Summer in Iceland: On Glaciers, Light, and a Farm-Turned-Residency
Posted on Friday, September 23, 2011 by Lindsey Lyons
Summer Study Abroad 2011: Iceland
The date is May 22, 2011, just one day before my flight to Iceland to join 13 other CCA graduate and undergraduate students for John Zurier's three-week Iceland: Reykjavik and the Icelandic West study-abroad course. We'll spend three days exploring Reykjavik, followed by two weeks on a remote farm on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, then three more days in Reykjavik.
I happen to be stopping off in historic Wilmington, North Carolina, for a friend's wedding. Hours before the ceremony, a text comes from the bride herself: "Volcano erupted in Iceland. Flights delayed. Check the news." The realization that I am traveling to one of the most geologically complex and beautiful places in the world finally hits. Luckily the Grimsvotn eruption only causes an eight-hour flight delay. Any airport-related boredom and exhaustion is soon remedied by a dip in the Blue Lagoon with a few members of the class who happen to be on my same flight. Rich with minerals, the water in this electric-blue outdoor steam bath gets credit for healing an extreme sunburn from the North Carolina shore.
Looking back, I wondered why our instructor John Zurier chose Iceland for this trip. He explains, "I spent 10 days traveling in Iceland in 2002, and it had a big impact on my work, mainly from my experience of the landscape. Iceland is a place of extremes, and constant shifting of light and weather. It is both rich and austere, haunting and exhilarating, and I was pretty sure that students would find inspiration in a lot of different things there.
"On this trip, at the first night's dinner, prepared by CCA alumna Brynhildur Thorgeirsdottir in her studio, we all sat at a long table, eating fish soup and listening to Brynhildur talk about her work and life as an artist in California, New York, and Reykjavik. Discussion followed, over dessert and coffee. I realized that this will be our next three weeks: a complete integration of art and life, with lots of good conversations. Fantastic."
It's never dark out this time of year, but Icelanders are prepared for this summer phenomenon with proper blinds and curtains, so the eye mask I packed is still in my suitcase. Is this an artist's fantasy come true? There's almost limitless natural light, and time to observe, make, and look again and again. A foggy Bay Area afternoon equates to middle-of-the-night Iceland at this time of year.
In Reykjavik, there's a warm, misty glow on the streets at night. Though our days are filled with trips to artists' and designers' studios, the Reykjavik Art Museum, the National Museum, and other cultural stops, a late-night weekday stroll through this petite northernmost capital of the world lends itself to extra hours of observation. Then there is the Saturday night where we get a taste of the weekend partying that doesn't stop until 5 or 6 in the morning. Many of us head to Baccus, the so-called dive bar that's hipper than any street fashion blogger's best portrait of the Mission. Upon exiting this mainstay, we are blinded by the light. It's 3 in the morning and at the end of the street, the sun is bursting over the water. Sunset? Sunrise? Nature is playing tricks. This sense of simultaneous awe and confusion remains one of my favorite moments of the trip.
In the countryside, some of us venture at 1 a.m. to a waterfall about an hour's walk from our cottages. We cross mucky ground and moss-covered lava rocks to get there. With my rain boots on, I make sure to tread though the muddiest spots. The waterfalls are one of the most beautiful things about Iceland. They are constantly shifting and flowing. The biggest falls are vast walls of water, hypnotizing illusions of portals that might just get at the center of this magical and mysterious place. Along the highway, they are as frequent as billboards along the interstate back home. Thankfully, billboards are prohibited here.
Making Work on the Farm
"The farm" is Lysuhóll, an Icelandic horse farm. We make work for two hours every morning in a group setting. I haven't worked this way in a while. As a student in CCA's Graduate Program in Fine Arts, I'm used to going to the studio when I want and working solo. But there's something to be said for adaptation and openness to new ways of making. This is a chance to mingle with graduate designers and undergrad students who offer other unique perspectives.
The main building where we work is exceptionally well insulated so that outside sounds do not infiltrate. Inside, it is bustling. Our host, Johanna, is cooking our next meal, and riders are chatting in Icelandic and German. Outside the window, we've got a view of the pasture and about a hundred rugged Icelandic horses. We watch geese and tractors fly by, and riders return frozen and wind-burned.
It is summer, but temperatures in the 30s (Reykjavik was much milder) coupled with gale-force winds (that wind tunnel on Eighth Street in front of the main San Francisco campus building is a breeze in comparison) are forces to be reckoned with. Mountains and waterfalls are in full view in one direction, the ocean in the other. We can see the Snaefellsjökull volcano (not the one that just erupted!) and glacier, the setting of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, from our cottages. Luckily our hosts provide plenty of savory meals, cozy lodging, and a hot tub, and there's a natural hot spring within walking distance. This area happens to be a national park and recently became the first Green Globe Certified Community in Europe, one of only four in the world.
At Lysuhóll, an Icelandic cowboy drives a tractor while wearing wide-legged riding pants and a hand-knit Icelandic wool sweater with fuzzy silhouettes of horses running around the circumference of his torso. These northerners live in a remote and extreme landscape, and I quickly realize this sweater signifies a way of life. It's not a fashion statement or a polite gesture to a sweater-gifting relative. Sheep's wool is one of the most versatile, insulating, and naturally water-repellent fibers. Horses are a livelihood here, and they are rugged too, traversing big stones and rough lava fields. It's so windy that the hair at the tops of their thick tails radiates out like a dandelion. Their forelocks cover most of their eyes, and their manes blanket their necks just as well as our wool sweaters bundle us up. Many of us take advantage of the trail rides, and one of my classmates constructs an elaborate cardboard viewfinder, also known as Horse Television, to watch the live equine entertainment.
Breakfast is at 9 a.m. each morning. Platters are filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, toast, four different savory spreads, deli ham, oatmeal, corn flakes, and fresh pineapple. There's an endless supply of coffee and tea. Down the hall, we spend two hours at our daily studio practice, creating studies of objects collected on the land, views out the window, or memories from the previous day's travels. Then it's conveniently time for lunch. Sitting down for savory soup or casserole in the company of this creative class is a rewarding shift from the bustle of urban living. Food and community go hand in hand.
From 2 until 8 p.m., we have time to explore as we please. Treks to the beach, trail rides, reading, writing, photographing, and the occasional field trip to a nearby town or natural feature quickly consume the 14 days. Each night after dinner, we give presentations on a different aspect of Icelandic culture. Themes range from the graphic design of Icelandic candy labels to the country's geothermal energy. Our countryside journey feels like a residency (my first), and I'm loving it.
There are no guardrails in Iceland. It's possible I'm overgeneralizing, but I never see any: not when we walk to the edge of a famous cliff that was the supposed site of a battle in an Icelandic saga; when we breathe rainbow-colored mist at Gulfoss, what I like to call the pie slice–shaped waterfall; or when our pair of eight-passenger vans teeters up windy gravel mountain roads to a 700,000-year-old glacier. Snaefellsjökull is the glacier our porches face for our two weeks on the farm. It is often covered in clouds, so a few days went by before we even saw its crescent-shaped peaks.
Though it is an hour's drive from the farm, our view of it is completely unobstructed. Grassy ground, a lichen-covered lava field, and a few grazing mares with their foals (four were born during our stay!) make up the foreground and middle ground of this summer landscape. I think about cognitive dissonance, a term that came up in my Fine Arts seminar Connections in the spring. In preparation for a trip to our professor's place in the Nevada desert, we read about this idea of expectation differing from reality. A desert is but a mirage until you've really been in one.
Previously, I thought of the word "glacier" and pictured hunks of ice in water. John Zurier talks about "the glacier" for days on the farm before I realize that it is in plain sight, on top of the volcano that I had taken for a snow-capped mountain. Oops. When we finally drive up to this thing, I am curious how my preconceived notions will play out with reality. And what will we do on a glacier for three hours? It is an uphill climb, and the ground is covered in white snow and black lava rock scattered with light green, white, and orange varieties of moss and lichen.
We find a patch of mossy ground that may be the new frontier in landscape architecture and furniture design. This moss is sunk into the earth to perfectly cradle a winded hiker in need of a chaise lounge, with the ground itself as armrests. We take turns laying in this mossy recliner before sloshing through more snow, wondering what the next rock and moss island will reveal. To make it to the top would have required hours of additional hiking and special equipment, but just being in this landscape that Jules Verne wrote about -- but never visited -- still makes me feel like an adventurer.
Three months after the trip, I'm still feeling its effects. At the Reykjavik Art Museum, I purchased a book, Dreams of the Sublime and Nowhere in Contemporary Icelandic Art. This semester, I'm taking a class entitled "The Sublime All the Time." The sublime is an interesting subject for my work and Iceland was a fitting landscape for exploration. Removed from the grind of work, school, dishes, and other everyday obligations, this course was a way to refocus my energies.
Thousands of miles from home, I had the opportunity to converse with students from other programs at CCA. With big pockets of time that needed filling, I had the luxury, but also the challenge, of figuring out what to do with myself. Back in San Francisco, I find myself more aware of my day, what has to get done, and how to make more time for what I want to do.
Among the things I brought back: a two-pound tub of Icelandic orange marmalade. Yes, there was a luggage weight limit, and no, they don't grow oranges in Iceland -- in fact the country doesn't exactly have trees (there is a local joke that you only have to stand up if you get lost in a forest). But there was something about the breakfast ritual I started at the farm -- putting orange marmalade in the oatmeal or on homemade bread every morning -- that I needed to bring back with me.
Maybe it reminded me of my native Sarasota while I was there? Either way, sitting in my refrigerator in San Francisco, it's a constant reminder of a trip that brought me closer to nature and the kind of artist I'd like to be.
Our class will be exhibiting work made during, or inspired by, the trip at the College Avenue Galleries on the Oakland campus January 16-28, 2012. Please join us for the opening reception on Wednesday, January 18, 2012, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Learn More About CCA's Summer Abroad Program
The Office of Special Programs administers the college's Summer Study Abroad program, which allows students to spend several weeks exploring art, design, architecture, or literature in another country. Learn more »
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