A new book edition, 71°N 23°E.Read More
The above image could serve as a visual "summary" of my time in the Arctic in the Fall of 2017. It was very silent September listening to the sound of mountains disassembling in Svalbard, Norway, followed by an inward-turned October at the Herhusið residency in North Iceland. (See previous Northland posts from the Arctic here and here.)
The work on paper that I made in September and October are the first glimmers of an arctic imaginary that is slowly taking shape. I'm thinking about how we see nature and how nature is represented in our cultural environmental imaginary. I'm thinking about the role of the visual in our lives. I am asking how a visual image can affect the way we attend to nature, or how the visual can help forge a deeper connection to nature. My work also reflects musings on unseen things, how they loom in the imagination and color our perception of reality. Through drawings, words, memories and imaginings, Northland documents my process of attending to nature, of “seeing” nature, and responding. That process inevitably becomes a form of self-examination. We are all deeply entangled with nature.
I am currently settling back into a studio routine, at home in Philadelphia, after a lovely, long spate of holiday and family gatherings. Needless to say it's a very different pace of working. Slower... but new work is underway. Here is a shot of the studio in North Iceland with the red flags (see this post for more on those) that I brought with me from Philadelphia along with new works in progress.
I have spent much of my time during this residency listening. To the sounds of nature, the sounds of the world in the here and now, and also the echo of sounds, waves of sound that travel the opposite way - sounds of self, of unformed thoughts and words, of memory.
I am writing alot. The process of finding words helps to clarify, solidify, my experiences. Here in Longyearbyen I have been reading the poems of Transtromer, which has added an otherworldly veil to the way I perceive this place. In my own writing I am conscious of his influence, and am encouraging myself to write poems... which is a challenge, to use words to express those interior echoes of my experiences. So here goes, as T.S. Elliot put it, a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment....
Rock fall. Longyeardalen Svalbard, Norway.
I sleep, and something inside me wakes.
Through closed eyes we peer into the night
looking for an anchor, a familiar shape.
We find a place to sit and wait.
We are in a rock-strewn valley. I know it by heart.
Behind lies the sea, the shore, the town.
Machines burrow deeper in the mine.
Everything quiets. The fox turns around.
In front stands a mountain that cleaves the valley.
A glacier heaves its weight against the stones and splits.
Time flows through us. The silence is profound.
A singular noise brightens the dark, unexpected, and yet... I know it by heart… thumpthump…
a rock falls and then… taptaptap tap tap… a cascade of stones and then… a soundless sound as sand drifts lower.
When we sleep, something inside us wakes,
bearing witness to the mountain’s disassembling, and our own.
Flowing down the valley to the sea,
to join the ancient current of stone.
Blog post from the Northland.Read More
It's fascinating, and miraculous, that I can see the Arctic town of Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, Norway, in real time, via webcam. 24/7 if I choose to. Through my screen, a digital transmission beams into my eye, connecting me visually to a place where I have never been. It is an unseen landscape, and yet I am familiar with the shape of the land by now. As the mountain panorama slowly rolls across my screen, I can recite their names: Sukkertoppen, Gruvefjellet, Sarkofagen. (I will be in this place in September, the first of three upcoming residencies in 2017 and 2018. More on that news at the end of this post)
Science and technology accelerate forward, delivering new capabilities to see, not only outward, to faraway places via digital transmissions, but inward, to examine the stuff of nature and existence itself. We continually extend our minds to go deeper in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. It's in our nature to do so. After all, scientific inquiry begins with curiosity and wonder, two of humanity's more endearing traits. While Einstein's revolutionary theories began taking shape in the first quarter of the 1900's, it has taken almost 100 years for them to trickle down and influence our collective imaginary of world. Today a new generation is being raised in an intellectual, cultural context that completely overwrites our previous understanding of space, time, and the nature of reality. We have not yet unraveled the mysteries of spacetime, but we know that reality is not what it seems. We grasp just enough to comprehend the vastitude of our ignorance, which is good to know, if humbling, and we persist.
Art has an important role to play in this process: to convey difficult and abstract concepts, not in a direct or didactic way, but through emotion and nuance; to create new perspectives, and new contexts for understanding the complexities of our existence by bringing them to ground level where they can be seen and considered. As a visual artist, as a human, part of what defines who I am is my desire to pay attention (observe and reflect) learn, synthesize and transmit about this moment, this world, as I see and understand it.
I am thinking about transmission because climate change is one of those abstract and difficult concepts. The future ramifications of climate change are difficult to grasp, but we cannot delay addressing it. How we perceive and respond to the realities of the here-and-now will directly shape the future. I believe that understanding the nature of one's connection to Nature is a fundamental and prerequisite condition for a meaningful, constructive and reality-based response to climate change.
Transmissions from the Longyearbyen webcam enable me to begin connecting to a distant place in the Arctic Circle. Those mountains, the polar twilight, the whites and the grays, the midnight sun, feed my imagination and instigate a desire to know more about what I am seeing. I hope my images do the same for you. That is the intention behind my current works of visual art - to inspire curiosity, connection and exchange between self and nature.
Transmitting the Arctic
This Fall I will begin a series of three visual arts residencies that will take place in and near the Arctic Circle. In September, 2017 I'll travel to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway for one month residency at Galleri Svalbard. In October I'll travel to North Iceland for a month at Herhusið, in Siglufjordur. Then, in June 2018 I'll participate in the Arctic Circle residency, 17 days and nights on a tall ship in the High Arctic with 15 other artists and scientists whose shared mission is, in my own words, to transmit about the Arctic. Through these first-hand experiences I'll absorb, feel, inhabit, walk, dream, draw and word my way to a deeper understanding of Arctic. I'll also heave with sea-sickness, no doubt. These experiences will give me powerful tools to work with in my visual arts practice.
Travel to the Arctic involves confronting an inconvenient truth: to access wild and fragile places inevitably contributes to their degradation, no matter how well-meaning the mission. I am taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the responsibility that goes along with it, seriously. A core aspect of my creative mission is to document my experiences and transmit. If you haven't yet, I hope you'll consider joining my mailing list to receive updates about my experiences in the Arctic.
Even though it is ingeniously abstracted, Greenland’s flag “pictures” nature: the massive ice sheet, the sea ice, the low sun. But what happens to this social imaginary of Greenland when the ice sheet is gone? Or when lack of sea ice disrupts age-old cycles and opens up new vulnerabilities? Visual art, through the act of picturing, seeds the social imaginary with new ways of seeing and understanding nature. This in turn shapes how we relate to nature, and so on, in a chain of cultural transmission.
I recently wrote an essay for Chantal Blondeau's Artists and Climate Change blog, excerpted above. To accompany the writing I chose four works from a series in progress, Greenlandic Flag variations. (Snapped with my iPhone. The moire pattern comes from the open weave of the curtain material, which is a bright burnt orange.) I hope you'll take a look to learn about some new directions in my thinking. Here's the link. While you're there, you'll want to bookmark the Artists and Climate Change website, it's a useful resource, with interesting and timely content from around the world.
Pecha-Kucha is a fast-paced and FUN live presentation format. Strictly auto-timed for 20 slides, 20 seconds each, the speaker is at the podium for exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds. I recently participated in a Pecha Kucha program at DaVinci Art Alliance in Philadelphia. Our program consisted of two groups of 5 presenters, with a short break in between the groups. A 10 second pause between presentations allowed for brief applause before the next speaker started right in, slides rolling. A high energy event!
I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing my talk...it's not as easy as you might think. Nevertheless, it's a really useful exercise. I try to make the most out of any opportunity to address a room full of willing listeners, so I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say. Self-reflection helps me focus on the deeper influences, motivations and values that both anchor and propel my mission.
Below is the recorded version of my new Pecha Kucha talk - We Live by Art and Reason. Enjoy!
Want to hear the Pecha Kucha that I presented at DaVinci in 2015? Here, click the link. It shows some the evolution of my thoughts about place and self, an ongoing project.
Snorri Sturluson stands just outside my window. I catch glimpses of him from the corner of my eye as I move around the apartment. He is still, but it's as if he just stopped for a moment, a book under his arm, his thoughts elsewhere.
The weather continues to amaze - mostly sunny, not hot, not too windy, perfect for walking. My time here in Reykholt has been divided between my desk at the library, my ersatz studio (bedroom desk) and exploring the region and immediate surroundings. It has been a very rich and productive residency here at the Snorrastofa so far, with just over a week to go. (I spent the month of June at Listhus Residency in North Iceland - click here for my previous blog post.)
Though I came to the Snorrastofa with a great enthusiasm for old books, history and all things Icelandic, I really didn't expect to become so thoroughly enamored with this man Snorri and his writings. But that's what happened. Word by word, bit by bit, I am making my way through the Gylfaginning section of Snorri's Edda. I have been using Anthony Faulkes' painstakingly researched, compiled and transcribed version, an absolute tour de force of scholarship and research. I'm reading his translation of Snorri's Egil's saga. And finally, to give context to all this information, I'm reading a wonderful new book about Snorri by Nancy Marie Brown called "Song of the Vikings." See links below.
I love getting to know this person from the past whose writing preserved, shaped and informed a wonderful aspect of our, humanity's, cultural heritage. My creative self thrives in this immersion into language and history. I let the words wash over me. They bring me to a deeper understanding of Iceland and its history, and that perspective influences the way I perceive the Icelandic landscape. Thank you Snorri. And thank you historians and scholars who created resources that allow me to peek into this rich past.
The contemporary writer Nancy Marie Brown's recently published book "Song of the Vikings - Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths" has been an invaluable guide through this experience. I am excited that I'll have a chance to meet her later this week when she will bring a group of visitors to the Snorrastofa on a tour of the region's Saga history. Here is the website for the company that hosts her tours, and here is a link to her book.
If your curiosity about Snorri's Edda is piqued, there are several English translations available in print and online. But for the full geek-out experience, it's in Anthony Faulkes' four volume masterpiece, first reissued in 1988 by the Viking Society for Northern Research, that you must see. This is not a translation but a fine-grained transcription that takes into account all the relevant original manuscripts. In lieu of translation he provides exhaustive materials for understanding and interpreting Snorri's words - glossary, explanatory notes, textual notes, general notes, glossary of names, appendix and bibliography. The four volumes cover all the sections of Snorri's Edda - Prologue and Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal. Dig in! (I am not sure if these books are still in print, but the Viking Society for Northern Research has made all four available online for free as PDF's. - Here is a link to the Gylfaginning volume.)
Here are some new drawings from my days at Snorrastofa.
Snorri in his pool, with glacier, acrylic, graphite, 19 x 13 Broken mountain with glacier, collage, 13 x 19 Age of axes, age of swords, acrylic, graphite 19 x 13
I am coming slightly unhinged, everything is out of joint. It's all because of the sun. It has been a sleepless month, this June in Olafsfjordur, North Iceland, at the Listhus artist residency. The light of the sun on a foggy, overcast day, is constant all through the day and night. On a clear bright day time seems to stand still, only subtle clues to tell the hour. Nine pm, midnight, three am: white nights, with no darkness to frame the end of one day and the beginning of the next. This has been a unique experience, the Arctic summer, but I am exhausted by it.
It's a different kind of sleep -- fitful, not deep sleep, but shallow, illuminated by a pale light that filters through the eyelids. I sleep, and dream, but close to the surface of consciousness, and my dreams are thin and thready, suffused with a subconscious awareness of uncanny light when it ought to be dark. It is the strangest thing.
Without the clues of fading light, desire for sleep comes only through force of will. So one goes outside, walking in the midnight sun, and it is weird, beautiful. But freed from the natural boundaries that divide day from night one must at some arbitrary point say, OK, this day is now done, I have had my fill of this day. Eventually one must give in. We need sleep and immersion into the dark unconscious to start another day with renewed vitality.
This darkness deficiency is manifesting itself in my artwork, I think. I am working in black and white. In my new collages, deep black represents both earth and air. Black is stabilizing, and restful, and gives my eyes something to sink into. The ever present sunlight, especially from behind a veil of shifting fog and clouds, is finding expression in erasures, smudges and the shimmery grays of graphite.
This Friday, July 1, I will shift gears and begin a three week residency at the Snorrastofa, in Reykholt, West Iceland. A different kind of landscape, an area not dominated by mountains, but instead suffused with Saga stories. It will be an immersion into words and history. I wrote about this residency in a previous post. Click here for more.
Bly’s words are a serendipitous echo, as I’ve been musing on the same things lately - silence, transmission, connection.
I began this train of thought, especially about words, and about how we connect to the past, during visits to the National Library of Iceland in 2014 and 2015. The woodcuts pictured above are my initial response to the manuscripts I was working with in September 2015. Through handling and studying those historic objects, through the very fact of their existence in the here-and-now, I felt connected to the past in a way that was very affecting. The books themselves, no less than the words they contained, transmitted something from the past. It's in our nature to try to understand the implications of our lives, and make meaning out of our momentary presence in the Universe. As a visual artist, my goal is to contribute to our understanding of these things, or at the very least, serve as an amplifier of silence, and a transmitter of experience, memory and spirit.
In July I will continue my research at the Snorrastofa historic archive in Reykholt. Scholars come from around the world to study Icelandic manuscripts that were written, or at least compiled, by Snorri Sturluson in the early 1200s. Snorri's words will transmit loud and clear from the past, I have no doubt. Especially from the amplified silence of a library that sits right on the edge of a vast wilderness, essentially unchanged (I hope) from what Snorri would have seen. I am excited and honored.
Here is a section on Speech and Understanding from Snorri's Skáldskaparmál, with a 1916 translation by A. G. Brodeur. (See more Icelandic Eddas and Sagas with side-by-side translation at this website here.)
Mál heitir ok orð ok orðtak ok orðsnilli,
Speech is called words and language and eloquence,
tala, saga, senna, þræta,
talk, tale, gibing, controversy,
söngr, galdr, kveðandi, skjal, bifa,
song, spell, recital, idle talk, babbling,
hjaldr, hjal, skvál, glaumr, þjarka, gyss,
din, chatter, squalling, merry noise, wrangling, mocking,
þraft, skálp, hól, skraf, dælska,
quarrelling, wish-wash, boasting, tittle-tattle, nonsense,
ljóðæska, hégómi, afgelja.
idiom, vanity, gabbling.
Heitir ok rödd, hljómr, rómr, ómun,
It is also termed voice, sound, resonance, articulation,
þytr, göll, gnýr, glymr, þrymr, rymr,
wailing, shriek, dash, crash, alarm, roaring,
brak, svipr, svipun, gangr.
creaking, swoop, swooping, outburst.
Vit heitir speki, ráð, skilning,
Understanding is called wisdom, counsel, discernment,
minni, ætlun, hyggjandi, tölvísi, langsæi,
memory, speculation, intelligence, arithmetic, prophesy,
bragðvísi, orðspeki, skörungskapr.
craft, word-wit, preëminence.
Heitir undirhyggja, vélræði, fláræði, brigðræði.
It is called subtlety, wiliness, falsehood, fickleness.
Time is present in Iceland. It is in the silence, which contains all of time within itself. Time is transmitted through the Earth, made visible in the accretions and erosions, the tearings and torrents that shape the landscape. Walking along ancient footpaths, deep trodden by Vikings, I experience time flowing through me. These are some of the thoughts and ideas I explore in a series of large drawings made during my 2015 residency in Iceland.
I gaze out into the wilderness of Iceland. My eye traces lines, marks the horizon, establishes scale and distance. I see where the mountain intersects with sea and sky. The lines extend down into the Earth like a cast shadow, and up into the sky like the angle of the sun. They meet in a stable point around which the universe whirls. Landscape mirrors the silence and the space that surrounds me. I follow this line of thought, and go deeper still, to the universe that lies both within and without.
Wilderness is the part of nature that is hidden and terrifying. Every being shares this awe of nature, knowing that it will bring us all to our knees in the end. Icelanders know it, because living at the Northernmost edge of the habitable world brings with it a certain humility. In the wilderness HIC SVNT LEONES, trolls, outlaws...our very shadows. If landscape can function as a mirror of self, for me it does, then wilderness stands for the parts of myself that are unknown to me.
At the beginning of the 21st century, consciously or unconsciously, we collectively mourn the irretrievable loss of wilderness on our planet. And not only that; we mourn mass extinctions, loss of habitat, loss of bio-diversity and the effects of global warming. We need wilderness, both actual and metaphorical, in order to know our frailty and face our mortality. I believe that this knowledge brings an important sense of perspective to our daily lives. It informs the choices we make in the day to day - how we spend our time, what we consume, and what we wish to leave behind.
Time hangs in the air, like a ball reaching the top of an arc, and the present disappears into the past. Melancholy billows up out of the silence as we acknowledge the ephemerality of this moment, this life.
Side note: I will be exhibiting drawings made during my October 2015 residency in Iceland, as well as woodcuts, at Cerulean Arts Gallery, March 2-26, 2016. I hope you'll join me and co-exhibitor Roger Chavez for the Opening Reception on March 4, and our Artists' Talk on March 13. Click through for details.
Across the cold wasteland...
This short poem has been circling in my imagination. It's an old familiar rhyme for many Icelanders, written in the mid-nineteenth century by Kristján Jónsson Fjallaskald (1842 - 1869). Some of the attraction is the sound of this beautiful language, the inherent veil of incomprehension, and my willingness to be absorbed by sound and mystery. I have a sense of what the words mean, but I love also what is left untranslated, and what shimmers at the edges of comprehension. Here it is in Icelandic and my own rough translation.
Yfir kaldan eyðisand einn um nótt ég sveima. Nú er horfið Norðurland, nú á ég hvergi heima.
Across the cold wasteland (of sand) one night I flew (glided). Now the Northland is gone (lost to me), now I have no home.
Here in Iceland, working in the studio I sometimes feel utterly lost as I leave behind the comfort of the familiar. I am OK with that. The theme I am contemplating is eternal, universal, and gets to the heart of the human condition: we all walk alone into the darkness eventually. I'm comforted by this voice from the past, a solitary soul striking out into the unknown.
Here is a link to a YouTube video of the poem set to music, sung in haunting harmony. Enjoy!
As the Ravens return to Iceland, it's the end of September and I find myself on the verge of transition. My month at SIM is over, and tomorrow I head North to Akureyri. Before I leave this spot, here are a few pictures from my month at SIM Reykjavik.
In Iceland, silence is much more than just a space between sounds. Silence is time moving backwards and forwards. Silence rises up from the earth, the atmosphere is charged with it. Silence in Iceland is a dizzying aural experience.
In Iceland, I feel both connection and loss as I stand in the silence, witness to the passage of time.Read More
Words are coins whose value is confirmed or subtly changed every time they change hands.
In March, Philadelphia artist Bill Brookover gave a presentation at the Print and Picture Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Bill has been doing research in the collections and is helping to raise the visibility of the holdings there. He assembled a group of lithographs by Arthur Flory and woodcuts by Abraham Hankins, both active mid-twentieth century, to highlight the oeuvre of these two Philadelphia printmakers. Among the artwork on display was this black-line relief print by Abraham Hankins.
I was instantly drawn to the opaque, textural and painterly surface, printed on black paper that casts a veil of darkness over all. With this treatment, the cut-out lines reverse to read as scrawled black lines. The gouged-out would-be negative shapes transform into substantive black marks by the reversal. Seeds of inspiration, and investigation, settled into a deep fold of my creative brain. Sometimes things just just fall into place.
Some weeks after Bill's presentation, I Googled "black-line woodcut" and found some amazing and inspiring works by Anne Ryan, ca. 1945, among others. It appears to have been a technique favored in the 1940s-60s. I love the mid-century aesthetics and I have many nostalgic associations with the whole gestalt of the period. It was like discovering buried treasure.
I am fortunate to have stumbled upon this printmaking technique at this juncture. For the past few weeks my experiments with paper and inks have been both fruitful and frustrating, but that's the way it always goes acquiring new tools and learning to use them. I am beginning to get a feel for it. I want to express the tenebrous atmosphere of winter in North Iceland and colors that emerged from the darkness. I want to capture my experience of connection to Icelandic place, and to the ephemeral here and now.