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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Artwork’s Life After the Studio

Sometimes I wonder about it: what happens to my art when someone buys it?

I’ve had collectors show me the art they purchased and framed in a way that makes me cringe… or applaud. I’ve had people send me pictures of my work in their homes or office. There have been invitations to visit the work, and requests to install it for them.

Each of these encounters cements my relationship to the patron, and the patron’s relationship to the work. The collector loves it, finds it inspiring.

Once, I got a message that my work had been sold at auction at Selkirks! Exciting! Well, “exciting” until I went to the Selkirk’s website and saw the price it fetched. Let’s just say that is was a very humbling moment.

Thursday I got a call from a collector. A tentative voice on the phone.

“Claymera? Is this Claymera?”

Oy. I thought that was dead. In 1999 I made and sold passable functional pottery along with very traditional film photography, mostly nature prints. Now, photography has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but there were STILL a lot of nature photographers out there in the ’90s. Mine were fine… mediocre at best. Technically good but pedestrian. It’s hard to be a good nature photographer.

I sold this work under the business name Claymera…. clay… camera.. I thought it was clever. It lasted about 2 years before I gratefully found a niche in alternate process photography… and left pottery for commissions and personal work.

The caller bought the piece at an estate sale. It was still in the protective plastic sheath it was sold in.

Oy. That means it sat in a closet.

“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

Thank you. Don’t tell me how much you paid.

“Is it valuable?”

Well, I said. … I’m still alive.

She got the joke. A C-print of a butterfly, no matter how good, is unlikely to be valuable.

But it was to her, in a way. She told me she loved the piece; I almost begged her to visit my website and see my current “good” work!

Still, it reminded me that, in the last 20 years or so, I have sold thousands of photographs, mixed media paintings, and other art pieces. Where are they living? Are they loved? How many of my photographs or paintings are sitting in closets, or on their second or third owners?

Art has a life beyond the studio.

And that woman made my day.

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An Artist’s Journal: Namibia, Genocide

There is a buffer of land, between the dunes of the desert and the last streets of the affluent white residents of Swakopmund: a cemetery. One-tenth is modern. Tall palms are planted between neat plots with stately carved marble stones and benches and plants that are watered daily against the arid heat.

There is a field of mounds enclosed by the same wall, ten times the size of the modern plots, keeping the desert at bay.  There are no paths or plants or benches. There is one large stone marking the graves that have been abandoned. Maybe these dead are not important. Maybe these dead are an embarrassment. Maybe these dead are forgotten.

They are the resting places of the Herero who were “disappeared” during German colonialism at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Herero, the indigenous people of the land when the German arrived, called the “disappearing” a Genocide. It was.

People who live on the street do not even know the graves are there. We asked. No, they said. That is the town cemetery. We don’t know about Herero graves. They do not look over the wall. But dead are here. Silent. Murdered.

This place is not in a guide book, not on the maps. Our Namibia friend, Ferdinand, whom I’ve known for more than 30 years, brings us here. It’s important. People need to remember.

As the Germans colonized Namibia in the early 20th century, there were people in the way. It’s a story American native people know too well. The Herero know it too. They were rounded up by the thousands and placed in… wait for it… concentration camps. Jews and Gypsies can pick up the story from here. The Herero were killed in the camps. Experimented upon. Butchered. Eliminated. Buried in the sand. By the tens of thousands.

The colonists wanted the land and the people who already lived on it, in peace, said, “yes, we can share.” The colonists said what colonists always say. NO.

Row after neat German row. A mound. Then another. And another. For acres.

A way of life was wiped out; 85 percent of the Herero were killed or left to die in the desert.

Many people have forgotten about this holy place. We will not.

Hannah suggested we add a stone to the collection at the primary marker, as is our custom when visiting a grave. It’s a reminder that the person has not be forgotten. I’m sorry I didn’t think it first. We will remember them.

The cemetery is on the edge of the city, where civilization meets the sand, the dunes, timelessness. There is silence, except for the crash of the surf in the distance, the wind in my ears, and the pad of my sandal on the sand. I step lightly, careful not to step on a grave.

This is a holy place.

I cannot help but wonder: were the Nazis were so efficient in killing Jews because their fathers practiced on the Herero a generation earlier?

Postscript: We visit the modern part of the cemetery and happen upon Jewish graves. Dozens of them. Older than any we have seen. 1876, 1885. 1890. This is before the Germans. Jews were here. Many, many families.

We wonder: what were their lives like here? I want to believe they were friends to the Herero.



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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Safari

There is no trip in the world like a safari. Lions roaring at night as you try to sleep in a tent… happening upon ANOTHER herd of springbok, and feeling a bit jaded, hoping desperately to find a rare black rhino and are rewarded with a mom and calf. Words do not do it justice. Pictures might….

Note: All images ©2015 Jeane Vogel Studios

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Heritage Stolen

When you steal a culture’s art, you steal their soul.

When you vandalize their art, their ritual objects, you attack an entire people.

Tonight, I feel violated.

This is not a happy story. It is certainly not an expected story.

It is the story of the Jews of Windhoek, Namibia, Africa.

There are 30 families, at most. There are barely any children. My daughter, Hannah, just became the most eligible woman of marriageable age among the Jews here. I know because someone tonight made a point of mentioning it. She is moving here to attend university.

But that is not the story. The story is about a small congregation that was defiled twice in the last two months. Everything of value was stolen…. furniture, catering equipment, books, dishes, prayer books.

The last robbery occurred last Shabbat –the sabbath marked from sundown Friday to an hour after sundown Saturday. The lights are on a timer, because observant Jews do not turn on and off lights on the sabbath. It was after 11 pm, when the lights go off.

Unable to switch on the lights, the robbers tore pages from prayer books and copies of sacred text, and set them ablaze to light their way.

First violation.

Then they used the Hanukkah menorah to pry open cabinets. It broke.

Second violation.

Then they stole all the furniture they could, the dishes for meals, silver flatware, silver kiddush cups and other valuable ritual objects.

Third violation.

Then they headed for the ark, where the Torah, the sacred texts are kept. Maybe they knew that the Torah scrolls have no market value. They left them alone.

First blessing.

Then they tore the tzeddakah box (charity box) from the wall. How much could it have contained? $10?

Fourth violation.

The cupboard that protected all the items for Passover, which may only be used then, was broken and ransacked.

Fifth violation.

The shul is old….built in 1924. There are no funds to replace these things. Holiday celebrations as a community are ruined. There are so few people left, will they bother to go on? Staff hasn’t been paid in three years. They show up anyway.

This is community. But it’s soul is shattered. Religious art is the oldest, most dear to us. When our places of worship are defiled, our souls are sullied.

Still, tonight, in a 91-year-old shul, we celebrated the Sabbath… with four men and four women — not enough for a minyan, even if the women were counted, which we weren’t.

Still, there was community. There was hope. There was joy.

Greatest blessing of all.

Damaged Hanukkah menorah in Windhoek shul. The ark is in the background.

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Sister Artists

20 January
Windhoek, Namibia

I thought it was going to be an ordinary day in Windhoek. Hannah and I are navigating the bureaucracy of getting her registered for school (my daughter is attending university here for the next three years. It is complex and foreign.) There hasn’t been time for touring… we’re here on business. Secure housing, get a phone, learn where the good supermarket is, learn the safe routes around town on foot. It’s daunting to move across the globe when you are 18.

As we walk from place to place (then back again to retrieve a forgotten passport — OY!) we see street vendors selling their wares. Tourists are few and the vendors are aggressive. They have bills to pay.

I have spent a lot of time over the years doing exactly the same thing, hoping the next browser will pick up a piece, love it and hand over the money.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Most vendors have the same things for sale. Most will admit they did not make the item. Most have been imported from outside Namibia.

I want authentic. Baskets, wooden bowls, trinkets, carved animals — all the same.

Hannah and I finished lunch and walked several blocks to a spot when vendors set up shop. More of the same. I can resist until I decide. Or walk away. In India and China I got pretty good at bargaining. China was easy. I knew they were trying to overcharge me by 90 percent, and many were brusque and rude. I can be that, too.

In Namibia there is a difference. There is a desperation in their eyes, not just their voices. They need this sale.

As we walked and I looked and waved off vendors, we came to four Himba women. They pounced on us with warm smiles. Within seconds I had a dozen beaded and corded bracelets on each arm. Necklaces rounded my neck without my knowing how they got there. If I took off a bracelet, three more appeared in its place. How much? No, too much. We bargained, we talked. Then the most remarkable thing happened. We started talking to each other as women. The six of us. Four bare-breasted, two western dress. Women. Some of us mothers. All of us daughters. Sisters.

I noticed the ochre that is all over their bodies, making their skin an exquisite deep red, was covering my neck and arms. We exchanged names, we shook hands warmly, again and again. We agreed on prices. I bargained a little, but I knew I was paying too much. And I was buying more than I wanted.

They had made these treasures. And customers were few.

“Here’s a free one,” one of the four said. Hannah started to say no, thank you. No, never refuse a gift.

I asked if I could return tomorrow to take portraits. I’m not walking around with my camera on days when we are trying to get administrative tasks done. It’s too heavy and it makes me look like more of a mark than already I am!

So I will return tomorrow, they will pose for me. We are no longer strangers. We are sister artists and we know how to talk to each other.

Hannah getting fitted by a Himba woman. Note the massive number of bracelets! We couldn’t buy all of them! ©2015 Jeane Vogel Studios

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