to getting to the geothermal sites without a better idea from some of the locals. Thankfully Clara, the woman manning the desk at Hafnarborg since my arrival, has given me some good ideas for places to buy food, see art, swim and to explore. It’s snowing and cold, today so I have decided to take some trips around town to see what is outside my door.
My first impression of the city is one of simple elegance. Unadorned homes and buildings are sheathed in corrugated steel or stucco over mortar made with the volcanic rock that is everywhere. I like the clean lines and direct use of color. Hafnarfjordur has many contemporary apartment bulidings overlooking the port. In the part of the city where I am staying there is a mix of old and new buildings with apartments over retail space. Behind the guest atelier where I am staying are older traditional single family houses that wind their way up the narrow streets set into the hill that at one time must have fronted on the harbor.
This is the view out the back of my apartment facing the North West. The harbor is in this direction. Kristinn, the caretaker for Hafnarborg, said that I could view the Northern Lights from my bedroom window if they appear, once it is good and dark. That will be about 11:00 pm. It has been cold and clear for several days, required conditions to see the Aurora Borealis; along with luck. Mine hasn’t been so great this trip! My face is about as red as this roof due to a mysterious rash that has also caused it to swell and itch. I thought it might be the sulfer in the water that is so new to me. Showering or washing only aggrevates the situation. I’ve experimented with creams and olive oil, hoping for a quick cure. Nothing is open with the holiday, so I will have to wait to get an antihistamine. My plan is to sit up and wait to see the Northern Lights rise above the roof ridge. Since I’m still on Eastern standard time. it won’t be hard to stay awake and search the internet for clues about my mysterious allergic reaction .
In Search of Activity - The Volcano
It is Easter morning and I’ve missed the 8:00 service at this beautiful church in the center of town. A mix of old and strikingly new forms, it is simply colored on the exterior to add warm shadow to cool curvilinear shapes. To me this church appears so Icelandic and couldn’t be more elegant. I’m especially sad to miss out on spending part of this morning in the interior that is colorful but not overly so. Every detail has been given room to behold. I thought that this would be my first chance to see the people of Hafnarfjörður, but when I arrived I was told that I had the wrong time and that the service was over. The people of this city are as illusive as the Northern Lights that I didn’t see last night. The conditions are the same, cold and clear. Luck seems to be the same too.
Nothing is going to be happening here until Tuesday, so I decided to take a bus trip out to the glacier East of Reykjavík, where the eruption has been going on for a couple of weeks. No one can predict how long it will last, so I thought that I would go now and see the event for myself. It was a three hour ride to the site, but the first chance that I have had to get out to the countryside. The approach was marked by a large plume of smoke rising up from the snow covered mountain ridge. On the grassland below the glacier, you could see the fiery jets of lava, made more visible as night darkens the landscape. And here were the Northern Lights; lime green shapes that swept across the Western sky as we made our way back from our encounter with the volcano.
Icelanders call the cold, sunny weather of Spring ,”window weather”. I have to agree that the cityscape outside my window is a lot more appealing from indoors than when I am out in it battling the biting wind. I haven’t quite figured out how I will paint on location. It is simply too cold and too windy to work outside.
Last night at the glacier (where I went to view the volcano eruption) it was impossible to keep warm. I had on nearly everything that I brought in my suitcase and the addition of a new woolen hat. With the windchill, it was well below freezing. Taking pictures was difficult with gloves on. When I removed my gloves I could only last 30 seconds before my fingers became numb. At the apartment I had put together a box of pastels in dry rice to use to record the color of the magma spewing site. I had seen images on the news and hoped to use the trip for some painting ideas. In the dark I can usually see the color of the chalks enough to make an image that records the colors of the light conditions. At the last minute I decided that it would be too difficult to work on a tourist bus trip; I’d rely on my photos.
The pictures that I took in the fading light were not great. I looked at them quickly this morning before copying them to my laptop. And just as quickly each one was erased as I mistakenly clicked off the camera. Lost in an instant was all of the information that I needed to work from. No way to recover any of it except to paint from memory. So today I spent painting what I think was in those pictures taken from the window of the bus and from the grassland that faced the volcanic illuminated glacier. This is a whole new way to work; forced
by nature, the uncertainty of a new location and my technical ineptitude. I need to stop fighting “window weather”; this is April in Iceland.
On the Road Again
The weather was predicted to be sunny and warmer, so I rented a car for the day and 100 km. My plan was to drive to Keisuvik, a geothermal site nearest to where I am staying at Hafnarborg. It snowed last night, so everything was covered in a thin dusting of white. I took my paints and a map and headed southwest out of town.
Almost immediately the road opened up before me and I was in the pictures of Iceland that I have studied forever; minus the green. There were no cars, no people or signs of movement (except a quick dark fox that ran across the road and skittered up and over an embankment). The two lane ribbon of road was all that I had to guide me through the vast landscape of intersecting mountains. There were no trees to block the view and very little signage. I drove for an hour smiling at each new vista that unfolded before my small car. First a series of moss covered hills and yellow ocher grass plains, then the gleaming blues of a lake. I found the smoking hillsides of colorful sand , which is Keisuvik, just following Route 42 over the steep hillsides of dark basalt. And I had the site all to myself, alone with the bubbling, steaming quite landscape. It was not as warm as I thought it would be but I painted for a coupe of hours our in the sun, standing on a hill that gave me a view of the vista that reached to the sea.
Warming to a New Environment
Each day that I need to layer on much of what I brought to wear, I am thankful for the heat from the center of the earth that warms Iceland. My apartment is comfortable, but I venture out several times a day to get a break from painting and am reminded that this is not spring in New England.
On one of my outings, I stopped in to see a gallery that is just beyond the bakery. There I met an artist named Svava who does just about everything; painting, quilting, textiles and hat making. Her strategy is to create enough accessible work to support the rent and make a small salary. It was inspiring to see her many interests, talent and her determination to make art making work as a business. Since arriving in Iceland, I have been reminded of the way in which Scandinavian artists make everyday choices artfully. This was something that was an influence to me in college when I decided to weave and knit. Using color in a grid pattern that could become a wearable item seemed very practical then. It is interesting to revisit ideas that I was attracted to years ago and see them again from a new perspective. I don’t long to weave or knit, but if it stays cold for too much longer, maybe I will reconsider.
Lost and Found
I was determined to get to Reykjavik this weekend. Partly for the break from painting, but mostly to go to the museums and to a flee market that I had read about. The “Todd Farm ” of Iceland is held indoors in a warehouse by the wharf. If I was going to buy a sweater, it would be in this “inside yard sale” as the guide described it. I didn’t need the latest Lopi from the downtown galleries, though they are beautiful! I took the bus from Hafnarfjordur and found my way to the market that matched the image that I had in my mind and rewarded my effort. I bought a sweater from a woman who knits from Hafnarfjordur and purchased smoked salmon, rye and potato bread for well below the prices in the market. It was fun to see the variety of people who rummaged through used clothing, furnishings and such. There were new shoes and leggings, underwear and jewelry. Bargains and a chance to see another side of Iceland!
Afterwords I found my way to the National Gallery and enjoyed the design of the building, but not the work on display. Svava had a show of her work that was a surprise to find in the second floor of a charming gallery at the center of the shopping district. The artfully renovated old workshop was the scale of the traditional houses that I see on the streets near where I am staying. Clean lines and uncluttered, it is just enough for the simple life of a small family or a brief gallery space. Svava’s quilts were rich with beautiful layers of color and lit up the room.
The rest of my city tour was in circles. If I asked for directions, I got farther from my intended museum destination. The map was more helpful, but the names of the streets are all at least fifteen letters long and look much the same. After more than an hour of seeing the neighborhoods of Reykjavik and not the museums, I headed back to the bus stop where I began. It would seem that the return trip would be just the reverse of the ride in; but it was much more tricky than that. Fortunately I had better luck with directions from a group of three women, who walked me to the stop that would make the trip straight back to Hafnarfjordur and end my wandering for today.
I was really looking forward to swimming in the outside pool, but it had to wait until my rash receded. Today I took the plunge. As much as I hate to figure out a new athletic facility’s routine, swimming in the geothermal heated water and surfacing in the steam at the intersection of cold air and warm water was a reward. Karen, a photo editor from NYC made the introduction easy; I followed her. It was great to be exercising again, to meet woman who have a regular swimming habit and can be Iceland friends. Swimming use to be a chore that I did to get to dive in Palau. Now, just to stretch out in the water and exert myself for a half mile is a joy.
When I returned to the Museum, everyone who works at Hafnarborg looked concerned and was trying to get information online. The internet was so overloaded that no one could receive the Icelandic news service. Since I had the only TV in the building, everyone gathered round the set in my apartment to see the news report. What I discovered was that the special inquiry to determine the cause of the failure of the banks two years ago came out today. Ólöf, the Director of the Museum, explained that it would be a day that people remembered where they were, like 9/11. I could see in the faces of the staff here at Hafnarborg how frustrated Icelanders have been with their government. They seemed satisfied with the work of the economic advisers who had prepared the report, but unsure of where the economy is heading. I could relate to that thought. It seems the whole world is re-evaluating; economics and simply how to live. As you walk around Hafnarjordur there are lots of tall, new, empty apartment buildings. Cranes are poised overhead but motionless. Sometimes failure is too big to miss.
It isn’t easy finding picture-making sites when you first arrive at a new location. The weather here in Iceland has made it difficult to paint out of doors, but using my camera has given me an opportunity to edit hundreds of possibilities as I search for relevant images through the viewfinder.
Svava came by for coffee this morning and got a chance to see my apartment and the work that I have been doing thus far. It was a break from her routine and she said that she had time to take me back out to Krysuvik again with the hope that the weather would be warm enough to paint. I quickly got my materials together and we headed out of town following the same route that I took for the first time last week.
What a difference seven days can make in the color of the moss covered lava fields. Without the thin layer of snow dusting the interwoven slopes and rock strewn plains, the craggy forms unfurled brilliant velvet green. Dark clouds compressed the remaining sunlight into dramatic bands of color. The day never provided us with painting weather, as we traveled a loop along the coast that would bring us back to Hafnarfjordur via Reykjavik. Our shutters clicking away, we framed the open land and weather drama of the road. Svava’s surprise tour provided me with lots of color ideas to work from and the bonus of an Icelandic artist’s perspective.
“Careful What You Wish For”
(These images are by the photographer Ragnar Th Sigurdsson, shared with me by my swimming buddy Karen Thor, who works for him as a photo editor.)
I came to Iceland’s Southwest coast to be close to geothermal sites where I thought that I would find interesting color to paint. The super heated air forcing it’s way up into the cold seemed to have many of the properties of frontal systems that move across the landscape and often create dramatic layers of color. I look for these color events to record and to find ways to understand naturally occurring color relationships; I imagine it would be like a writer collecting names.
Throughout the day we have been getting news of a major new eruption, not where the other occurred, but beneath a glacier west of the first. Flooding has washed out roads and land below the sight of the activity and a huge plume of ash has curtailed flights to Northern Europe and even as far west as Russia. This seismic activity was a little more than I bargained for! Some worry that it might cause a more dangerous volcano, Katla to erupt. If the winds change direction I might bee staying here longer than planned.
Afternoon in Reykjavik
Svava Egilson is an artist who creates using many different materials. My favorite is her quilting that interprets Iceland’s landscape in multiple layers of fabric. The island of fire and ice has a long tradition of textiles. Everywhere you go you see examples of hand knitting, especially the Lopi patterned sweaters. Svava’s pieces incorporate applique as well as the grid pattern of weaving. Today I went with her to Reykjavik to get some pastels while she greets visitors to the show of her recent work. I had a chance to visit several of Reykjavik’s art galleries and craft stores, along with stranded airline passengers who were entertaining themselves while planes are grounded due to the volcanic ash. Afterward, Svava invited me to have dinner with her family at their home in Hafnarfjordor. It was nice to spend the day with Svava, getting to know more about Iceland’s art scene.
The Color White
Most days I begin to paint soon after I eat breakfast, I have several images going at the same time so that I can take frequent breaks and still make progress on one idea or another. Sometimes it seems that most of the paint is going down the drain. The acrylics are drying very fast here and I need to clean my brushes at least every half hour to keep the color clear. This process allows me to rest my vision appropriately, but headway is slow.
At 4:00 today Karl, a geography professor for the University of Iceland that I’d met through the Laison Office there, said that he would meet me at Hafnarborg and take me to a hot springs area west of Reykjavik called Reykjadalur, “Valley of Smoke”. He said that it was vary colorful and might give me some ideas for paintings (Karl was the one who originally suggested finding a residency in this part of Iceland, knowing that I was interested in geothermal activity). As we left Hafnarfjordur it started to snow and as we got to the mountain range where we would begin the hike into the valley below, the landscape turned completely white. Though Karl thought that the near blizzard conditions of wind and snow ruined the planned outing, the pictures of the steam vents and the drive back are some of the most interesting I’ve taken. They have given me lots of material to work from about color and the geothermal effects on the landscape of Iceland.
First Day of Summer?
Today’s national holiday is Icelander’s wishful thinking! I didn’t put on my long underwear to walk to the pool this morning , but as I passed the harbor there was a thin film of ice on the surface of the water and I could see my breath. So it may be the first day of summer, but not warm or even springlike. I am told that the tradition comes from the old Icelandic calendar and it was said that if you put a bowl of water out the night before the holiday and the water is frozen in the morning, summer will come early. That would be nice! But if this kind of weather predicting is anything like groundhog day in the US (which is not even a day off), I won’t hold my breath.
The outdoor pool was closed, so Karen came by my apartment and took me with her to the new swimming facility, a short drive from the center of town. A huge indoor facility with lots of glass and a view up to the mountains, this was the place to see the young families of Hafnarfjordur.. Icelanders wear a lot of black( a Sunday church service looks like a funeral). The children, however, wear a rainbow of bright colors in patterns and stripes. We sat outside in the “Hotpots” after our workout, Despite the steam rising up around our shoulders and the view of the snow covered mountain range, the warm sun and the children in there colorful suits and floaties reminded me that spring was coming.
I haven’t been looking for postcard images to paint, but they’re everywhere here in Iceland. It’s hard not to be intimidated by the majesty of the land. Simply selecting a subject is a challenge.
When I first started to write proposals to travel to this island nation in the North Atlantic, it was to experience a coastal landscape that I thought was similar to Newfoundland., Canada. That was ten years ago, and at a time when I was spending a week each Fall painting with friends on islands in Maine. My thought was that the landscape that had influenced Louisa Matthíasdóttir’s work of expansive, intersecting planes of color might hold some relevancy to the New England coast where I made my home. It seemed necessary to me to go abroad to study landscape that related to my own environment to see my surroundings in a new way.
Paint is the best medium I know of to record color relationships that occur in my daily life. I have looked for opportunities to frame these experiences hoping that they communicate the same awe that has captured my attention and caused me to want to distill the vision and share it with others. Here in Iceland that process began with the notion that the geothermal sites would provide color relationships from the colliding of super heated air forcing it’s way up from the earths center and out into the cold atmosphere. I imagined that the simple cloud-like plumes would replicate weather systems which form in a similar fashion. On my first trip to Krysuvik I realized that the steam vents and geysers did not make for the kind of color experience that I had imagined. April weather was also unsuited to painting on location. The volcanic eruption on March 21st and then on April 14th of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has provided the intriguing color that changes the visual scale of the subject that I came to study and the environmental implication. Just by chance, I have arrived in Iceland at the wrong time of year to paint a landscape that I did not understand and was rewarded by an even better more relevant subject to study and explore.
Iceland with Icelanders
This afternoon/s road trip with Karen Thor and her husband Thorsteinn Halldorsson was a great chance to see the landscape from their viewpoint. Karen is a photographer from Brooklyn, New York and has been in Iceland for six years with Thor and their two daughters, Bryndisa and Svana. Thor is Icelandic and lived for many years in the US. Together Karen and Thor gave me a tour of Þingvellir National Park and the countryside in between, from our starting point in Hafnarfjörður. While they both pointed out favorite sites along the way, Thor would stop the car or maneuver to allow Karen and I to photograph. With the weather still cold and overcast, the moss and tundra vegetation was the most colorful element of the landscape. We shot forest and lake, waterfalls and steam vents. Watching Karen make choices of subjects to capture and save was a nice change from following my own selecting process. She moves fast and would get Thor to have fun posing. In their Lopi sweater and hat they looked like they were models in an Icelandic knitting pattern book.
The Park was beautiful and quiet. Along the Oxara river, Þingvellir is the site of Iceland’s earliest governance. Representatives from all regions of the country would assembly here over the centuries from 930 AD. It is also the junction of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, a part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The volcanic activity going on in the south right now makes you aware of the potential for earth shattering changes that can occur at anytime given the geography. The peacefulness if this chilly afternoon has not been disturbed by the force just below our feet and Karen, Thor and I enjoy the day and Iceland’s rugged beauty.