ICELAND ART RESIDENCY

In the bitterly cold Icelandic winter spanning across November and December 2017 to January 2018, I lived and worked as a Nes artist-in-residence in a remote fishing town in the far north of Iceland called Skagaströnd. This experience shaped both my artistic practice and personal life in enormous ways that I could never have predicted.

Nes is a center for arts and cultural development and an international hub for the growth of contemporary art and contemporary practice. Nes hosts 10-16 artists monthly, and aims to provide opportunities for international and artistic exchange, and to assist artists to integrate into the local community as well as working, engaging and socializing within the Nes community of artists.

Nes is situated in a remote town in Iceland, and this remoteness offers artists the space and time to explore and engage with developing ideas, that they may not be able to achieve in their home towns or cities. Nes operates with an open plan studio, which allows transparency and collaborative opportunities for the artists.

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SKAGASTROND - JOURNAL EXCERPT

Skagaströnd was a tiny blip of a town. If you Google Mapped it, you’d see that there were about eleven streets all up. Mánabraut, the street I was living on, didn’t even exist on Google Maps. The town had a total population of about four hundred and eighty people. There was one café, open until about five pm, which served only two meals: soup of the day, and ‘The Hot Meal’. The soup and meal changed daily, so you never knew what you would get – or in my case, whether it would be vegetarian or not. On Saturday night it reopened at about eight pm until one in the morning serving the only alcohol in town, at staggering prices – although you could still buy coffee and cake if you wished.  

The man who worked at the post office also worked the afternoon shift, in the same store, which then operated as a bank. The owners of the café also managed the gas station in town. There was one church, Hólanskirkja, a classic example of Icelandic architecture with its highly contemporary, functionalist white points and angles. It was situated opposite the Museum of Prophecies, where the local soothsayer could read your runes, palms, or tarot, and offered talks about the sagas of Skagaströnd. It was only open by appointment. A short walk away was Nes, the artist studios I worked in, situated in a building that had been converted from an old fish factory. In the same vicinity there was the gymnasium, a large, cylindrical building with red walls, and the supermarket – a small, but very well stocked store with a surprisingly flourishing health foods section. I was shocked and excited to see many of the foods I was used to purchasing back home, here in this remote village by the sea. I had not come to Skagaströnd expecting to have access to quinoa, flaxseed, and cacao nibs.

Most of the buildings were dotted around the harbour, a central point in town right against the road. With no railings in sight, the rocky side of the road sloped immediately down into the Greenland Sea. Further out west, near Mánabraut, there was a state of the art marine biotechnology centre and research library, as well as a smaller, public library. A very large, industrial building branded with the words ‘Eagle Bravo’ stood stoically by the pier. Apparently it had been used as a herring factory, but once the herring disappeared from the shores, the building had long gone unused. Here, the local fishermen raked in a hefty profit from their five-week expeditions on fishing trawlers. Snow ploughs regularly trundled along from BioPol all the way to the church and back, carving out a moderately traversable path for cars and pedestrians to follow.

Close to the base of the mountains was the cemetery and horse paddocks, full of tiny, stout Icelandic stock. I was told in advance never to refer to these creatures as ‘ponies’, much as they looked it, for that was not their breed, and it was an insensitivity to the farmers. Pudgy little things they were, with the most placid natures, as soon as you reached the horse paddocks, you knew you were departing civilisation, and entering the roads that cut through the fjords to the next county. The residents of the town all lived in small houses that mostly seemed to be clustered around the bay, but occasionally petered out at the foothills of the mountains. The houses, in traditional Icelandic style, were all frocked out in rich colours of scarlet and robin-egg blue. There was a hairdresser, only open by appointment, and a dentist, only open by appointment. The closest liquor store was in the next town over, about twenty-five minutes drive on a clear day. The same could be said for a doctor – you were required to travel for booze or bruises.

And that was Skagaströnd. A very small, but unquestionably charming, assortment of buildings that made up the town.

 
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WINTER DARKNESS

A stark opposite to the famed 'midnight sun' of 24 hour sunlight during the Icelandic summer, during the winter months the light decreases to fewer and fewer hours a day. I became accustomed to waking up at midday, to the light of the 'morning' sun, and seeing the last rays of light dip beneath the horizon at around 3pm in December. At that axis on the earth, rather than arcing across the sky, the sun actually just skirts the horizon - meaning that the precious three or four hours of sunlight per day were the most spectacular displays of a sunrise-sunset limbo I had ever seen.

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LIGHTS IN THE SKY

What I was most dazzled by, and of course, what everyone seems to be attracted to during winter travels in Iceland, were the infamous Northern Lights. The auroras I saw were often too breathtaking for words, as slivers of green quivered in the sky, gaining traction until they were glorious crescendos of colour and lines slicing through the sky. The nightly displays of dancing became a ritual for us, as we chased the lights to the base of the mountain in town, and stood in awe as it petered out across the Greenland Sea. Witnessing an aurora was an almost religious experience for me which I believe is necessary for everyone to see at least once in their lives.

PEOPLE AND PLACE - JOURNAL EXCERPT

Nothing will ever compare. I feel like Iceland unlocked something deep within me - raw feelings that overflow out of me; the capacity to love harder and live bigger; the desire to live a more pure and stripped back life; a thirst for adventure. Something that was always in the pit of my stomach but never fully given the chance to be released. Many of the other artists I became friends with during the residency are leaving forever today too, and soon enough all my connections to that place will be replaced by an entirely fresh batch of people. I can’t wrap my head around it. The experience seems so totally ours, like we ate up the world and lit it on fire. I dream of it every night.

RESIDENCY WORK

My proposal at the start of the residency focused on myth and ritual and how urban legends interact with and shape our understanding of environment. I began extensive research on this subject, exploring the depths of Icelandic lore and examining the sagas. However my project rapidly shifted once I met a man named Markús, who happened to come into a cafe I was sitting in by chance on his way through town. He was a baker, who looked every bit the classic tall, bearded, tattooed Viking I had been hoping to encounter. He informed me during our introduction that he additionally was one of only forty daredevils in the whole country who surfed the freezing waters of Iceland. This niche community willingly took surfboards and rode the sub-Arctic temperatures of the waves throughout winter. I immediately knew I had to capture his likeness and reflect his story in my portrait.

This realisation shifted my experience towards my project in Iceland. Suddenly, I was less focused on examining nature in the form of landscapes and myth, and more focused on the communities who inhabited this strange environment. I was interested in examining how people interact with remote landscapes. This curiosity formed the basis of a new body of work working exclusively with portraiture. Due to the delicate dotwork technique and larger size of the works, each piece was a labour of love taking several weeks to complete. During this time my practice could authentically reflect the shifting and transient landscape by the snow and the sea.

During my residency, on top of my artistic practice, I also documented my experience through photography (which can be found in my archives on Instagram) as well as film (found here). My experience with Nes was an enormous sensory overload, and in the months that have passed, my current means of processing this journey is of course, another creative release. The documentation, journals, notes, articles, and research I collected during my travels is now forming the foundation of a novel about a remote village in the far north of Iceland that all too often seems like a very vivid hallucination.