Mary Elizabeth Vance
Mary Elizabeth Vance
Reykjavik, Iceland 2015
I am spending three months in Reykjavik, Iceland, living and working at an artist residency with other artists from around the globe. At SIM, the Association of Icelandic Visual Artists, and Gullkistan in rural Iceland, I will develop a body of interactive artwork that responds to the culture and landscape of Iceland and promotes intercultural dialogue. Read More About Mary Elizabeth →


It has been strange undertaking work in such a unique place as this: far from home but still a home-like setting.  Daily life feels like research and has the quality of adventure – going to the grocery store even an exercise in cultural exploration. I feel very lucky to have been able to contribute to the artistic culture here and understand where all the inspiration comes from.

At the end of this experience, I am tired. But it is the weariness that comes with months of asking difficult questions of myself and my surroundings, and working hard to create some suitable response (I will be updating my website with some video projects as artifacts).

Up until the last point, I felt nervous about leaving. But the last group exhibition of my work in Iceland, seeing pieces of the sum of all my work here – allowed me to see the trajectory of my working process in a holistic way, a way benefitting from hindsight. I tried my hand at some new media and made some pieces I am really proud of, shared those pieces with others. What comes next is seeing what this work means, for myself and others, in new contexts. How I will use my new knowledge of certain processes and media in new contexts – beyond the first forms I have made. It’s the opportune time for a next phase of that creation and exploration.

On my way to the bus station I was a little upset but my taxi driver told me that his father was one of the founding members of SIM – he also said that when you really want to be somewhere you will be, even if not when you think you need to be – and the conversation felt reassuring somehow. And for now it does feel complete, like I accomplished what I came for, and understood better what that even was by the time I left.

I can’t say for sure but I’ll be back, but I know this place has taken the role of a very important bridge in my life – a place of learning, about people, about what I really want to be doing with my art and with my life, and how to do it – I believe I could find myself back here again for it to serve a similar purpose. Iceland was, is pivotal – a place I forgot about time and focused on the shape of things around me – places, people, ideas.

Before this opportunity through Lumos, I never thought Iceland itself was accessible to me. Being here has given me insight into why this place has inspired me from a distance for so much of my life – now firsthand, where the art and the music is made. Iceland, small as it is, taught me much about the role of art in political culture, in all areas of culture, of art outside the gallery space and not only interacting with but integrated seamless into everyday life.

One unique thing about this experience in Iceland is how it has meant so many different and unexpected things – not only art, but the way a group of people can form, can change the climate of a place entirely; how the systems of people interact with the systems of nature but how that relationship is constantly evolving and involving different sets of causes and effects at every turn. What I have learned here can hardly be boiled down to “one thing” – there were certain days I could not even be sure I was still in the same country because of some new weather pattern or new government policy changing how the people I encountered interacted with one another. Iceland’s identity is complex; it holds strong traditions, but is still constantly reshaping its social and political structures. Each month, and often each week was a stage; different weather, different lighting, different places or materials or conversations. The whole of my time here it was changing – and as was I. Daily, I made something, I took something apart, I became something – cycles with no clear systems attached always taking me into literal and figurative places I could never have imagined going before.


One last midnight sunset.



Heima (at home)

After being in a place so long it begins to feel like home – even a place as committed to consistently challenging one’s expectations as Iceland. The deep stillness of the landscape. The endless state of flux of that same landscape.

There is an island just off the mainland in the south called Heimaey. Heimaey, like the island before her, is volcanic, and surrounded by another string of smaller volcanic islands – known as the Westman Islands – floating quietly from a distance. The islands disappear on a cloudy day, or a tumultuous one. You can reach Heimaey by ferry, take a smaller boat to explore the others, spend hours driving around dramatic valleys of ash and wildflowers and green fields that I am told stay colorful all year, unlike the rest of Iceland. Her name is taken from the Icelandic word for home, heim.

The first word that comes to mind when I consider Heimaey is resilience. Only a few decades ago, this island was engulfed in lava – one its main peaks, Eldfell decided to erupt. Half the island; many, many homes included; were lost to lava and sulfur – but the people wouldn’t stay away. The site of great tragedy is now a beautiful if somber park where people camp and hike – the rest of the town shifted just to the side. The inhabitants of Heimaey managed to save all but one life, and the majority of the town before the lava spread further – and for the most part were not afraid to rebuild what they were left with into something beautiful and new, even the reminder embedded in the landscape of what had happened before.

My last week in Iceland, my friend Clara and I made a trip here, and we both agreed we could see why they stayed. The island is incredibly beautiful – we had two days but wished we had more. One can circle the island by car in an hour, but one could spend months exploring its mountainous terrain and treacherous coastline. I also had a couple specific projects I planned to work on here, in particular one involving one of the surrounding Westman Islands called Heimaey, one of the youngest islands in the world which scientists are seeing remains uninhabited for the sake of research regarding how land masses form and are populated by vegetation and animal life – here and on a macrocosmic scale. I have been fascinated by Surtsey in particular for sometime, this island already featured in some of my creative writings before the whole Iceland trip was a possibility. And now it has a feature in some of my visual art work.

It was a significant last adventure. I took a boat trip around the island for some better views and video recordings of Surtsey and the Heimaey coast, also overcame some fear of heights and climbed the now quiet Eldfell.






Surtsey from the water.


Atop Eldfell.


Pirate Cove, Heimaey.


Heimaey from the volcano.


A few Westman Islands.


Volcanic landscape.

100 Years

Filming in the landscape is such a different experience – being able to now that the weather is much better, and finding myself in more rural and hard to reach towns. I am seeing how ways of thinking/living in communities are different in the city as compared to the in rural Iceland. Even in Reykjavik at SIM I often feel far away from the city, where our windows face the sea and the neighborhood around keeps quiet, far from the happenings of the town, the schedules it keeps, the tourists it welcomes.

Yesterday Iceland celebrated 100 years since the women’s suffragette movement began in Iceland. I made it downtown for the festivities – it was a massive day full of events to commemorate the occasion, even while the topic is being celebrated in various other ways throughout the year. The streets were filled with signs, choirs, balloons; the former female president of Iceland gave a moving speech, followed by crowds even larger than those I saw on the Icelandic National Day joining in with the choirs singing protest songs – and I was incredibly moved to see such a demonstration of dedication to women’s rights organized in great part by a nation’s own government. Iceland was one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote, is now considered one of the most progressive in terms of gender equality, and this day further reinforces my awe at how much people care here about one another, how far from complacent the national attitude is here regarding social issues. At the end of the speeches and songs, a group from the nurses union moved to the stage constructed in front of the city hall and were met with cheers as they continued to lead the crowd in song – the entire display was of course in Icelandic, but I did not need to know all the words to understand the impact of the scene.

One of the last big pieces I am working on here is a performance/video piece regarding the history of women’s treatment in Iceland, how times have changed here, how there might be certain things we from various nationalities can learn from this history, these traditions, these people. Women’s rights has been a major topic of conversation in this place since I have been here, one I have been honored to contribute to and learn from in some way.

And, in light of recent events happening in my home country right now, I can’t help but feel both a little sadness and hopefulness regarding the progress of social movements in cultures the world over, even if not especially in those places we take it for granted or do not realize how much change we still need in our respective societies and the global one. In Iceland, it is the people who have made social change – who have changed attitudes in here – I saw plenty of men in the audience at the rallies today – even for those groups who do not see how they are affected by it.



Holidays, Tourists, and Institutions

Tourism here has surged in recent years not only because more people are finding out about how beautiful this country is – but intentionally out of economic need. But the image tourists find of Iceland is not always the actuality of this place and these people. Sure, Iceland is statistically one of the happiest countries in the world (however one measures such a thing) but its past is not perfect, and its people are not wholly carefree but conscious and serious about their passions. Few people actually believe in elves, eat fermented shark, or maintain cultural stereotypes depicted by some board of tourism. This is as nuanced a culture and history as any.

As I have said before it is amazing to see how art plays a role in the social sphere here – I can’t think of a holiday I’ve witnessed here (and Iceland has many holidays) that has not been accompanied by some presentation of sculpture, music, or performance by working Icelandic artists. The art market here is not particularly wealthy, yet it is fueled by people very passionate about making things and enriching culture – because they love it, and because they understand its societal benefit – regardless of the financial aspect. And they take it seriously. Even my hairstylist here had to study 5 years to work in a salon, and she considers it her art.

One of my favorite museums here is a place called the Culture House where the rooms are not curated chronologically, but thematically. One finds famous photographs by Olafur Elliasson next to illuminated manuscripts and post cards – each put in context to comment on some aspect of human nature and overarching themes in Icelandic history. As I see the visual expressions of history in the various holidays here, and also in my own projects (which are focusing more and more on addressing Iceland’s tumultuous history hidden in landscape) I am learning much about art as a means for teaching history; understanding facts in new ways, understanding the trajectory of history as not just dates and events and leaders, but waves of traditions and ways of living building society together. Creating in the context of a foreign culture is an invaluable way of learning about societal trends and how they are expressed by the people who are most affected by them. I think about my own modern experience of visual anthropology – the images I have come to associate with my time here, which have become embedded in my daily life, which will change when I leave in the next few weeks.

I’ve been working on a series of videos about merging traditions, finding myself inside the history here and the statements Iceland might make to the world – trying to use myself as a vehicle for communication, shedding light, beyond Iceland’s tourism identity to the truths beneath. Attempting to speak to the history embedded in the landscape that is not so well known – or even suspected in such a seemingly innocent place. But that’s just it – just the way the landscape shifts dramatically over time, so the culture, so the people, and the different in people now seems such a polar opposite reality to Iceland’s more violent Viking origins, and the brutal laws enforced during the Middle Ages.

Iceland is living proof of the dramatic ways a culture can change – even into one of the most socially progressive countries from a notably dark past. One feels the imprint of tradition here, but few of its rough edges. Perhaps an understanding of the possibilities of creating real change stems from the Icelandic respect for the landscape and its constantly changing surfaces, perhaps it is the dark months that give the people here opportunities to spend hours inside studying and contemplating the world and their places in it.

A few days ago was the Icelandic National Day celebration, honoring the nations separation from Denmark in 1944 – and the day coincided a number of protests arranged to address the recent strikes (notably the nurses strike which has been driving =Iceland’s healthcare professionals to other countries to find better wages – a topic that has found its way into global news). Iceland has overthrown their government before, and could very likely do so again very soon – has driven out other regimes, changed their society countless times from the Viking age on.

And to think its first settlers are believed to be Celtic monks seeking solace in the landscape – a landscape at once so peaceful and so volatile, a landscape that seems to envelope, supersede, and somehow then redeem the violence of both man and nature – volcanoes turned to majestic peaks, ancient sites of executions during the Middle Ages now preserved in beautiful national parks.


Accessing the Inaccessible

The past couple weeks has been full of crazy adventures and uniquely Icelandic experiences (which I will break into a few posts – internet has been harder to come by lately so I will post in the order I have written them!).

It feels strange to be so close to leaving now, strange to feel the quiet stillness that has pervaded my time here in the colder months slowly change as I finish up projects I am making in the landscape (which require a bit of travel) and all the other things I have to get done before leaving.

With summer, it is a new experience to suddenly able to reach areas in the Icelandic interior that are for so much of the year inaccessible. Laugarvatn is quiet, and so I have been breaking up my time between exploring such remote places and working some at SIM back in Reykjavik where there seems to be more and more to contribute to in terms of art events and collaboration. Recently, I booked a car with a friend I met last month from SIM who is also still in Iceland now, and we explored some areas in the highlands near Laugarvatn and the Golden Circle, and shot some video for some of our respective projects. That area is steeped in the most ancient recorded events in Iceland’s history: the parliament that met in the region, the remnants of Viking settlements still being excavated – history still shaping Icelandic culture today and embedded in the visual anthropology of the nation. One of these settlements was seated in the middle of a vast volcanic desert with dark cones rising against the treeless horizon; we rolled through the landscape for a mile or so towards the main road till we came upon one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, one of the surprises Iceland keeps throwing my way. I had read briefly about the Gjain valley in the Thjorsardalur region – but no pictures I had seen compared to the experience of suddenly finding a cleft in the rocky terrain opening onto a lush green utopia that seemed straight out of a Tolkien novel. My friend and I wordless looked at one another and ecstatically ran down over a path in the sudden cliffside and into a hidden world of waterfalls, basalt caves, and dark streams, wishing we could live in such a place for ever (later finding the area was indeed once part of the nearby Viking village).

We eventually left, I uncertain I would ever be satisfied with any other place again, but as always we came upon other fantastic sites, beautiful in other ways (though still something special about Gjain seemed to color the remainder of the trip). In the event of the midnight sun that prevents it from ever being truly dark here anymore, we decided to make a midnight pilgrimage to the Geysir before heading home, still plenty of light ahead of us.

The next day I went out alone to continue collecting video for a project, one I suppose one could describe as trying to find the darkness in the now perpetually light – a reversal of my experience in cold and stormy April. I had a 4×4 vehicle for the two days, and so decided to venture out to places I could only access with such. The object of my trek for the day was a hidden plane wreck in the south, in the middle of a region called the Sandar where all one can see for miles is black ash sand and dense fog – especially that day, much rainier and foggier than the day before it. This place was the opposite of Gjain – I turned off the roadside into a barely marked path through the sand, trusting the tiny yellow markers that emerged out of the fog every few feet until the plane emerged from the mist – an event I imagined happened on a day similar to this. The famous 1973 crash was actually a U.S. Naval plane, no one was hurt, but the cause of the crash is still steeped in mystery and suspicion. The sight was terrifying but also awe inspiring, the chaotic rush of the sea barely in view behind the wreckage, and nothing else. Reminders that Iceland still has plenty of haunting beauty as much as it seems calm and majestic on the surface – in the easily accessible places.


Gjain Valley (Hobbiton)


Haifoss in Thjorsdalur


1973 U.S. Navy plane wreckage, Solheimasandur


And on a completely separate note, here’s a link to my video from last month – finally online!

Spaces of Dialogue

I still find myself occasionally stopping in the middle of the street to marvel at where I am. The brightening skies keep each day feeing new, and slowly new residents are moving into the apartment.

Things come full circle – I was afforded a bit more time to stay at SIM this month and I will have the studio space I had the first month again – with the marvelous view of the harbor, the lighthouse, the spot where I first fell in love with Iceland even in the storms. I never stop being inspired by the endless sway of the sea, slipping from blue to silver as morning burns into afternoon, chaotic on the stormy days, smooth in the calm between them.

I have my last few weeks mapped out here – when I journey into the smaller town to create, shoot videos, when to make the most of the midnight sun, last trips with new friends.

And I am amazed at how people let us know we are where we are supposed to be. For the May show at SIM, I suddenly found myself surrounded by Belmont friends – Sarah Beth and Kelly who graduated the year before me on a layover from mainland Europe, and another new friend John who still has a couple years in Belmont’s art department who I didn’t even know until meeting him here! Iceland is small, the world is just as.

I felt very proud of the video piece I exhibited this month – and it was great compare where I am in terms of my art this month as opposed to last month. Now I have more clarity, more direction for where I want to go creatively, and perhaps a collaboration partner for the last few weeks. The nicer the weather gets, the more I wish I could have even longer to explore this limitless island, with all its flowing edges, glacial peaks, and volcanic craters.

The Reykjavik Arts Festival is beginning to wind down. As I navigate my constant dialogue with the Iceland’s particular landscapes, I have also been thinking a lot about the gallery space as a site for dialogue – in the shows I have exhibited in here and the ones I have attended. These spaces draw together all kinds of people – especially in a small city like Reykjavik – and one finds themselves on occasion talking with people you never expected to meet, or to be affected by your work. I see many of the same faces – more apparently as the months pass – and I see more and more clearly the special opportunity I have been given here. Iceland is not the home of a massive arts scene such as New York or London, but the percentage of creative people here is high, and the output is high quality. Everyone here seems to be involved in some type of creative endeavor, or at least appreciate them, even those with very different job titles. (Speaking of which, did you know that the phone book here features peoples’ professions, and one can write in whatever they wish? There are many astronauts, lion tamers, and merrymakers here.)

Belmont in Iceland!

Belmont in Iceland!

Also, my piece for the last show is too large to upload here, so I will work on getting a link here next time when I have a better internet connection for uploads!


One of the great opportunities afforded by doing an artist residency is the chance to work alongside artists from different perspectives and genres of art – different corners of the world as much as the art world. Last month I felt an inspiring conceptual similarity to a number of the people around me, which enabled me to explore a number of my interests with new insights. But one thing I had little chance for was actually working with the other people. This month has been a new experience in those terms and I’ve had the chance to learn from people exploring ideas new to me in the process.

I’ve been trying to experiment with new media during my stay, an endeavor I plan to extend into this coming month – particularly inspired by my own love of cinema and many video-heavy art shows I’ve seen while here in Iceland – thinking about the bridge between these two visual realms. New ways to tell stories. There has been a particular image for a project in the back of my mind for a while – a piece that began as a vague idea long before I came to Iceland, or ever knew I would – which I found the ideal place to bring it to fruition here. But this is a video piece that centers on a shot I could never have made alone due to set up requirements and the piece’s performative nature. I found myself finally at the point where I was ready to make the piece happen, but as it was toward the end of the month, I was having some difficulty finding help. As fate would have it, one of the other artists was hoping to do a video shoot in the same location that afternoon – so, we decided to help each other.

In the process, Cara, due to years of practice with a video camera, was able to make suggestions no one else could give; and I could not have accomplished the piece without her. Some things ended up slightly different than I expected – but better. A perfect parallel to my time here so far – necessarily collaborative, surprising in the importance of certain connections, full of natural surprises. And, this piece ended up being the one I chose for this month’s exhibition.

The day was magical; her piece was performed on a corner of a peninsula I had never been to before on the other side of the nature reserve where I was filming (significantly so, as my piece dealt with the distance between these spaces!). The wind was wild, the waves brutal – we trudged through a golf course to an old WWII bunker on the point. The sky overcast – the weather in all not ideal for many a wanderer that day, but all a too perfect setting and set of conditions for both of our projects.

I’ll post the video later and let it do the explaining, but the piece involves a thick red sheet stretched across the harbor and horizon. It is a simple but personal piece, if not most of all for the amount of time I have waited to make it. Letting go of the fabric took on even more meaning in the moment – it felt like a real letting go in other ways – release of tensions, feelings, control, and the weight of a past event one has been holding onto for so long – be that an experience or an idea. The act was then simultaneously nostalgic and incredibly rooted to the present, and forward motion. On a personal level and also in a way very connected to the specific place I am located now – in life and in Iceland. These days remind me how specific this whole experience has been – how precisely the stars occasionally align – and maybe there is no real meaning in it, maybe we create the meaning of such coincidences – but what a wonder than I am able to create such meanings here, and be involved in their creation around me.

Sometimes a chemical reaction must be very specific to take place. One is free to interpret the event however they wish, to base more science upon it, to turn it into a metaphor. But the indisputable fact that such has happened, how random details can add up to harmonious ones – how an island even forms and exists – there is plenty to learn from, to marvel at in that.



Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 1.56.17 AM

Midnight Sun and Labor Strikes

I talk so much about the weather here – a dull topic in any other place in the world I am aware – but with each week that passes here I feel more and more that it serves as a blanket metaphor for my experience here. The swift approach of the midnight sun parallels a number of things happening in my life – sudden appearances and absences of people I love, here and back home, and how their presences change my experience of the world. With the midnight sun, “night” becomes a concept – existent only through a certain system of measurements we impose on the passage of time to attempt to describe it. I am aware of things happening back home which devastate me – hard news from family which I won’t go into much detail here – but I am removed from the full experience by physical distance, and so grief comes in waves of realizations rather being imposed by what I can see in front of me. There is no true darkness at night here now – and I find that at once unsettling and strangely hopeful – that the concept of night isn’t always what we know it to be.

This new abundance of light, disappearance of snow from the majority of the island, prevalence slightly warmer temperatures and fewer storms mean seeing everything and everywhere in a new light, constantly. I was able to spend a few days with my dad a couple weeks ago and show him as much of Iceland as I could – and those places which I had been before felt completely new. The landscape slowly greens; more distant mountains are visible with a lack of cloud cover.

With my dad here I finally went on one of the most popular tours of Iceland – the Golden Circle. This route includes Gullfoss, one of the most dramatic waterfalls I have ever witnessed, a visit to the original Geysir from which all other geysirs derive their name, and spectacular views of Thingvellir – the site of Europe’s longest running parliament and where the American and European tectonic plates meet.

Back in Reykjavik, I am beginning to experiment more with digital media and video – planning artworks to be performed in the landscape rather than just finding thematic influence in geography. The annual Reykjavik Art Festival has also begun, meaning more gallery openings, chances to hear from Icelandic artists about their perspectives on creativity, and an ever increasing population of tourists in the city. I attended a narrative-based multimedia art performance at Harpa – which was entirely in Icelandic, forcing me to rely on the other visual elements of the work – and it felt like a summarizing experience for many of the concepts I have been exploring here. How does one interpret an experience into the senses without words? Even with verbal language at hand, are there other cultural tools at hand which could speak better? How to explore the relationship between language and place…

A prominent theme of this year’s festival is women in Iceland – the suffragette movement here and the general feeling of equality (perhaps occasionally not as clearly represented as it seems?) and where else there is still to go forward. At the same time, widespread labor strikes are emerging and escalating all around Iceland for countless workers demanding higher pay – affecting everything from nurses, public transportation, and the food service industry. At a certain point, if demands are not met, certain industries will shut down, there will be meat shortages all over the country, and not enough medical practitioners to perform surgeries in a timely manner.

The strikes, the festival – it’s all a reminder of not being immune from social and discrimination, even as these feel noticeably more resolved in Icelandic society. There is always progress to be made – the fact that these discussions still take place, even to praise the current state of things – draws attention to the places where there has been no resolution or progress. To think there is nothing to talk about is to settle. And where things are as good as they will get – look for models for the places where the situation is far from ideal.

In Iceland there is a public history of fighting for change – and getting it. The first settlers here migrated to the country to find freedom from corrupt political regimes. Gullfoss, the immaculate waterfall on Iceland’s Golden Circle, was preserved due to the efforts of one protestor who did all she could to prevent the site being sold to a foreign country wishing to turn it into a hydroelectric power plant – now one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. In 2008, the Icelandic government crashed – there were strikes, corrupt bankers thrown out of office, and a public intent to rebuild a better society for all of Iceland.

Iceland can offer the illusion of a closed system at times – it’s unique brand of experimental creative culture, internationally acclaimed but small enough to run into the same people all the time; how common it is to find prominent politicians who split their time between running the government and writing books or playing in alt rock bands; the strange sort of time warp I feel like I am in here what with a schedule with only one set word on it (create) in a place where I rarely feel tired when I am supposed to because the sun is still setting at 1 am… but it isn’t. This is an island, but one far from completely isolated. There are still culturally imbedded stereotypes to unlearn and corrupt pockets of society to address, hidden as they may seem at certain angles, in certain light – but the light is always shifting.


1 AM, from SIM


Green is coming...


Kerid Crater, on the Golden Circle


Gullfoss, the unparalleled.




A return gift from Seljandsfoss


Guerrilla Girls @ Reykjavik Art Fest

Climate Changes

It was the nicest day we’d seen yet. Myself and two of the artists with whom I shared a studio for April set out in the AM for Snaefellesnes peninsula, an area just a few hours from Reykjavik known as “Iceland in miniature” for the diversity of its landforms. Volcanic craters, the glacier which provided the setting of Journey to the Center of the Earth, only light snowfall (this was also the first official day of summer). It took the whole day to drive around the peninsula, with increasing drama in the landscape outside the car and admittedly decreasing amounts of enthusiasm within as we approached journey’s end – the cold and wind present even on this sunny day a bit too exhausting for us all. This, along with the fact that one can only attempt to take in so many wonder-inducing sights before the heaviness of not being able to capture or comprehend them all.


Volcanic landscapes around Snaefellesnes. 









There are certain places one visits that ought always to be found unfamiliar. The unwanted ones, one imagines, the dark ones. But sometimes these are places filled with good darkness – the kind that fills you with such a foreign awe that you hope never to familiarize it.

I find myself thinking often of places with which I immediately connect. London, Scotland, other cities that seemed to already know me when I arrived, seemed to tell me something in them had been waiting for me since ancient times. I sometimes recoil against the opposite feeling – the feeling of displacement, the outsider feeling. The sudden notion of awareness that I will be in a place I do not feel at home for a very long time.

And this how Iceland introduced herself to me. Awesome. Beautiful. But very unknown to me, unknowing of me. Not in a negative or unfriendly manner, though – maybe just as too complete in and of itself to regard me with anything but an air I could have perceived as indifference.

But now I find myself a new feeling – appreciating that unfamiliar one. If Iceland weren’t unfamiliar, would she remain herself? What seemed at once like opposition has revealed itself as nothing but sheer wonder – I want this particular kind of unfamiliar. It shouldn’t wear off.  The people who live here – how do they do it? Does this kind of beauty ever become familiar? Perhaps the secret is knowing how to feel at home in mystery.

And being in a place that is constantly changing – exhibited perfectly through the landscape. Subtle daily climate shifts as much as glaciers floating out to see and volcanic activity. Already SIM seems a new kind of unfamiliar – a new set of artists moved in this month and I am still here. A few I felt I needed more time to get know. I guess it comes with the territory – that constant sense of change and motion. I tend to feel I am on the verge of really getting to know the people around me just before we start off in different directions. Like knowing someone is always at “almost” – people as mysterious as any part of Iceland’s terrain.

Of course one of the main events of recent days has been SIM Residency’s April showcase, to which each of the artists in the apartment contributed. The show itself was a turning point – one of those days where the sky is so blue you know summer is finally here (here, of course, summer means I can unzip my bulky coat, not that I can go without it). Seeing our art together in the space, work we had each been creating unbeknownst to each other, revealed a common thread in our work – stories. It seemed the bulk of the exhibition was about finding the best way to share not just concepts or images, but narratives, interwoven and interconnected ideas and subjects. We were a diverse group, but I believed shared much in common in terms of artistic philosophy.

I believe there is also something to be said for weathering storms with a group of people, listening to wind beating against our roof at the same time, fighting the occasional snow drift to get to some gallery opening, or merely the supermarket. There is sun now, a new setting in which to learn new people.

It is now strange holding at once the inspiration I have gained from working with April’s artists and getting to know a new group – finding myself somewhere between the two. The atmosphere at the SIM apartment already feels completely different – I have also moved into a larger studio space for this month, and am getting used to these new dimensions. At present my work is drawing a lot of connections between physical and internal landscapes, how we use language and senses to translate between the two, and how sometimes these translations do more to obfuscate what we are trying to understand or share than to reveal them. Exploring a new space – one vast as Iceland or personal as a thought or emotion too long displaced – always requires some kind of language to make sense of, verbal or otherwise; language which becomes a conversation, connecting many parts until it transforms into some kind of story. This past month I experimented with the storytelling of the image, and a language important to the Reykjavik harbor but never spoken aloud. Outside the window of my studio a lighthouse transmits messages through the night to one across at Snaefellesnes, and the rhythm is comforting but meaningless to me. I translated some of my own writings into Morse code in an exploration in the lost in translation (strangely enough being forced to learn this language in the process and thereby engaging in the act of demystifying things I intended to obscure – the paradox of communication). Such concepts I will be further researching and developing into larger works in the coming months.

Scenery is Dim, SIM Residency Showcase, April 2015.

Scenery is Dim, SIM Residency Showcase, April 2015.







We give meaning to things and experiences through the spaces we inhabit and the people we inhabit them with – and meanings shift, grow, change in response to characters and setting. My story is already something I could not have predicted before I came here – and I have a number of people and one very specific place to thank.

Mary Elizabeth

PS.  My dad is now in town for a few days, so I will be posting again soon about our shared time here!

The Nature of History


Sometimes I feel like when you’re in another country working everything is research. Exploring the local supermarket? Research! Walking into town and guessing the significance of windowsill kitsch (all the houses here appear to have art on their walls and books everywhere)? Research. Trying not to offend anyone by attempts at broken Icelandic? Research.

I’ve mentioned that the weather here is as emotive as the landscape, and I feel that is an especially accurate way of describing spring in Iceland. The past few weeks have been characterized by days where the weather changes 20 times a day; during the seven minute walk to the supermarket or the harbor, I have seen the atmosphere alternate between blue skies, snow and rain multiple times in one trip. It fascinates me, but affects me physically also – as I came down with a pretty gruesome cold soon after moving in to the residency. After an initial few days of imagining death as any possibility, most of the lingering symptoms have been the usual marks of living in a cold climate. Though as tragic as being sick in another country can be, to reduce my experiences in Iceland so far to being sick would be a far greater tragedy.

The climate also has a huge affect on the way of life here, and I’ve come to find it as an integral force behind the creative culture here. The extreme weather patterns that are particularly prevalent from about August to April, in addition to long hours of darkness during winter, force most people here indoors for a significant portion of the year to create their own unique forms of entertainment. I’ve felt the weight of this, the country being enveloped in a late spring storm the majority of time here thus far. Yet this creates a tension, being surrounded by a beautiful country which is still mostly a mystery to me, and being limited in my ability to excavate these unknown things. However, I believe many of the sights here will remain mysterious to me, long as I could be in presence of them.

Definitive of the extent of creativity and the prolific nature of artistic output here is Iceland’s festival culture – which continues even into the darker months. I arrived here in the final days of Iceland’s annual design festival, and the beginnings of the Icelandic visual arts biennale called Sequences, which features a wide variety of local artists as well as many internationally esteemed in the field. Two of those days overlapped with an experimental music fest and next month will see the beginning of Reykjavik’s yearly ArtsFest. It seems I arrived at the perfect time of year to be introduced to the prime of Iceland’s arts scene, and bear witness to where all this inspiration comes from.

This and Iceland’s isolation – I’ve been impressed by the extent to which Iceland is very modern and progressive culturally and politically (the people of Iceland overthrew their own government a few years back on account of injustice done by bankers and politicians here, injustices similar to what we might see in America on a larger scale, and did so successfully) – and yet one does not get the feeling the country has become overly Americanized, instead that they have maintained a sense of identity. A remarkable feat considering that the country is general populated by more tourists than actual citizens. But Iceland is still a small, cold island near the top of the world, and in many ways this allows for an arts scene that is not entirely overcome by global design trends, and so retains a certain strain of the strange and sublime that could only be birthed here.

The physical world certainly plays a vital role in the shape of the designed world here – and I’ve been paying attention to the different ways this manifested through architecture. For example, the cathedral Hallgrimskirkja, one of the most well-known structures in Iceland, was designed so as to reflect the flood basalt columns particular to the volcanic landscape here. Harpa, Olafur Eliasson’s concert hall which I have mentioned before, utilizes a number of design concepts to create a space that reflects the natural world in multiple ways – its structure is based on a natural five-fold geometric pattern and evokes a glacial form in certain light, the heavy outline of the basalt in another, and the flow of the aurora borealis at night when its multicoloured glass panes are illuminated against the dark harbor. I cannot speak officially, but I imagine the brightly coloured roofs of most buildings in the city are so painted intentionally to contrast the darkest of winter days. Houses which also often make me uncertain that my life isn’t a Wes Anderson film.

A trip to the Settlement Exhibition, subtitled 871+/-2, gave more insight into the ways Icelander’s have used design in conversation to the natural world – this exhibit showcases one of the oldest remaining structures in Iceland built around the 9th century during what is known as the Settlement period, when the first Norse settlers began cultivating the island. Initially, homes were formed out of turf, durable against the elements for the time settlers would be inhabiting them, but due to their material – by nature inclined to sift back into the earth – not structures which could stand the test of time. The foundation of the home on display at this exhibition is then a unique find, especially since it was uncovered inside the city center only in the last few decades. The exhibition’s subtitle is associated with a sedimentary layer termed the “tephra,” a layer of volcanic material that covers much of the country as the result of a volcanic eruption just predating the settlement era, the layer around which the house on display was excavated.

The construction of the house with natural, non-invasive materials reflects Iceland’s history of environmental attentiveness, which can be traced through history to a collection of books called the Icelandic Sagas – which, luckily for me, were on temporary display at the Settlement Exhibition. These books are fundamental to Icelandic culture and understanding the way of life here – they contain laws, genealogies, mythologies of the land, alongside historical events important to Iceland since its beginnings (the original deed for the city of Reykjavik is included in these documents!). Within these texts is mention of the obligation to respect the land and keep the interior uncultivated, but free to be explored by the inhabitants of Iceland as long as they might wish without harming it. This excerpt is considered law, and still permeates the collective socio-political conscience. Indeed, one of the greatest gifts Iceland still offers is uncharted territory.

And so explains the exceptionally prolific nature of Iceland’s literary landscape. This is a literary culture, built on stories, stories which have survived history and remain for public consumptions. Stories that interweave the legendary and factual, and contribute an underlying sense of meaning to living and being here – creative meaning. Stories that identify Icelandic heritage as both creative and responsive, built so as not to assume its own worthiness over a natural world which will outlast it. In the Sagas, embedded in the tephra layer, history is measured against the land.

The sense of respect people have for the land here, a respect dating back to those “Sagas” remarking that in settling the land they would promise to keep the interior wild and free for all to explore as long as it remained uncultivated, suggests an awareness that even the people inhabiting this island are visitors, part of something that was here long before them, and which will surpass them as well. From the earthen huts in which Icelanders initially lived, to the tin corrugated houses painted in all colours that now spread across its coasts, to the famous Halgrimskirka cathedral designed to mimic the rise of basalt columns that decorate the landscape of Iceland, the philosophy of design aesthetics is one that ultimately pays attention to not only its place in geographical terms, but also in temporal ones – a philosophy that respects its location, which I believe permeates Icelandic society as a whole.

And here is where the most conflict arises when it happens – people angry about the construction of new industrial plants, threats towards development of Iceland’s interior. Geography is deeply connected to identity, even if not especially when that geography is so untouchable. Or when equality and personal freedom is threatened. Iceland is many things – and I try not to idealize or oversimplify in my perspective as an outsider – but I would say problematic is not really one of them.

Still I feel a bit like a tourist, unsettled, not only in space but what I am doing here – trying to contain an experience, a place, a world. How does the beautiful, natural, sublime exist in and of itself, and how do we begin to attribute meaning to it? How does one capture this, create, translate it into something else? Like how the light here is always somehow perfect, or how everything exists because of tectonics. Things like being able to stand at my window watch a sunset through a snowstorm due to the precise merging of climate, distance, and vantage points. Or more than that, how a person can live in a place like this, let alone a civilization emerge, and not grow to find beauty or strangeness or wonder too familiar. How culture begins and how it evolves, and I likewise.

In the words of Rothko, “Silence is so accurate.”

There are many layers in building an experience, a culture, an individual, an island. For me here, there are certain questions to wrestle with. How do I adapt to a new and strange place, however beautiful? What might I be able to relearn about my own creative process here? How is place a factor, and, what is more, how about the people I am in that place with?

I always find myself becoming very existential when travelling abroad, especially when those travels take me to such awe-inspiring grounds – dark hills and secluded waterfalls, tiny villages with their own dialects that have existed without expansion much longer than the United States. I feel just how small and insignificant I am – but the thought is positive, comforting, if not somewhat disorienting. I try to adopt that same philosophy I have sensed here of respecting where I am and succumbing to a need to understand it fully, change or overcome some sense of smallness, but instead let myself be overwhelmed and lost and find awe in relinquishing the illusion of control.



(Harpa appreciation post)

Reykjavik is pretty charming (especially when the sun’s out).




Temporary photos on display for Sequences.


Neighborhood architectural eye candy.


Icelandic Saga


Land sculptures around town.

Room with a view.