Saturday, March 30, 2013

Last days in March

Fish Drying in Saudakrouker

Saudakrouker has a rather large fishing business. Along the edge of the water are wooden fish drying racks – there must be an acre of them. Heads are separated and hung in a different section from the bodies. The only wild mammals in Iceland are the Icelandic foxes and the insects, of which there are few and no mosquitoes, don’t seem interested in saltwater fish.  The fish hang out in the open unmolested by varmints. Industrial scale, clean, practical and rustic all at the same time.

The smell is pungent but not rotten.

A Limitless Supply of Beauty

Teaching in an Alien Tongue

Tarrvi, a graphic artist from Estonia, gave a community printmaking workshop in the evening. The participants included four local residents and a French artist. He began with a brief “talk” about printmaking, using what were at hand, a cork trivet and a carved woodblock, as props to describe the relief method. His English is halting at best and the participants, Icelandic and French, had varying degrees of English proficiency, the highest being not very. This meant Tarrvi used the simplest of terms and short, fundamental sentences to explain and instruct. He also relied on a lot of gestures and demonstration, each idea accompanied by a descriptive action. As he led the group nodded in understanding. Hobbled by layered language barriers, it was remarkable to watch how uncomplicated and effective his teaching was.

The recipe was few words and simple language with lots of showing and acting.

The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” was brought to life. How fitting.


One of the artists, Katelyn Clark ( is a classically trained musician specializing in Medieval and Renaissance music. She also plays contemporary music and composes for the medieval Organetto.
This week she gave a concert in the local church. She plays the Organetto by balancing it on her knee and compressing the bellows on one side while playing the tiny keyboard on the other. The keys determine which pipes are opened and the pressure on the bellows determines volume. That’s the simple explanation, however Katelyn has developed a technique where she controls the airflow in ways that create new, vibrating pitches. She played a medieval piece then one of her own compositions. Listening to her piece was like hearing the wind, waves, birds, and beach pebbles pulling back from a wave all in natural conversation. At one point it sounded as if the midnight auroras were singing.
Here is her instrument, looking just like a tiny medieval church.

Thursday March 28th

Nes held its monthly open studio this afternoon. For a few hours local residents, and some from as far as Reykjavik, wandered through our spaces. 

Studio Wall

Ollie, who grew up in Skagastrond and is in his late 60’s, looked at the maps and launched into a story about Iceland and its history. He remembered as a young child sitting in the main room with extended family in the evenings and listening to his grandfather read the sagas and tell stories. Ollie feels that the reason Iceland remained independent from Denmark is because no matter how rustic the life style, everyone in Iceland learned how to read. The entire small, mostly rural population from the 16th century on was literate.

It was interesting to see how the drawings and maps triggered his sense of memory and national history.

My Work

Today, Saturday the 30th, is my last day in the studio.

One of the first things I did when I arrived was to put a map of Iceland on the studio wall and then trace the large school map that belongs to Nes. I used 18 pieces of 11 x 14 paper that I will reassemble in my studio at home.

I like the way geographic and geological information, when traced, can become drawing. It’s not coping because the function of the original is never in play. Nor is it a drawing of a map. It is like a footprint, and I imagine as I trace, walking the land.

Wallace Steven’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar” comes to mind when I think about distributing rocks from foreign territory in the Icelandic landscape.  When placing a jar on  a Tennessee hill, Stevens sees that “The wilderness rose up to it,” and “It took dominion everywhere.” 

Here are the thirteen stones that will be placed along the way as I travel from Northern Iceland around the east, down through the southern coast and finally to the airport on the western Raykjanes peninsula. The stones come from Greece, Mongolia, NYC, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Lithuania.

Each stone has had its portrait painted and its information recorded.
This stone is from the Greek island Samos and was found on Balos Beach.

Here are more examples of work I have done since coming to Nes.
Linoleum Prints

Stone Portraits

Below are two of my favorite daily drawings.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

After the storm

 Clearing in the morning and high seas.

Later that day Stephanie and Matthiew (the French couple) invited us for a drink at their newly constructed "Blue Ass Cafe".

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mid March

Thursday March 14th
The Romance of the Stone

Last August I placed a particularly beautiful stone from the cave of Pythagoras (on the Greek island Samos) high on a ledge of basalt columns by a nearby lighthouse. Pink marble with flecks of mica, it sparkled prettily against the jet-black rocks. On Thursday it was windless and sunny so I thought I’d go see if the stone was somehow still there. Halfway I remembered Jeri’s admonition that once I placed a stone I shouldn’t go back. She is right. I pulled off the road onto a driveway that faced the eastern mountains and where a small field was surrounded by a wire fence. To get a photo of the mountains without the fence, I proceeded up an incline to the edge of the property. Just beyond the fence the land dipped down to a shallow ravine, revealing several junked cars. I was reminded that rural Vermonters use similar car disposal methods. The romantic ideal of pristine views of raw nature in remote Iceland slapped up against the harsh truth of rural life.

Drive to Saudakrouker

It was a very clear, cold day – temperatures hovering in the low 20’s – but not windy. A perfect day for a drive up over the Skaga peninsula and down to Saudakrouker on the  Skaga -iord.

Tarrvi, my housemate from Estonia, Melody, from Australia and director of Nes, and Scott, also from Australia accompanied me. 

 Notice the small pink house in the middle ground.

 This is an important rock because there was a turn off and an sign. But the sign was in Icelandic so its importance remains a mystery.

The Icelandic Men’s Choir

Scott from Australia and Stephanie from France and I drove to Blondus in the evening to hear the Icelandic Men’s Choir. Fifty men, from their 20’s to their 80’s, filled the front of the town church in three neat rows. Each wore a burgundy red blazer with black lapels and an ornate round insignia over the breast pocket, starched white shirt, maroon suspenders and black bow tie. Their hair styles gave some hint of their day jobs. Some were carefully coiffed like proper office staff and functionaries, others had long hair tied in ponytails, a few had shaved heads and several were a bit shaggy with full, untrimmed beards. When they sang they were magnificent. With all 50 voices together, bass, altos and tenors, the music swelled so that it felt too big to fit in the building. As they sang they only moved their mouths and shoulders, their stoic stances belied the emotional power of their nations’ songs - songs that told of the beauty of their land. The Icelandic effect was augmented by the late arrival of two elderly gentleman who discretely chose to sit in back, behind us, most likely because they were aware that they smelled as if they had just left the barn (a familiar smell from my years in rural Vermont). After several traditional pieces, the repertoire turned contemporary and things became, to my mind, a bit surreal. It was when the choir broke into a lively rendition of “La Cucaracha” (spelled “Kakkalakkinn” in the program) in Icelandic that I thought I had entered the twilight zone.

Northern Lights

There was talk in the studio about the recent coronal mass ejection and the probability of auroras that evening. At 9am I received a text from Melody which simply said ‘go outside”.

Pictures taken by fellow artist Andrew.

It was the best text I ever received.

Storm Day March 19th 

Yesterday warnings were issued. Up to 50k winds and horizontal snow predicted for the late afternoon and this evening as a storm front moved down from the arctic. Artists were told to plan to either go home mid-afternoon or to spend the night in the studio.

The week before I got here there was such a big storm that artists who stayed in the studio couldn’t get out for three days. Two of the artists who had special blizzard goggles brought them food.

One of my early independent reading memories as a child growing up in the mid west was a Reader’s Digest tale of two young sisters caught in a sudden prairie blizzard. They dug themselves into a snow bank and the older girl took charge. She lay on top of her sister to keep her warm and made her tell stories to stay awake. When they were eventually found the younger was still alive but her older sister had died.

There are stories all over Iceland of people, young and old, “gone missing”. Their bodies are never found.

Last night as I left the studio I packed paper and paint and printmaking materials into my backpack and headed out for the ten-minute walk towards the mountains and the house. The wind started to howl around midnight and in the morning the sky was white and I could see little out the window. Then things calmed a bit and blue sky broke through clouds to the west and there were shadows on the snow. But then the wind returned and the sky to the north turned dark blue gray and spirals of snow flew up into the air. But as soon as I write this everything has changed again and there are flurries out the west window and everything is whitish gray while out the north window there is horizontal snow up to the ten foot level then a layer of mauve clouds topped with a yellowish white and everything capped by a luminous baby blue sky. And now white is the predominate color out both windows and I can’t see the big mountain to the east.

It is 9:30 am and I think I’ll just stay where I am.

Shots below were taken within 15 minutes of each other.

The snow shovel is left inside the house for a reason. All the exterior doors in Iceland open in so you can open the door to dig yourself out after a big storm has covered the house in snow. A comforting fact.

This is the view out my bedroom window just before night fall.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

March, 2013, Pam Returns to Iceland

MARCH 2013 
Pam Returns To Iceland

March 11th, Arrival

After a 12 hour flight and 4 hour drive, I arrive in Skagastrond, north Iceland.

The drive was beautiful.

 It feels oddly familiar to be back in Iceland, like putting on a pair of boots you haven’t worn in a year. Having lived for many years in Vermont, I automatically remember how to read the slipperiness of the snow, how to listen to the sound of the crunch, and to step accordingly.
Nes Artists Residency, Skagastrond, Iceland.

A Pecha Kucha event was planned for the evening of my arrival. Devised in Japan, Pecha Kucha is the art of concise presentations. It is a 20 x 20 format, 20 images are shown for 20 seconds each. It is a wonderful system that requires finely honing ideas and images down to the essentials. At its best it is spare and elegant. Each of the 11 artists here gave an introduction to her/his work and the entire event, including food and socializing, lasted no more than an hour and a half. Held in the town library, it was a great evening, concise and practical, which seems to be the Icelandic way. 

There is a great group of artists here.  Three Australians, two Canadians, three Americans, two French, one Brazilian and one, my housemate, from Estonia. There are painters and sculptors and photographers and mixed media artists and a musician who plays the harpsichord and a small bellow instrument from the 15th century that sounds like a cross between a whale and the wind.

A word about the weather. Apparently I missed a storm last week that caused everyone to stay inside for 48 hours because of the wind and snow and zero visibility. You would get lost immediately if you went outside.

Here is the view out the kitchen window, a reminder of the storm.

Last summer I took many pictures of the fa├žade of the abandoned house that faces a small bay. I liked the way it reflected the light at different times of the day. I was not prepared to see it in its current state - a reminder never to underestimate the power of nature here.

So far the days have been relatively clear and on the warm side – around 32 to 36 degrees. It has been almost without wind, a condition to relish because I know it won’t last. 

View of town and the bay.

View of the Mountains

March 12, Coffee with Vikings

Today Melody, who runs Nes, invited me to join her for afternoon coffee with the town electrician and his buddies. Every day at 3:30 the mechanic, internet guy, and any fisherman not at sea meet in his shop. We huddled around the table in his kitchen, which was the size of a ship’s galley. On the table sat a 200 year old boat compass. I was completely taken by its beauty and the men took great pleasure in showing me how it worked. The dial floats in alcohol (lots of jokes about drinking at sea) and is encased in glass, top and bottom, and framed in brass. It is the size of a hatbox. It was often hung high above the sailors’ heads, my guess is to get the best reading, with a mirror below. Since the bottom of the compass was also glass, it could be read either by the mirror below, or from above. Next to the compass was a large hourglass.  Between the two instruments, time and place is completely independent from technology.

The men at the table were strong, stout, and attired in various work jumpsuits. They had removed their boots but not their tool belts. To accommodate me and Melody, conversations flowed between Icelandic and English. We talked about navigational devices and the use of Icelandic spar, a special type of crystal rock used for navigation during the age of the Vikings. They talked about the Chinese ships breaking through the ice to create a passage through the Arctic Circle, something now feasible because of global warming, and mentioned the huge ship that docked in Akureyri last August. I had been there and actually saw it. 

The two fisherman then told a harrowing story. They had just returned from six weeks on a huge commercial fishing boat in the waters off the coast of South Africa. A group of Chinese sailors worked on board. They would drink and brawl in the evenings and as the weeks at sea wore on the fights became more violent until one night a man had his thumb chopped off. “Barbaric” they all commented, nodding, sipping their coffee. Abruptly the talk switched to local gossip about roof leaks, then everyone got back to work, having spent their half hour together in the electrician’s shed.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Last Days in Skagastrond

August 29th

This is my last day at the Nes residency. Tomorrow morning I leave Skagastrond for a short road trip before returning to Los Angeles on September 1st.

Last night the temperature dipped to 38 degrees and this morning there is an obstinate dusting of snow on the top of the mountain I climbed two weeks ago. It seems there is no time between summer and winter. The school children are bundled in hats and parkas and adults leave their cars running when they go into the gas station for morning coffee.

I have learned a great deal about the school system in Iceland from Aldis, a 15 year old girl who has been making paintings along side me in the studio several afternoons a week. We have grown quite fond of each other and I will miss her. She is self possessed and great fun with a wry sense of humor and excellent command of English. She didn’t study English in school until 5th grade but all of the youth culture activities, face book being the most important, are in English. She watches American TV shows, which are subtitled, but she turns the subtitles off.  All towns, no matter how small – Grimsey being an example – offer free education until age 16. Aldis’ grade level has 10 students, nicely proportioned at 5 boys and 5 girls.  Next year Aldis and her classmates continue their education by attending one of the regional schools in larger towns. The largest schools are in Akureyri, where Aldis will go, and Reykjavik. Parents pay for students to lodge in dorms and there is scholarship money for those without means. Many students live with family members. Most teenagers do continue with the last two years of high school although it is not compulsory.

I kid around with Aldis and she has quite a sharp whit. We talked about the painting of the shrimp with the words “ceci n’est pas une crevette” and I showed her Magritte’s iconic pipe painting. When she looked confused I explained that in part Magritte was pointing out that it was not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe.  The next day she made a painting and I said, “oh nice, is that a butterfly?” to which she answered “no, it is a painting of a butterfly.”

She gave me these stones.

I gave her this one from Greece because there are so few stars in Iceland in the summer.

Here is my studio wall before it all gets packed away.