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 →

Learning the Landscape

There is a massive storm pelting the tin roof of the SIM apartment. My roof is slanted, so the rivulets of ice and water shift down my windows at an angle, and all I can see are the bare tips of other rooftops in the distance, and grey. The mountain is invisible. No northern lights in sight tonight. But there is no need to leave for the evening – I’m surrounded by people even if we are all alone together – a few of the artists are already asleep in their rooms, a few dabbling in studios where light creeps out from under their doors, and I’m here writing through the last few hours of my first 24 as an official “resident” of SIM. This month’s artists are from a variety of backgrounds; there are a few from Canada, France, Korea, and others. There are a few artists who live in the building long term – mostly citizens of Iceland – and I see their work posted in their windows, painted across the outer walls of Seljavegur 32.

You would be surprised how many people have said “that’s the green one right?” when I talked about my trip – and yes, it is, even though the country was enveloped in a snow storm upon my arrival (connection? hopefully not). As emotive as the landscape here is the weather.

I am trying to pick up the little quirks and customs that pervade Iceland, slowly but surely. Everything stays open quite late – a world away from my last adventure abroad in St Andrews, Scotland, where the town shut down at 5pm and left the residents to their books and own, well, creative forms of entertainment. However, I am arriving in Iceland on the cusp of Easter, and Easter in Iceland means a four day holiday where everyone seems to celebrate on one extreme end of a spectrum – stocking up and staying in, or going out every night, all night, at various venues around the city.

Even before I came to the residency, I met a girl at dinner who was an artist, likewise inspired by the landscape and culture to come to Iceland, though for a much shorter period of time. Amy and I talked about the UK arts scene, new 3D technologies, and favorite artists – Olafur Eliasson of course included ( On the subject of artists that focus on constructing or altering an atmosphere through their work, she mentioned an artist called James Turrell working in the Arizona desert, creating site specific works that challenge the viewer’s notions of sensory perception and space through life sized camera obscuras, underground passageways that use light, shadow, and smoke to cause the mind to question what the eyes think they see (

A bus driver I met earlier this week told me, concerning his own recent studies in art, that he was surprised by how much the process of painting caused him “to perceive everything in the world differently”- from how mountains appear blue the further they recede on the horizon, to the contrast in a person’s face. Art changes the way a person can see the world – so one might notice how important a shift of light or a stray conversation can be.

Iceland itself is a challenge to perception – in terms of physical size it is actually quite small, but the extreme diversity of the landscape, its openness despite its rugged terrain and the mystery of the uninhabited center of the island make it seem like an entire planet. Perhaps the prolific nature of its creative output reflects its geography in this way. It’s a relatively small place where everyone seems to know each other – even I have run into people on my international flight multiple times in various places.

The people here are beautiful as the backdrop. Everyone seemingly content, kind, if not a little mild, quiet. The city is a strange mix of tourists, travelers, and progressive hipsters; an adventure junkie city, an aesthete’s city. I think I will find a home here – though admittedly now the ritual loneliness of moving to a new place has found me.

But the people I have met seem to embody a strange mix of transience and permanence – a culture and population deeply rooted to the ground and crowd who gathers here for a moment because of that culture and population’s mystique. I am here to learn, I tell myself. I am not here to be alone. But it is alright for a moment to feel lonely. I remember Scotland – how it was so easy to move from moment to moment, moments of deep love for the land and moments of the fiercest isolation. They kept me in a strange tug of war with the space around me and the space I constructed within – but made me very attention to the personality of that space.

So at the forefront of my trip I took a couple days to tour this strange and beautiful setting to better understand the connection between culture and terrain here. Iceland has only a couple large cities; everything else villages around the outskirts o the island. The interior is uninhabited – full of wild nature only explored by the adventurous. What is known as the “Ring Road” circles the country and connects these villages to one another – a road kept well to endure Iceland’s extreme conditions. The road did not always manage to span the whole place – many villages in extremely remote areas and surrounding islands are still easier to get to by plane or boat rather than car. Along portions of the Ring Road one will encounter a series of land bridges built only in the 1700s after one volcanic eruption changed the landscape drastically – melting part of Europe’s largest glacier, creating streams and lagoons, and scattering people who lived in the area at the time. So much of Iceland’s most beautiful sights are very young – the island itself is the youngest landmass in Europe – one wonders how different the landscape may have been only a few thousand years ago before its settlement.

And this landscape is terribly dramatic – minutes driving in any direction and you feel as though you’ve left the island – but between mountains and glaciers you can see for miles across flat expanse of sea and land. It is the illusion of being in a place far larger than these roughly 40,000 square miles. Iceland is a tiny country that feels like an entire planet. I am looking forward to seeing more how this ever-changing landscape has affected its cultural history, and current cultural climate.

So far being in Iceland has meant springtime snowstorms, random roadside geysirs, drives through moss and snow covered lava fields, black sand beaches, and sunsets so vivid one cannot be sure whether they are witnessing northern lights or an everyday occurrence. It has meant hours sketching alone in the studio, as well as creating and communicating in a shared space with people despite language and cultural barriers, learning about a new culture together. Barely a week here and I have watched a sheep shearing competition at my hotel – apparently a big deal here in Iceland – presented entirely in Icelandic, hiked to the mouth of a waterfall below the largest glacier in Europe, driven through a snowstorm on the Ring Road, carpooled with tourists up the Southern coast in order to see Jokulsarlon (the glacier lagoon) at sunset, watched the green northern glow over snow-topped mountains out of the back of said tourists’ car while I tried to convince them (unsuccessfully) to pay attention to what was happening out the window, listened to a jazz concert where I am 89% sure I saw Of Monsters and Men in attendance, watched the sun dance off the façade of a concert hall designed by one of my favorite visual artists.  I have chased (and found!) the northern lights to the outskirts of Reykjavik, hunted for art supplies in art stores and shipyards, eaten hot dogs and ice cream in the snow (the former which Iceland is apparently renowned for), crossed paths multiple times with other travelers I met on my plane ride here, befriended an elderly Icelandic bus driver/aspiring artist from the little fishing town of Hofn, driven through glaciers formed only 300 years ago in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, listened to Bjork and Sigur Ros while making said drive, climbed basalt columns featured in Bon Iver’s Holocene video, and eaten my body’s weight in Skyr (Icelandic yogurt that is actually a type of cheese). Of course all things are more glamorous in hindsight – the photographs of these adventures thus far do not include the bruises on my knees and pebbles in my hiking boots. They don’t include the initial loneliness that accompanies travelling alone and leaving behind people you call family and a place you have finally come to call home. But the landscape here is open and wild – how vast I will never be able to fully capture in a photograph – and lined with mountains formed both thousands of years before this island was ever inhabited and only hundreds of years ago when people did move into the area. Rough peaks coursed with layers of various minerals that reveal the age of those mountains poke out through grassy soil that appears to drip down from those peaks like sand. And if this is Nature’s way of creating beauty – the decay (perhaps a better word is transformation) and weathering that occurs when landscapes are left to their own devices, whether humans are around or not – I have to trust the natural course of my travels here – even when they are not devoid of experiences that can feel like loss and being broken down. Wonderful things will be revealed – if only through time and weather patterns. And I am still the same thing even when weathering changes my form – perhaps even exposed by that weathering. Perhaps I will see my own layers even more clearly at journey’s end.

When I picked up the key to my new apartment in Iceland at the bus station, I was given a little envelope with directions and information, a card for galleries and supplies. It felt like a puzzle, a scavenger hunt of some kind, where the rules didn’t involve looking for something per se, but letting something new and great find you. I found my room, my studio, a little spot by the sea with fellow artists just as disoriented in a new city but excited to be inspired, and it was this spot that I new would be my inspiration. With all the terrible beauty of this island’s natural shapes, I know it will be this space that allows me to process it all. I have in previous travels always sought profound meaning, as some sort of quest presented me. But this time I am moving into a new place where I feel as though I have finally found meaning in the very things I am leaving from – where meaning found me when I was not looking for it. So I will let that meaning permeate where I am now, and find me as it has recently, just by keeping my eyes open and my feet on the ground.


Hiking atop the waterfall Skogafoss (note those tiny people for some sense of scale).


Jokulsarlon (Glacier Lagoon) at sunset.


Surreal Southern Iceland.


Views from the Reykjavik harbor, blue skies peeking out for my first day in Iceland.


Basalt columns and black sand at Reynisfjara.


Harpa, Olafur Eliasson’s architectural masterpiece.


My new studio in this wonderland! What is my life.


Takk fyrir,

Mary Elizabeth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *