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 →

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!

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