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An interview with Wayfinders artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir

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Written June 27, 2023

Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir as an art student at the University of Portsmouth in England, 1977.

In the summer of 2012, Icelandic sculptor Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir deubted a public installation titled borders at Westlake Park in Downtown Seattle. To complement this installation, an exhibition of small edition works was displayed at the National Nordic Museum’s former location. Over a decade later, Steinunn will return to the city for a large-scale installation at the new site of the Museum. The exhibition Wayfinders will greet visitors upon their arrival and guide their path throughout the public spaces of the Museum. Wayfinders will consider life’s journey, including travels and resettlement abroad generally, and the Nordic-American experience specifically. Both aesthetically and conceptually, it was designed for the Museum. I had the opportunity to ask Steinunn about her career and her vision for Wayfinders.

LA: How did your studies in England and Italy shape your artistic development? How has Iceland informed your vision?

ST: I consider myself lucky to have studied sculpture in England in the 70´s as the scene was incredibly strong in 20th century and contemporary sculpture. I was also lucky to have tutors that were active, working sculptors, most of them living in London. Right from the beginning, I was doing figurative work, something that wasn´t necessarily being done at the time, but they gave me such great encouragement. During my BA studies I was in the Ceramic Sculpture Department and clay has always been a big part of my process, especially in the first years. I was also in the Sculpture Department—a lot which was right next door, so we could work in both places which was great.

Going from England to Italy shaped my visual world even more precisely. When I moved there, I realized just by looking out the window that I was living in a museum. That museum was there to explore. It was truly profound, for example, going to Pompeii and experiencing those frozen moments in time through the shapes of figures was special and an eye-opener. My own figurative sculpture was influenced by those earthy and organic pieces. The Pompei figures were not meant to be sculptures, but they are very sculptural. In addition, there is the tragic narrative that they give away, but still they do not tell you the whole story. The frozen moment before something happens or just after something has happened has been a part of my own figural world ever since.

Living and studying in these two countries helped me form and understand the combination of the classical and contemporary in my work. It´s a phrase I use a lot, but in many ways, it´s an accurate description.

Being born in Iceland with its rugged terrain and organic texture is of course very much part of my work, as well. Initially, while studying in England, one of my favorite tutors, Darrell Vyner, who sadly passed away rather young, encouraged me to be true to myself and my origin because that was what made my work different. The atmosphere and spirit of my work is strongly connected to Iceland and the solitary character of the landscape and its vast spaces. Iceland is a huge country when you compare it to the size of the population. My BA thesis in the UK was titled "The Hidden People" and it reflected upon how my own figural work was influenced by the idea of that specific myth in Iceland. The Icelandic myth describes people who live in cliffs and stones, and they lived an otherworldly existence but sometimes would visit “our” world. In my mind, that was such a great reference to what I was doing even though it wasn´t as such a literal reference but rather a philosophical and symbolic one. It also helped me to shape and define my figures and develop them into the androgynous, organic, and in many ways, alien beings that they are. Being born in Iceland makes you realize the enormity of nature, but at the same time, that you as a human being are part of nature. We sometimes forget about that when we speak of artists who work with nature and landscape. I find it strange that figurative artists are often not entered into that equation.

Steinunn Studio 2
Studio images courtesy of the artist.

LA: Why did you choose sculpture as your preferred medium? What role does watercolor play in your work?

ST: I did my foundation course in England, and then tried all forms of art. One of those forms was sculpture, and as soon as I started working in three dimensions, it just felt like coming home. A strange feeling but reassuring in the sense that I knew I was in the right place. It was not a given, especially as at the time I started, sculpture was then more of a man´s world in the arts. I never really thought about it that way, but it felt totally natural to me.

The watercolors have a strange role in a way as they are my relief from sculpture. The process of sculpture is long, complex, and time-consuming, but doing these sketches is very direct and different. I create them in my small country studio, which is on the south coast of Iceland, situated under the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajökull that stopped all air traffic in Europe. It was very unpopular at that time! The studio has windows to all directions, and in it, one feels like part of the landscape. Looking to the south there is an endless horizon, and looking to the north there is the incredible beauty of the Eyjafjallajökull mountains. I call them watercolor sketches, as they are made quite quickly, and I do not dwell on them. I use the brush like a pencil and never draw them first. They are very spontaneous, and I have no preconceptions of what they will look like. I like to approach the paper like a child and enjoy working on them like a child. The sketches reflect my surroundings in the country house, and there a strong feature is the horizon line that has this feeling of endless space and promise. Man and nature together as a team. The sketches are closely connected to my sculptures and how they find their place in nature as solitary beings. They are not just about the romantic idea of man and nature, but also, they speak about how we as human beings share the stage with others and with the environment.

LA: Which artists, past or present, do you admire?

ST: I admire many artists but initially when I started to work in sculpture, the Icelandic pioneer sculptor Einar Jónsson influenced me. He was figural but at the same time other-worldly and dramatic. Very Icelandic in a way and so special. I love showing visitors to Iceland his museum which is in the building that he designed himself and lived and worked in. His home is shown relatively untouched within the museum and it´s all just very eccentric and beautiful.

LA: Using a work or an installation as an example, please describe your artistic process from inspiration to realization.

ST: The artistic process actually varies quite a lot depending on how specific the concept is. Sometimes I make work almost just by intuition, and I do not know precisely why I made them. Increasingly, I don´t work the ideas on paper first. I just have them in my head and start the process. If the concept is very specific, there is more planning. Normally, that means there is a specific space or venue that I´m working with. I have made many site-specific works, both for private collectors, exhibitions and public works.

A good example to describe that process is an installation called Horizons that I made specially for the Katonah Museum Sculpture Garden in Katonah, New York. The sculpture garden is round and enclosed by a concrete wall. It has ten huge Norwegian Spruce trees planted within that wall and one tree in front of the museum. The trees give the space an incredibly special character. So, it was a natural choice for me to make ten cast iron figures that would be placed among the trees and one figure in the front by that single spruce tree. The figures themselves are very organic with a similar texture as the trees, and I put small branches from the trees on the surface of the plaster originals so that they are embedded in the memory and surface of the figural sculptures. The figures are in a way trees themselves and they lean in different directions like trees sway in the wind. As you walked among them, one disappeared and another one appeared. Within each figure there is a piece of glass that goes through them in the chest area. The glass is positioned horizontally at the same height in each figure. So, the horizontal line unites all the figures together. The daylight and sun shines through the glass at different angles so the work changes throughout the day. The open daylight line also references the horizon both in the landscape, but also within us. The fact that the garden was enclosed inspired me to open up the figures.

I make the originals in plaster, so I can add and subtract material. When the original is finished, it goes to my foundry to be cast in metal. All my pieces are made from recycled material. The foundry makes a sand mold in many parts, and they make a core as well so that when the figures are cast, they are not solid but have a cavity. Once the sand mold is ready, the metal is heated to a liquid and poured into the mold. The liquid metal is very hot and has the color of magma, volcanic molten lava. Being an Icelander, I have always found that to be quite symbolic. Once the metal has been poured into the mold, it cools off and then the mold is broken and opened so it´s like a birth.

LA: Tell us about Wayfinders. How did you develop the concept?

ST: I had some years before developed a concept for Borders, an installation that was first staged in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza by the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in 2011. It´s core idea is about crossing borders and connecting people over borders. That came to mind when thinking about making an installation for the National Nordic Museum. All those individuals from the Nordic countries who came to the US to seek a better life for themselves had to cross borders. While working on the idea, I thought about my uncle Friðrik Sigurðsson, my grandfather´s brother, who left his childhood home in one of the most remote farms in east Iceland and went to America. Friðrik changed his name to Fred and became a barber in Brooklyn and lived there all his life, never returning to his native country.

Very soon in the development of the concept, I formed the idea to make a weave of figures that would be placed in strategic areas outside and inside the museum. The visitor could get a sense of human connectivity throughout the building and its surroundings. The museum building became an open border so to speak. There is a feeling of movement from place to place referencing an immigration of sorts, a new beginning, an alien but exciting experience. This weave of connected human figures references the influx of Scandinavians that came to America to fulfill a dream.

The sculptures are all made of cast aluminum that harmonizes with the building´s colors and materials. The aluminum is a strong visual thread in the weave. The shiny aluminum reminds us of the crisp Nordic skies and the seas connecting country to country. The material also has a brave shine that will feature as rays of light throughout the public areas of the museum inside and outside. The figures are all different but there is a sense of familiarity from one figure to the next. They are symbols of humanity and represent the general human psyche rather than a specific gender or ethnic identity. The emphasis is on the fact that we are all connected as humans despite our differences.

I had seen photos of the beautiful museum building, but when visiting it last year in preparation for the show, the human weave came together and the figures found their rightful place inside and outside, some in unexpected places. They are in the Fjord Hall, they lie/swim on the Fjord Hall walls, cross bridges(borders) and in general interact with the various spaces and in some instances, there is a merger of the contemporary figures with the Museum’s permanent collection of historic artifacts bringing in an almost surreal interplay.

LA: Your sculptures are anonymous, androgynous human-sized figures, approximating the size (and even the weight) of the body. How closely should the viewer identify with these works?

ST: The sculptures are, despite their seeming anonymity, based on my two sons. My older son has been the model for most of the work, but in the last few years, I have started to torture my younger son as well! I say torture because being the model is very hard, but they have still been kind enough to do it for their mother. Thórarinn Ingi, the older, has said that in hundreds of years when people find relics of these pieces, they will think that he was a god! However, they are just the base for the work and the final figures may not necessarily look like them because I change them quite a lot. Still, doing it this way has worked well as the pieces become close to me and are family. Despite this, they are anonymous and androgynous, and the viewer should be able to identify with them regardless of their gender or ethnic identity. Also, the figures tend to be neutral in their postures and appearance so people feel that they can approach them. I prefer the figures to whisper rather than shout. It leaves the work more open to interpretation and doesn´t dictate what people should see in them. The viewers are all different and they will find their own meaning.

LA: Do you intend for the viewer interact with your sculptures?

ST: Interaction is very important, and I love to see people do that with my sculptures, but I prefer it to be interaction with care and respect, just like you would want to be treated yourself. Again, because they are neutral, people do approach them and interact with them in all sorts of ways. The good thing about that is that the viewer becomes part of the work, makes it whole so to speak. It could be argued that the work is not complete until the viewer comes into the picture. However, it has happened that people become too familiar with them and in some cases to the extent that they have stolen works. A little bit too much interaction!

LA: The environment–in this case, the built environment of the Museum's exterior and interior–is in dialogue with your sculptures. Are you looking for a specific context of display when you collaborate with a museum?

ST: If I´m working with specific buildings or spaces, they certainly become a big part of the conceptual development of the installation. One could imagine that working for a specific site or space would be confining and too practical, but I find that it opens windows to new ideas and new approaches. For example, the National Nordic Museum building inspired me a lot and dictated the placements of the pieces. The building itself made the works find their way in it. They became Wayfinders, for the human weave, both referencing the Scandinavian immigrants to the United States but also referencing all of us who are finding our way to navigate the world.

Steinnun Thórarinsdóttir: Wayfinderswill opens to the public July 15. The exhibition has been made possible in part by Icelandair.