What Do You Do During an Artist Residency in Iceland?October 20, 2021
By Ely German
Ely is a multi-year Ocean Awareness Contest participant and alumna judge. Her NES Artist Residency in June 2021 was supported by Bow Seat, and she brought Bow Seat student art with her for inspiration.
During my stay at the NES Residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland, there were many moments when time simply stopped as I allowed curiosity to lead my storytelling.
Every day, I woke up in a house full of artists—a house with a blue roof and a see-saw in the backyard that was drowned by tall, fluffy grass. The grass seemed to run forever, only interrupted by the foot of some hills that surrounded the seaside town of Skagaströnd. With the grass continuing its path upwards, these hills looked like the backs of hairy giants. Sunlight engulfed the sky day and night, and every natural sound echoed in the surrounding silence of the landscape for what seemed like infinity. Some days I woke up at 7 a.m., others at 3 p.m., and some nights I didn’t sleep at all.
The NES artist studio, which was once a fish factory, was almost two blocks away from the house. Iconically for me, it had a glass door that opened up towards the ocean, which would always flirt with my attention. Beyond the door was a hill that dropped into a cliff, where the ocean suddenly began. I can vividly revisit this hill; I close my eyes and I am sitting in this peaceful spot where the breeze thrives and light shimmers. This was the first place I took off my shoes and asked myself a question that would come up repeatedly in the work I generated while at NES: When is the last time I felt the earth with my bare feet? Every day, I found myself in moments of simple stillness, and this idea—that I had been lacking connection to life—grew into bigger questions.
Curiosity led the way in the studio. One thought led to another, and one question led to millions of others. What does connection to the ocean and its life feel like? Why do we take the wonders of nature for granted? How can a line speak to sensitivity? What does it mean to be an artist that attempts to capture the emotions in landscape? As I considered all of these questions, I made a real mess: I scraped and threw paint, made aggressive and gentle lines, watered down ink and allowed it to create its own marks. I took my work outside and experimented making art with dirt, and I gathered sand and mixed it with paint. I used recycled materials—all kinds of see-through and reflective surfaces. Through the process of being curious, I stayed active mentally. Some ideas were small, others large. I took videos of everything I found to be beautiful, and I also carefully listened to what others around me had to say. I fondly remember stopping to film the birds in the Skagaströnd’s landscape and Pattricia, a researcher from Sweden, taking the time to share with me about her work and study of birds.
Storytelling was also front and center during my time at NES. In fact, the origins of Iceland are all about mythical beings and great stories of exile, curses, and magic. The first night at the Residence, I listened carefully as I learned about how you are supposed to approach a troll’s land. If you want to enter the land of a troll, you must offer food (something yummy) and wait until you hear them tell you that you are welcome. If you do not hear back from the troll, you may not enter. Here and there, amidst the Icelandic landscape, are stacked rocks—these are trolls. Being surrounded by this kind of storytelling greatly influenced the way I created. It inspired DANDA (a character I invented and featured in two murals I painted in Skagaströnd), and it inspired a way of thinking and consideration for the environment that I took home with me. I wrote notes in my sketchbook every day, detailing narratives of everything I was experiencing and ideas that were rising.
Unsurprisingly, practicing curiosity and storytelling in Iceland only deepened my relationship with the ocean. As I sat by the cliffs and explored the connections between mythologies, land, and water, time stopped. I would look at the rhythmic waves, my eyes resting on beautiful scenery, and smell the crisp, salty air. All of my creative ideas were echoed by the sounds of the shore, and I felt a deep desire to physically connect to the ocean. On top of painting two murals by the Icelandic sea, I ended up painting a fish mural in a local restaurant and going on a boat trip with Halldór, a local fisherman, but those are stories best saved for my next blog post!
This blog post is one of four that Bow Seat alumna Ely German wrote about her artist residency in Iceland, supported by Bow Seat. Read more about her fish mural and boat trip here, discover her murals here, and explore her photo essay here.