An Artist’s Journal: Iceland, Lasting Impressions

It’s raining pretty hard, as it has been on and off for the last five days, and the wind is whipping the golden grasses, which is all that really grows in Iceland. I’ve hiked and driven and made photographs in the rain, but on this last few hours I prefer to sip tea and watch the ocean from my Airbnb studio apartment before heading to the airport.

It gives me time to reflect on this trip. The first two days were pure touristy. My daughter, Hammy, and I arrived a few days before she would head off to a 8-day university program on climate change and geology and all things geothermal. She’s an environmental earth science student and a total geology nerd. She patiently explains the type of volcanic rock AGAIN, even though I still confuse basalt (the rock) with balsamic (the vinegar.) We part ways at 6 am Sunday, March 10. I get occasional dispatches from her: Repelling down a glacier. 5-hour hike up a mountain. Playing with Arctic foxes.

Only one of those I made up.

I strike out in search of inspiration: people and places and ideas that tourists don’t have time for and the guides won’t take you to. I found lots. A highlight of the trip was a visit with artist Michele Bird, whom I met on a Facebook group she started to help refugees in Iceland. There is so much need and so few resources. Though living 3000 miles apart, Michele and I were able to connect quickly and spend a day, a night, and the next morning talking art, collaboration, how artists make their way in the world, and what we can do to support the next generation. Her home in Borgarnes on a fjord is an artist’s sanctuary.

I know these trips sound like vacations. I will admit to enjoying a pint in a pub watching futbol, or savoring a local delicacy (vegetarian, of course), but I travel to learn, to expand my world, to recharge my art.

Here are a few things I take with me:

  • Ice cream. Grass-fed cows, treated humanely, produce the best dairy products. It might surprise folks from warmer climes that ice cream is everywhere and enjoyed outside, in the winter.
  • Chocolate-covered licorice. I’m only bringing home one bag. I will be looking for a source or importing it!
  • Lava fields. Iceland is an island that is still being formed by volcanic activity. There are lava fields everywhere. The craggy black and gray rocks are covered with moss, sage green in color. The black rock, green moss, sometimes red iron soil, while snow, blue water — photographs cannot begin to capture it.
  • Volcanos. They look just like other mountains. These tend to explode. The younger ones have an ominous “I just blew my top off” look to them, and they rise out of the golden fields.
  • There are three times more sheep in Iceland than people. Don’t mess with the sheep.
  • Icelandic horses are everywhere and attract a lot of attention. They are stocky, sturdy animals with long manes that cover their faces like a teenager’s unkempt bangs.
  • Arctic foxes are the ONLY mammal indigenous to Iceland. There were not rodents until the ships came. Cats are everywhere and a bit wild, but not feral. Virtually no insects. No reptiles or amphibians.
  • Drivers are courteous. The only time I heard a car horn was when a tour bus driver got annoyed by a tourist who left his car in the middle of the road to get out and get a picture.
  • Icelanders love a traffic round-about.
  • Police have very little to do. I saw only one cop and he was on a motorcycle. A local told me that’s the only time they see police is when it’s warm enough (above freezing) for the cops to “play on their motorcycles!”
  • When the temp gets above freezing, a few hardy folks get out their shorts.
  • The light changes minute by minute. Daytime, when it’s clear, the sun is harsh and bright. Late afternoon is the most golden I’ve ever seen.
  • I have no idea what dawn looks like. Don’t even ask. Not a morning person.
  • The aurora is magical, but it’s elusive. I was lucky to see it from my guest house one night when it cleared for a few hours and the forecast suggested strong activity.
  • The weather forecast includes an aurora prediction.
  • Aurora season is winter: November- March. If you want to see Northern Lights, you need to come when it’s cold and windy and wet and unpredictable. That’s the tradeoff. It’s worth it.
  • The tundra is a real thing. Not that I disputed it, but it’s far more lifeless and unforgiving –and beautiful– that a Midwestern could have imagined.
  • There are no indigenous trees in Iceland. The trees that grew here are really woody shrubs, no higher than a person’s waist. Evergreens and hardy deciduous trees have been planted by the millions, and are thriving, to secure the tiny bit of topsoil.
  • Almost everyone has a greenhouse on their porch or yard.
  • Iceland grows flower, berries, tomatoes, greens, peppers, carrots, potatoes and other small vegetables in commercial greenhouses. The tomatoes taste like mine from the garden in August.
  • The water from the tap is HOT. All hot water in Iceland comes directly from the ground, heated by the geothermal activity below our feet. The homes are heated that way too. There is so much hot water that nearly every town has an outdoor heated swimming pool that is open year round.
  • Everything is expensive. Stop grousing about it.
  • Not all tourists behave well. It spans all nationalities. The locals are quite tolerant of them but wish some would stop acting like asses.
  • Icelanders are so kind, they make Canadians look like rude Red Sox fans.
  • This is a land of poets. Literature, history, tradition is referred. I haven’t seen a single television except in a pub. This is a country of literacy.
  • The language is hard, but not insurmountable. Just try.

There is so much more. Iceland tugs at your soul. And now the rain has stopped. It’s unpredictable, too.

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An Artist’s Journal: Iceland – I Never Asked for Adventure

I’m not a thrill seeker. For one thing, I’m 61 and while I still bounce when I fall, I’d rather not fall at all.

I don’t love heights, though zip-lining in Costa Rica at my daughter’s insistence (3.5 hours, 13 zip-lines) cured a lot of my fear of heights. It didn’t cure my clumsiness. I’m still cautious near edges and cliffs. I’m still a klutz.

Traveling alone means I can focus on what I need to learn or gather or shoot for my art. I’m unencumbered and undistracted. It also means I don’t have back up. It means an experience can turn into an adventure in a moment.

Driving in Iceland has been dicey the last couple of days. Yesterday, I drove from Reykjavik to Borgarnes with a side trip to Akranes to see a historical lighthouse. It’s an exquisitely beautiful drive with ocean on one side, black basalt mountains on the other. Generally the drive was a sea level. I love sea level. Mountains are pretty to look at. I want my feet in the sand.

It’s raining steadily, making me already a big anxious. There’s a bit of ice on the road. About halfway to Akranes the road enters a tunnel, hammered out of the basalt rock. It’s 6 kilometers long, according to a sign about 2K in, and the grade is steep and going down. Steep. Very steep. Jules Verne “Journey to the Center of the Earth” steep. (That actual entrance is a volcano off the shore of Reykjavik).

For more than 5K it’s going down. The road was close to sea level — maybe 30 meters above– when we entered the tunnel. Six kilometers feels like forever. Where are we going? Why aren’t there other cars around? Then the grade slopes up and we’re out. Maybe not “adventure” level, but what the hell was that?

The rain stops when I reach the lighthouse at Akranes. It’s cold and windy, but I can shoot without getting soaked. Back in the car and on the road. It’s rainy again. Suddenly, as if I crossed an imaginary line, the temp drops, the rain turns to snow and the entire landscape and road is covered in wet, slick, white stuff. How could that happen so fast? Now we’re getting to adventure status. I can drive in snow and ice, but this was piling up fast. Arrived in Borgarnes to about 6 inches of snow. Oy.

Today I leave the home of a new artist friend in Borgarnes to set off for Snaefellsnes National Park. It’s rainy. The rain turns to ice once in a while. The road has ice on it. I laugh out loud at the 90kph speed limit… I’m doing 35kph. Maybe. All is fine UNTIL the road goes up into the mountains. Iceland hasn’t discovered guardrails yet, so cliffs on one side unnerve me a bit. Adventure is setting in. The road turns to gravel, which I’m grateful for, since it’s icy and gravel gives me more traction. The road goes up. 10 degree slope. The slope on the edge is quite a bit more. Then it heads down. 12 degree slope. No other cars around, which means I don’t have to navigate around them, but no one will find me if I slide off the edge.

Ice gives way to rain again. Hard rain. I arrive to miles and miles of lava fields covered in green moss and snow. I’m rewarded.

Still, it’s more adventure than I expected.

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Artist’s Journal: Iceland – Yes, I’m Really Working

Cairns at Dawn, Reykjavik, tapestry, 2x7inches, woolCairn at Dawn, Reykjavik, tapestry, 2×7 in, wool & page from my journal

I hear it all the time.

“Ooh, you’re so lucky.”

“I wish I had your vacations.”

And the most common, the snarky, “Must be nice.”

Artists go where they find the most inspiration. We go where we find things that trigger a new idea, a new perspective, a new method.

Monet stayed in his gardens in Giverny. He found all the inspiration he needed for a lifetime.

I travel.

I find inspiration in new people, new light, new ideas, new symbols, new languages, new shapes, new experiences. The inspiration makes me grow. I’m not on vacation.

How can you tell the difference? Well, on vacations I take my husband. That’s the first hint. Although I work when I travel with him and my son, that work is most restrained and restricted. I have to do what they want ONCE in a while!

If I’m on a tour or at a tourist area, the difference between me and the others with the selfie sticks will be obvious: I’m off to myself unless I’m peppering the guide with questions. I’m stopping every few steps to look around –that one is self-preservation. Too often I’m walking and looking and misstep and fall. Broke my camera when I landed atop it in India. Almost broke it when I did the same in the Forbidden City. (Thanks, Renata, for picking me up!) I’m not apologizing for scraping together dimes and flier miles to do the work I want to do.

A couple of years ago I began to learn tapestry. This trip I had a goal to learn to weave what I see in the spot when I see it — a little like plein air painting, but with fiber. This was my first attempt: Cairn at Dawn. I saw the scene when we drove in from the airport, sketched it later, planned it out for a day or two, looked around the city for more examples, then set to weaving. This small piece, 2×7 inches, might be part of a body of work of small tapestries, or a study for a larger work later.

Either way, I accomplished part one of the goal. The second part? Do it again.

Yes, I really am working!

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An Artist’s Journal: Iceland – Inspiration

I took a day-long tour in with 8 others in a small van today. We went to all the typical waterfalls, black beach, small towns. It’s wonderful to see them and I don’t mean to sound jaded, but as a photographer I wanted to yell “STOP THE VAN” about every kilometer or so. I need time to photograph the world properly. And I don’t want the same shot someone else got.

Since stopping was a bit out of the question, I shot at the places we all shoot at (those are on the camera and will be processed next week), but what I found most inspirational was the view out the window and we traveled. The phone would have to do.

I wanted to remember the dark volcanos and lava fields topped with white snow at the peaks and running down the sides, and the deep green moss –deep green even in winter– that topped the lava fields below.

I wanted to remember the crash of the ocean against the black sand beaches as we were plummeted with sand and pellets when the 55 mile/hour winds gushed to 70 mph and nearly knocked me over. (All I could think as the bitter sub-zero wind chills whipped my scarf away and the sand hit my back and legs was that there must be an army of Lilliputians with rapid-fire catapults somewhere nearby, trying to take me down!)

I wanted to remember how the landscape changed from one area to the next and we drove east.

I wanted to capture the inspiration — inspiration that begs to be new art.

A few phone shots from today:

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An Artist’s Journal: Iceland, Civil Disobedience and a Call to Art

I knew the Black Cone, a monument to civil disobedience was here, but I forgot once I arrived in Reykjavik. I stumbled across it as I explored an area of the city I haven’t seen in the last two days, on my search for an interesting meal. It sits slightly off the sidewalk with a couple of benches nearby. Nothing special — but a daily reminder of our rights and responsibilities as citizens.

The monument is a reminder of the idealism of civil liberties on which Iceland, the United States, and all great democracies were founded: it is the will of the people to be free and unencumbered by tyranny. It is our sacred duty to fight against corruption and tyranny when it presents itself. And the fight is not an individual one, but a common effort that demands we put the community before our personal greed. We cannot fight it alone; we must band together.

In the Great Recession, after the 2009 Banking Crisis, when US banks failed because of unbridled greed and bad debt and corruption, the US bailed them out. In Iceland, when the same thing happened, they took another tack: they fought back against the corruption and put some high ranking businessmen in jail. No bailouts. Jail.

The plaque reads: “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties. declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1783.”

Art is a revolutionary act. Art defines our culture. Art is a communication of who we are. I lingered at this monument for a moment, reminding myself to be brave enough to inject civil disobedience into my art and continue to stand up to tyranny.

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An Artist’s Journal: Iceland

A few first impressions:

  • March is winter. It’s not “almost spring.” It’s winter. It’s cold.
  • People are outside anyway. If you’re cold, that’s what wool sweaters and hats and gloves and scarves and wool socks and boots are for.
  • It’s hot inside. Iceland sits atop the largest geothermal cache in the world. Volcanic eruptions are still growing this place. The heat works. Lots of people have open windows on the coldest days. Open. Windows. 17F wind-chill. The windows are open.
  • The windows sport little treasures on the sills. Every window seems to announce the tenants’ personality with small statues of mythical people or tchotchkes. It’s charming.
  • There is outdoor seating at some causal restaurants and street food vendors. People sit down and eat. In the cold. It feels good to see the sun.
  • The language is hard to learn. America mouths don’t work that way. If you try to say an Icelandic word, the people — who are kind already — will beam and help you out. It doesn’t take long to learn how to pronounce these words.
  • It’s cold. The wind is biting.
  • It’s beautiful. Words elude me, but my head is bursting with art inspiration. Stay tuned.
  • There are museums everywhere. And bookstores. This is a literate place.
  • Not everyone speaks English, but most do. Our taxi driver didn’t. Pantomime works fine the rest of the time.
  • It’s expensive. Just don’t mention it. Everything is dear here – except heat – because everything is imported. Everything. Pay it or move on. Complaining about it makes you look ungrateful… or American. But if you mess up on the conversion — which I do constantly – they will confirm that you understand your purchase. I’m grateful to the wait staff at the restaurant tonight who sensed I mistook a $90 bottle of wine for a $9 glass of wine. Since my daughter Hammy and I were splitting an entree, she seemed to know that we weren’t planning on downing a bottle that costs three times as much as the stuffed cannelloni.
  • There is no $9 glass of wine.
  • There is a local beer made of whale testicles. I’m not trying that.
  • Nobody eats the fermented (rotten) shark that Iceland is famous for. It’s here to make fun of the tourists. The locals enjoy a laugh.
  • The wind can knock you over.
  • Feminism reigns. The men are not threatened by it.
  • Art is EVERYWHERE, which comes to the purpose of the trip.
  • The city is old and new. The touristy spots are not.
  • The land is fragile and Icelanders know it. Agree to protect it or don’t come. They are not messing around. Bring a water bottle and a reusable bag.
  • The streets of Reykjavik are filled with people all day, all night. This is the largest group of cold people I’ve ever seen – or been a part of. And it’s fine.
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Slowing Down to Reach Beyond

 Many years ago, when film was just beginning to wane and digital was new, I scored a Mamiya Polaroid 600 camera, similar to this one. Completely manual — no light reading, no auto focus, even a manual shutter! This is a dream of a camera that shoots exclusively Polaroid smaller format film.

It’s heavy. It’s bulky. The film is expensive or hard to find. It’s time consuming. It’s messy.

In other words, it’s a throwback. And exactly what an artist needs in this world of fast, now, digtial.

As I packed and unpacked photo equipment for an upcoming shooting trip, my eyes kept returning to this Mamiya. I have too many cameras from which to choose — film and digital — but my everyday “go-to” is a full frame Nikon digital. I wish it were lighter, but it gives me everything I want…. until I want something else.

That “something else” generally is film. And my film of choice is Polaroid. I have entire body of art built entire body of art built on SX-70 filmon SX-70 film, which was discontinued in 2008. Yes, I know, there is new film for those cameras, but they don’t have the same artistic quality as the old film. Better to move on.

The new film for this Mamiya Polaroid camera is good. At the studio, I check the fridge for film…. How did I forget that I had six boxes of sepia film in there? How long ago did I buy them? Popped one in the camera… yep… Good as new. Sharp, rich browns. Good tone. White whites.

So the Mamiya Polaroid is making the trip. She’s so big that she displaces two other film cameras. I’ll make do.

The film made this decision for me: this trip will be about slowing down. Working in the field. Settting up the tripod and staying put until the film is processed… or transferred to watercolor paper … and new visions evolve. 

This art is intended to reach beyond.

 

  

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