Poppets, lovlies and dear ones,
It’s Sunday evening, you could sit and watch the Antiques Roadshow or Countryfile- but how’s about settling down to my blog instead! A week’s worth of news to catch up on. Although contained and confined in one tiny town (/ village/ possibly considered a hamlet in the UK!) it seems a lot can happen in seven days. As my previous posts have proven I am not very good at keeping it brief but I will try and be a little shorter than the last one! I will also warn you that once again, I will go into lots of gratuitously unnecessary detail about food- and I’ll do my very best to be especially Enid Blyton about it all (just for you Jaq!)!!
Monday (06.02.17), was my first full day in the studio, as the previous week had felt somewhat hectic and I really just needed a little time to adjust and settle. It was an absolute joy! I had almost forgotten how quickly the time flies when I’m doing what I love. After working on a couple of quick landscapes in ArtGraf and watercolour to warm up, I started a drawing in my Blackwing pencil (thanks Scarlett! All hail the Blackwing!)- it was a gorgeous graphitey revelation- as the branding states, “it’s not just a pencil, it’s an experience.” And they are not wrong- for all you graphite groupies and pencil partisans out there I cannot recommend it highly enough!
I had found a stack of old Icelandic magazines from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in the studio entitled Æskan , which Brynja informed me, means “Youth”- so pretty much Icelandic Smash Hits! But instead of dodgy bands and soap stars, it is filled mostly with “real people” and the covers seem to feature a range of interesting Icelanders. I’ve become mildly obsessed with it. They are like glossy little windows into social history, and although I cannot understand the language I’m fascinated. There’s even a poster of Bjork in one of them- which I’m totally having for my wall. As a teenager, probably like many aspiring artists, I had spent hours drawing band members and actors from magazines, trying to hone my skills. So there is something really interesting about applying the same principle years later and isolating and drawing these unknown Icelanders; cover stars, frozen forever in time.
When I had arrived at the studio that morning Ina asked me if I had seen the dead seal just a few meters from the factory door. I had not. Off I trailed to see it. Beautiful and whole. I wanted to know how and why it had got there. It was too far inland, and the way it had been placed suggested it could not have got there by any natural means (also the blood pooled under its head was indicative of a human intervention). When I asked Rosa she said she had her suspicions about its probable purpose. A farmer had probably shot it, and would use it as bait for the arctic foxes, so he could then shoot them in order to stop the foxes killing the sheep. It is sad, and a little brutal with a sensitive British head on, but it is also a very different, slightly more primal way of life- ultimately about survival. And without his sheep that farmer would probably be ruined. BUT, I still couldn’t help thinking of Fantastic Mr Fox and the Animals of Farthing Wood. So I made a little drawing of the seal as a small commemoration of its life and important function.
The afternoon was spent in a ceramic workshop so that, should any of us decide to, we could use the facilities. Rosa went through some basic techniques for hand building, and gave us a lesson on throwing and the wheels. It was fun, but ceramics have never really been my bag. Saying that, I was rather tempted by her suggestion that I could even make a teapot, as my house is sorely lacking in one…! My personal highlight of the afternoon was the amusement the word “rolling pin” seemed to be causing amongst the troops.
Back home I needed a simple supper so cracked open my breeze block of Icelandic fish fingers. Double the thickness of a standard UK fish finger, they even surpass what I thought, were the most luxury of all luxury fish fingers- Waitrose. I can tell you now, fish finger sandwiches at home will never quite cut the mustard from now on.
Before I left, those that didn’t know me so well suggested that Iceland may be a good place for me to search for a husband! Those that knew me better suggested perhaps more accurately, a viking warrior woman! But on Monday evening, I had a gentleman caller. He climbed in through the window and left at dawn. He is small and very hairy and his name is Boosti! This cat has really perfected the art of star fishing in a way that I never have. He slept right in the middle, on his back, with his little cat arms flung out- so it was all that I could do, just to curl up around him and try to sleep. (*Later in the week I worked on a lino cut based on this very event.)
I had good intentions to be in the studio early on Tuesday (07.02.17) but a welcome FaceTime from my favourite little chum (my nephew Alfie) delayed me a little. After an hour of stories, silly noises and multiple renditions of the Baked Potato song I was full of cheer and good to go!
Another day, another birthday crown to make, as it was Nicole’s today. I have no photographic evidence, but hers was more of a tiara, based on the shapes of the mountains outside our windows. I believe there is a now an expectation that with every Birthday that comes whilst I am here, there will be a new crown! Sara made a miniature tabletop Danish flag, as she had done Yang’s Chinese one. Cake was also high on the agenda- Nicole made a vegan chocolate cake, and a traditional Danish pastry cake called a Kagemand. It is a sort of soft shoe pastry shaped in this case, like a lady, and then covered in water icing, and decorated with jelly sweets and liquorices. It is super yummy and packed full of sugar- I can see why Danish children are particularly fond of it! I made a spelt and skyr fruit loaf- which was alright considering the lack of weighing scales and electric beaters. Once again we sang the jolly Danish birthday song where we got to pretend we were playing instruments. I am making it my mission to learn it so that upon my return home I can always insist that this song is sung instead of the oh so dreary standard “Happy Birthday”.
We were having a workshop in the print studio that afternoon- however first, Una told us conditions were perfect, the sea was “going crazy” and there was enough space in the cars to all go and wave watching at a notoriously brilliant spot, ten minutes north of the fjord. Appropriately dressed we jumped into the cars, and it was not disappointing. Wild and agitated, the ocean rose up against the craggy shore- just like the Geysir Stokkur the week before, but with perhaps more ferocity. It really is difficult to take a bad photograph in such an incredible conditions and light. I took my gloves off to take photographs, and my hands became so cold, they felt warm and tingly so I knew, lips tasting of salt spray, it was time for me to get back in the car- soaked and astonished once again by this place where all four elements rule supreme. In those moments watching the waves dance in front of me, I could see the strange power the ocean has always had over those who create; to inspire musicians, artists, writers and story tellers. But I could also now see how sometimes it might be enough to completely torment a vulnerable soul too.
Changed out of rain and sea soaked clothes, warm and in the print studio, Una showed us the basics of relief print making, a lot of which I had already learned; but it was a good chance to get to grips with the equipment and presses. The presses are basic and slightly primitive, but work beautifully for lino. We were all given small blocks to cut. I tried to make something indicative of the waves I had just seen hitting the rocks. It looks perhaps more like a volcanic eruption, but it was nice to ease back in to what can be done with a little bit of patience, a steady hand and a block of lino.
Nicole had requested a pot luck supper for her Birthday meal. So with slightly depleted stocks of vegetables, (and channeling my dear Mum who is the master of fusion food with left overs!) I made a roasted red pepper salad and cayenne potato wedges (eaten with Danish remoulade- my new condiment of choice!). Nicole made a pasta salad, Peter contributed an Icelandic lamb stew, Sarah a salad of raw broccoli with apple and dates- and Yang, King of the Kitchen, made Chinese pancakes- something similar to an Indian paratha- which served as a delicious accompaniment to EVERYTHING. Luckily, we all appear to be in a serious long term committed relationship with food 🙂 so with conversation and thoughts never too far from our stomaches we get on very well!
It was a wildly wonderful day!
A beautiful start to what turned out to be another day of howling winds and rain, and I spent all day Wednesday (08.02.17) in the studio working on another Æskan cover. This time a lovely lady riding side saddle, on a rather magnificent Icelandic horse. For once, the day seemed to pass without too much distraction and I was able to focus totally on my drawing. (Hence the short summary!)
After a quieter work filled Wednesday- Thursday (09.02.17) turned out to be a rather eventful! I found out there was an extra space in the car for a supermarket run, and being almost entirely out of vegetables I decided to tag along. The weather was terrible, as we begun to make the trip to Reyðarfjörður (Fortitude) it became apparent from all the new miniature waterfalls running down the sides of the hills and mountains, that everything was becoming saturated. Vinny said he had rarely seen so much water. We met two fairly severe floods (where I was a little concerned we could get washed in the sea below) and a patch where part of the tarmac had completely crumbled away leaving a huge hole on the ocean side of the road. Nisa, having not long passed her test in Turkey did really well under Vinny’s calming influence- and is definitely becoming more confident with these frequent treacherous situations. Unlike the UK, where you are warned of an impending danger on our highways and byways, in Iceland striped cones indicate the exact location of the hazard- so there is little to no time to prepare for such happenings. Safely at the supermarket, Vinny- an extremely laid back and calm guy- asked us to be as quick as we could as he was clearly a little concerned, with the rain still falling heavily, that there may be no road on the way back! So I certainly did not dawdle. Ina decided to do a months worth of shopping, so that during the rest of her time here, she would mostly be able to avoid these terrifying excursions out of Stöðvarfjörður!
After picking up essential vegetables and admiring amusingly named chocolate bars, there was a short wait whilst Vinny and Nisa went to the bank. The thing about Icelandic banks, Nisa informed me in a hushed whisper, is that you can drink free hot chocolate! So I followed them in as inconspicuously as possible, trying to look as if I was going about my banking business, and got my free hot beverage to aid the wait. There are some things, the UK really could learn from this country!
Concern for the weather and roads was not enough to stop us from pulling in to the nearest petrol station for an obligatory pre-journey pylsur (hot dog). After all, the roads may be dangerous- so we needed all the strength we could get. Still delicious- I definieitly am a big fan of the brown mustard- but not quite up to Bæjarins Beztu standards. Vinny, experienced in the hazardous conditions, carefully negotiated our way back, but once again I was very pleased to through the floods and safely back at the Factory.
Shopping excursions really do take up half the day- there is no popping back for missed items off the list. So I finally got down to studio work mid-afternoon. After a short power cut and having sampled a form of Icelandic cake called a Kleiner (a little like a doughnut), I worked on some new ideas.
I had been thinking a lot about my dear friend Robbie, who sadly passed away just before Christmas. He had so much light in him, and he and his wife Josie, really were one of the catalysts for me making the big decision to step off and change my life. He was so much in my mind on Thursday having watched a beautiful music video one his friends had made for one of the last tracks he had recorded. I felt compelled to make some work about him- based around the memory of those we hold dear. I’m finding it really hard to capture him and hold on to him in my memory. I’m not necessarily interested in remembering his likeness- more his essence. He’s in there somewhere, just under the surface of the paper- sometimes I see him, and then he is gone. I’m not quite ready to share these drawings yet. But I know I will find him and then I will be ready to share.
(*Click here for a Link to the music video for Robbie Lloyd-Wilson’s track Snake in the Grass, under his band name Autumn Chorus, video by the exceptionally talented Thomas Feiner. I was completely blown away by this. Thanks to Josie Lloyd-Wilson for allowing me to share this.)
Absorbed in my work soon it was 7pm, and Yang proclaimed- “Tonight we will have fish!”. We had bought 5kg of fresh haddock from the fish man between three of us. Sara, Yang and I each discussed at great length our plans for our beautiful fish as we headed back our houses. I lovingly placed one of the king sized portions on a bed of fine slithers of onion, a heady sprinkling of dried herbs on top, finely chopped capers, rounds of lemon, topped with slices of butter. Safely cocooned in foil I placed my prize in the oven and begun the wait.
A few minutes later- DISASTER! A power cut. But it would only be a few minutes like the last one right?! No such luck. This time not a short one. It was dark, the weather was terrible, and those who worked on this sort of thing were probably all safely home taking refuge from the storm. We were in for a long evening. After loudly bemoaning the loss of my fish supper for probably far longer than was appropriate, we decided to all seek comfort and friendship in the other house. It was lovely! Having discussed it with the Dane’s earlier in the day I now understand hygge- which seems to have very little to do with the life style being branded back home (which they found fairly laughable!). But in this case we definitely had a hyggelig evening! We played cards by candlelight, drank beer and shared stories and chocolate. I felt cosy, warm and happy. I almost forgot about the sadness of the haddock!
I went to bed in all my clothes, as no power means no heat and I knew it could be a long cold night if they couldn’t fix things. Luckily I had a Boosti shaped hot water bottle (! Seriously this cat thinks he lives here- what his owners must make of it I do not know!) and they managed to get things going again around 1am.
Even with all my layers on and some heating, I found it rather cold and hard getting up on Friday (10.02.17). The fjord felt stiller and calmer after days of raging seas and howling winds. It was to be a full moon tonight and everything felt a little edgy! With strange mists quietly rolling in and consuming the mountains it all begun to feel a little Twin Peaks. Or perhaps even the Groke from my Moomin based nightmares was already on her way hiding behind the fog.
Down in the Factory I worked solo in the print studio, music blaring and enjoying free reign on the presses. I had been working on a lino cut in between other things for a couple of days. It definitely needs re-cutting, but I did a first run and enjoying getting back in to the process.
In the afternoon I did some more memory work, all fairly introspective. I had believed that coming here I might suddenly be so blown away by the landscape I would be compelled to draw it all the time and become the landscape painter I never knew I wanted to be! I was told by a previous resident artist that she thought she would be so caught up in the mountains it would be all she’d want to do, but in the end the whole experience of being here taught her so much about her self, that that is what she made work about.And I am absorbed by this country and all its elemental wild beauty, I want to look at it all the time. But it’s the people and the stories that I really want to make work about.
That evening Yang was going to teach us all how to make Chinese dumplings. I believe this was probably a first for Stöðvarfjörður- not only the consumption of Dim Sum, but a whole international production line making them. This was certainly not the food I thought I would be eating in darkest Austerland! The whole process was rather lengthy, and everyone had a job to do. I, the reformed vegetarian, was put on “meat grinding duty”! This was almost enough to turn me vegetarian again- but at the same time I felt very Mrs Lovett. Maybe I have it in me to do a sideline in pies after all!
We all had a go at filling and folding the dumplings- Yang an expert, deftly showed us the different techniques. When I proudly showed him mine he quietly said “That one ok.” pointing at mine, “This one more beautiful.” pointing at his own. I found my niche though- rolling the pastry into thin little rounds as some of the others got rather good at folding and I didn’t want to spoil the aesthetics on the production line. There were two varieties, meat and vegetarian; it took hours, but it was worth all the effort. Una, Vinny and our new resident Þór (Pronounced Thor- yes I’ve met my first one!) joined us, and everything was delicious! And as we ate we discussed our perceived “disgusting” foods from our various countries; fermented shark, foes gras (more the process than the taste), widgety grubs, and perhaps inevitably…Marmite! I popped back to my house to get my precious jar so those that had not tried it could sample. After all the hard talk of the delights singed sheep heads, fermented fish, whale and fiskibollur it was the Icelanders who seemed most flawed by this British national treasure!
Ina made a wonderful bread and butter pudding, and I felt right at home. Pure comfort in a bowl. Having only met the hour previously, Þór commented on just how much we, and me in particular, talked about food. A fair assessment- but I think he will have to get used to it! We continued the evening with story telling and an awful lot of silliness. As I left I looked up at the clear sky- still no lights- but the moon was full and beautiful. It was another really super night, and I am still completely astounded every day by everyone’s incredible ability to communicate with such humour.
Yesterday (11.02.17), I had what felt like a Walter Mitty moment (2013 version, not the original).
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
There was no jumping into helicopters, no sharks, skateboarding or dangerous rides away from erupting volcanos, but for the first time in over 15 years, I went on a hike.
We trekked up towards the mountains which are just in front of my house. It was a beautiful day, and uncharacteristicly warm for Iceland in February (very different to the snow flurries of the UK this weekend I hear!) It was so still, crisp and clear, and without the wind there was no need for even a hat, gloves and scarf. Nicole, Sara, Peter, Yang and I followed the river up the hillside. It ran so clear and silently walking the sound was beautiful. The air filled my lungs, intoxicatingly clear. The hillside was completely covered in what, come summer, would be wild blueberries/ bilberries. Even though I have brought my fitness levels up dramatically, and like to walk as much as I can at home, I struggled quite a lot when it was steep, and found it difficult to catch my breath. And I’m not going to lie, team GB was definitely bringing up the rear (whilst Peter, who affectionately later got Christened “the old mountain!” virtually leapt up every incline with ease.), but slow and steady I made it, like everyone else. After two hours we looked back and could see past our fjord, across the headland and all the way to the north Atlantic. This was a big achievement for me, looking all the way down the mountainside and remembering days when I struggled just to get up the stairs at home. I felt a pang, not of homesickness, but of wanting someone from home, someone I loved to share it with. I wanted my Mum.
Sara and Peter would happily have gone further, but we decided as a group that today we had probably gone far enough, for the unfit, inexperienced and asthmatic amongst us! It took an hour to get back to the house again, and I had agreed to make drop scones/ american pancakes for the hungry hikers. I made enough to feed a small army. And I probably should have made more! Stomaches full, the more experienced hikers were already discussing the idea of getting up earlier and climbing up further the next day, to the top of the ridge- I would like to make it my mission to do this before I leave- but definitely couldn’t contemplate it the following day! After a busy and tiring morning, I really just needed a little quiet time to myself.
A little later, Ina came back from the harbour with two huge fish, having sweet talked a fisherman. She needed the bones for her work, so we would all be eating fresh fish tonight whether we liked it or not! We did not know what type of fish they were, but one had a moustache, and the other did not. As they were completely whole, Sara, who has fished all her life, gutted them and even took out the roe so that we could eat that too. I felt extremely embarrassed about my British squeamishness about the whole thing. So used to prepackaged food without faces, I wished I was braver.
Þór joined us and told stories about Icelandic history, joked about old rivalries wth Denmark, and shared recommendations of books that he thought we would find interesting- in particular those that included folktales for me. He told me about Icelandic mermaids- instead of being half woman half fish, they were thought to be seals, who came ashore, and leaving their skins by the water, became beautiful women who danced on the land. Captivated, he recommended a good translation.
If I’m honest, whatever the of unknown species of fish were- I didn’t like them. One was chewy and full of bones (which Ina was very pleased about!) and the other was overly moist and slimy. BUT, not letting my brain take over too much- I did enjoy the roe which Sara had prepared beautifully. After a mountain of washing up, a few stayed back and we ended the evening with a very competitive game of cards and listened to some very experimental Danish music.
Today (12.02.17) has been quiet and beautiful, with some much needed quiet time. I went to the Factory and to look at the seal again so I could prepare for some more drawings- by the end of the week that has been, I am certainly seeing it in a completely different light now that I know there could be a woman- a mermaid- trapped inside.
I cannot believe two weeks have gone by so fast. I feel so at home and very contented. I feel like I now have the beginnings of quite a few strands of work on the go, and I have made bonds with my unconventional Icelandic family. Even if those bonds are mostly food based!
TTFN, much love,