Articles

Finding Beauty and Art in Iceland’s Summer Wonderland

by Ben Valentine on August 30, 2012

Google maps shows us where Laugarvatn, Iceland is located.

LAUGARVATN, Iceland — Artist residencies are designed to fulfill creative minds that find themselves lacking in time, motivation and inspiration; residencies can be fundamentally important for any creative professional. As the price of graduate schools rise, salaries remain steadfast and art sales for the average artist are nonexistent limited, residencies can be increasingly valuable experiences.

Writers, musicians and artists have infinitely varied practices and inspirations. Some artists want nothing more than to live in NYC, work all day in the studio and rub shoulders with collectors and critics in Chelsea at night. The residency I have spent the last month at in Iceland was not a residency for that type of person.

I came to Iceland at the beginning of August for a month long stay at Gullkistan, a residency for creative people in Laugarvatn (pronounced something like Lurrahgahvaht-n) in southern Iceland. The residency fell into my lap and was perfect for what I wanted. As much as I love New York, I wanted to spend a month in a setting that couldn’t be more different — I wanted sublime natural beauty, peace and quiet, relaxation and simplicity — a reset button for myself. Gullkistan was an ideal answer.

I flew into Iceland and spent two nights in the capital city, Reykjavik. Needless to say I was blown away by the small city’s culture scene; the fashion, art and music is worth a visit to Iceland alone. (I have already covered one of Reykjavik’s museums and the city’s fantastic street art for Hyperallergic). But I had come to get away from city life, and after two days I made my way inland to Gullkistan.

My home away from home. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Gullkistan is a simple residency in the best sense. It is a small farm house with a good kitchen and a dining room and a beautiful reading area that overlooks a grassy field and a nearby mountain. There is a large studio for all the residents to use at their leisure. The town of Laugarvatn is an incredibly small town just a ten minute walk away, and although it had a pool that the locals frequent, a luxury spa, a delicious (albeit, for American standards, expensive) restaurant, a small cafe, a gas station with the bare essentials available for purchase, an apartment building that Gullkistan residents can also rent and a few houses, well, that was it. The urban distractions most of us deal with on a daily basis were gone.

Our studio.

There were no artist visits, guest lecturers or planned critiques, we simply had a home base and a studio. If you are looking for a residency with a hip nightlife, that is walking distance to museums and major attractions, if you are looking to make hundreds of new connections, then you are looking at the wrong place. Gullkistan provides a simple place to find a clean slate to dive into work.

I arrived to Gullkistan the same day as Gabrielle Vitollo, a painter with an impressive list of international residencies for having just graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art this May. My stay briefly overlapped with a Canadian-New Zealand writer and photographer, Miriam Ward, Australian painter and sculpture Loris Quantock and LA-based painter Joan Perlman.

With Vitollo, I spent most of the residency with Amy Clay and Alex Strada. Strada is a Brooklyn-based photographer who came to Iceland to assist with a workshop by Mary Ellen Mark last year, and returned to do the same and also to continue working on a photo-series of depressed towns and trailer parks in Iceland. Clay is a visual artist and textile designer by trade and is loosely based out of Boulder, Colorado. I say loosely because Clay has for the last three years been residency hopping her way all over the world as a nomadic artist-adventurer. Artists Sophia ArriolaVictoria Arriola, Rebbeca Rutstein also passed through the residency for shorter stays.

View from atop a mountain of the lava flow and surrounding mountains at Landmannalaugar.

As an added perk, we had a house car which we could use for short day trips around southern Iceland and this was crucial, because the local town, although possessing a simple beauty, was not a tourist destination. Although we all chose Gullkistan specifically for various personal reasons, getting to see the natural beauty of Iceland as a whole was undeniably a major draw for all of us. Many of us made it to jaw-droppingly beautiful natural landmarks like Landmannalaugar, Dyrhólaey and Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoon). Glaciers, a textbook of geothermal activity, waterfalls, puffins and the northern lights! Iceland could not have a more sublime landscape. All of our work was affected.

Puffins at Dyrhólaey.

As I said, Laugarvatn’s scenery was more subdued, but not without perks. We spent many hours picking berries for jam and a pie. The mountain overlooking the town and calm lake was a great climb with several ascents. What Laugarvatn lacked in some of the best of Icelandic landscapes, it made up for in location; the residency was just an hour drive to Reykjavik, four hours to Glacier Lagoon and a short drive to many other must-see natural attractions. We could be undistracted in the studio for days and then pool money to take the residency car on a trip to any one of these landmarks. It was a great balance of intense travel followed by intense studio time.

Foraging for berries and mushrooms is common, but we kept to the berries.

The two founders and directors of the resiency, Kristveig Halldórsdóttir and Alda Sigurðardóttir have been unwaveringly helpful, supportive and welcoming. Although Kristveig lives in Reykjavik and Alda in nearby Selfoss, they both frequently visited the farm and answered our every question. They believe in a hands-off approach to residencies, allowing each artist to chose their experience, always willing to offer guidance along the way.

Beginning my last week here, I was up late on the computer — busy socializing on social media and blogging, when I looked out the window. The sky was clear, but looked a little … weird. I remembered; I’m in Iceland, there is a slight chance of Northern Lights this time of year, I can be on Facebook anywhere. I put on my coat to go out and take in the sky, which had finally started to actually get fully dark. Slowly, as my eyes adjusted, I could make out faint hints of the Northern Lights.

There was a long line appearing and disappearing slowly over the nearby mountain, I woke up the rest of the house to come out and enjoy the light show. We were really in Iceland, we had so many uniquely Icelandic experiences and we would undoubtedly be changed by our stay. Whether or not you could see it in our craft, the landscape and adventure would change us. This is why we travel or explore museums; to experience something new, something unplanned and beautiful. Although this is my first residency, it seems like a great way to do both.

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