I close my eyes on the G train. My standard morning commute, before the sun had revealed itself, required that I find a way to create a sense of quiet. Such an early hour and yet not a seat to spare. People blearily heading home after a late night at some can’t-miss party, given away by their makeup smudges or expressions of tired contentment. Construction workers wide awake toting their coolers. The overnight riders curled up in the corner hiding their faces as they try to sleep in their makeshift home. It is my last day of work in Greenpoint before heading to a writer’s residency in Iceland. I open my eyes and look around. Wondering if I will miss this while I’m gone. Or if the exhaustion it incites and predicated my decision to go abroad would trump any potential for homesickness.
It’s always seemed funny to me how often one can feel alone in a city of so many people. Streets that are packed with pedestrians in Manhattan, restaurants in Brooklyn where you can barely get an iota of personal space by the bar to order an overpriced craft cocktail. Subway cars that are never empty. Iceland boasted a population of barely over 300,000, an appealingly small number for someone who was embarking for the first time on life as a full-time freelance. It felt like I was choosing my solitude instead of having it thrust upon me by a city that moves so quickly it can effectively silence you.
Arriving in Iceland consumed me with a peace I hadn’t felt in months. An island unto itself in the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a tranquility to it even while volcanoes sleep nearby, their volatility simmering out of view, ready to remind you why it’s called the land of fire and ice. It’s a place of contradictions. A calm surface that hides unbridled strength and power in its core. Every morning I would look out the window of my house in Laugervatn and contemplate the volcano Hekla. Locals often confided to me, “it’s been quiet, but due to erupt any day, you know.” In a naturally occurring geological phenomenon, an unlikely kindred spirit.
But it was in my last few days that I would feel most connected. At the Nordic House in Reykjavik for The Weather Diaries exhibit. A collection of artists hailing from Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands were interviewed about their creative process while pieces of their work were displayed for the third annual Nordic Fashion Biennale back in 2014. It was now traveling and having its moment in Iceland, before heading to its next stop in Seattle this August. I passed through the gift shop beforehand and found the book that was an extension of the exhibit. The first page I flipped to was an intro by the curators Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer and I was struck by the line “…isolation forges a pool of creative bravery.”
The exhibit is in the basement of the Nordic House, which feels like a purposeful artistic choice with its separate entrance away from the upstairs bustle and bright lights. I felt a sense of excitement and intrigue the minute I parted the heavy dark velvet curtains at its entrance. As if I was tentatively stepping into the lives of all these artists. As they all grew up in places identified by harsh weather and geographic isolation and point to this as the force behind their creative expression.
After I wander through, I wind up back upstairs across from Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir a.k.a. Shoplifter bursting with questions. She is serene and beautiful with her grey hair in a sophisticated topknot and blue eyes. She even hugs me when she discovers I worked in Greenpoint, right near her studio and home.
“Call me Shoppy,” she insists when I make an effort to not destroy the pronunciation of her name. She tells me how she finished art school in Iceland and left for New York when she was 25 to attend SVA for her masters, graduating in 1996.
“Icelanders are fantastic in a way that we’re like sponges. We seek information. Yes we have an island mentality, but this notion of being isolated… makes us inventive.” In high school Shoppy wanted a specific dress and couldn’t find it, so the only logical solution was to make it. “I feel that a lot of the creativity in Iceland comes from the lack of access,” she confirms.
Shyly I tell her that while I’m not an art connoisseur, I found the entire exhibition mesmerizing but also empowering as a female on her own in a foreign country. She nods, and then puts my feelings into words.
“It’s very mysterious, mystic, these imaginary worlds… there’s a longing to enter a dreamscape. The strengths of the Nordic women, the celebration of it in this exhibition… we do have kickass women in Scandinavia,” she laughs.
We talk about my residency here and why I came to an isolated place looking for the kind of inspiration she seems to possess in abundance. She smiles at me.
“It’s something I live and breathe. When you open yourself up to the world like you’re doing, everything is going to come through that filter, and you never know what might inspire you. It sits in you and becomes you. It might take years! Whatever you make is made of that. You have to absorb and see what comes out.”
At this moment Johanna Methusalemsdóttir comes running up and the two of them embrace. Another native Icelander, Johanna too lives in Brooklyn (Park Slope), and I watch them converse excitedly in Icelandic, pausing to apologetically translate to me and explain how long they have been friends and colleagues.
“I had never thought ‘outside the jewelry box,’ if you will,” Joanna laughs when I ask her how she became part of the exhibit. While Shoppy utilizes hair—synthetic and real—as her medium, Johanna designs her jewelry line, Kría, with bones, teeth, shells and birds’ feet as raw materials or to inspire design concepts. “I look at using bones as giving them new life rather than as something morbid,” she explains.
I comment on how both hair and bones are so basic and human as a universal building block within both Johanna’s and Shoppy’s work. And how the culture of Iceland is to be sustainable. She nods. “Iceland is a small environment, and it’s not trend driven. I also only use recycled metal. It’s all a cycle of giving new life to everything. We should all walk lightly.”
We discuss what the exhibit has meant to her, and she raves about it as well as all her fellow artists. “I love fantasy stuff. To be uninhibited. It’s a place I feel very comfortable. There’s a certain drive behind each person. All of this talent and a whole lot of pride and drama behind it ,which I love.”
And I realize that something about what she just said reminds me of the nature of New Yorkers. The pride, the drama. The larger than life way we all live. Aside from our differences of geographical isolation versus mental isolation. 300,000 inhabitants versus millions. The feelings of separation we experience contribute to our art. To our being. And instead of regarding it with fear or closing our eyes to it, we should embrace it and allow it to be part of our drive, our work and our lives. Isolation can be freeing, no matter what form it takes.
As Shoppy remarks, “I can only survive in New York because I have Iceland to go back to. I can only survive in Iceland because I have New York to go back to. I experience the contrasts between the two extremes, balancing and finding some sort of harmony.” ♦
Photos by Bradley Phillips