Monday, October 12, 2015

Icelandic Creativity

Whoever doesn't live in poetry cannot survive here on earth.--Halldor Laxness, Icelandic writer, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955

A famous sculpture in the Reykjavik harbor of a fishing ship, one of the iconic symbols of Iceland.

In our recent trip to Iceland, I was immensely struck by the inner creativity of most everyone I met. Is it because Icelanders experience almost full time light for the summer months--absorbing much luminosity--and then industriously work all winter long in the shadows to unleash that creativity? Does the stark, enchanting scenery that the singer Bjork calls "emotional landscapes" evoke new ideas to explore? Is there an elixir in the Land of Fire and Ice to see the world in a different way, and then to execute that creative idea? Is is because the weather can be harsh and relentless, and people already know they can be resilient and take risks? Perhaps the ubiquitous trolls or fairies in Iceland bequeath the creativity? Whatever the answer, there is undoubtedly an unmistakable creativity that is fueled here. As my Icelandic cousin said, "Everyone here is a designer, a carver, a knitter, a poet, a photographer."

 I am half Icelandic, and I have heard my entire life the merits of being Icelandic from my father (my siblings and I wholeheartedly believed every word). On his first visit when he was in his early 40's (his grandparents were immigrants to Canada), he too came away with the same sentiments that I had about Icelandic creativity. I remember his astonishment when he eagerly came home to tell us his observations, "As I talked to anybody, a fisherman or truck driver, everyone could tell me the sagas. They were the best of storytellers." He excitedly continued, "All were wordsmiths, and some even told their own poetry. People designed and carved furniture. Every house I entered had paintings their family members had painted of the Icelandic landscapes. It is the most wonderful place, and you are Icelandic!" We, his children, swallowed his Icelandic tales--hook, line, and sinker.

His praise was effusive, (but I later learned was not exaggerated) and I too wanted to visit the Motherland, the place of staggering beauty and imaginative people. Whatever you want to believe, there is undoubtedly a culture of Icelandic creativity--not to be dismissed or ignored. With a 2013 population of slightly over 323,000, the creativity, at least to me, is explosive. There are hundreds of museums, even a town of 250 people will have a few. Public art and sculptures are beautifully positioned in almost every small town--evoking a strong sense of identity and charm. There are craft associations in almost every hamlet where you can buy local art, sweaters, and other crafts. Yet, as always, it was the people who captivated me--their deep reservoir of imagination and vision to make the world a more wondrous, beautiful place.

One writer, Eric Weiner, explains the prolific level of creativity in Iceland, "There's no one on the island telling them they're not good enough; they just go ahead and sing and paint and write." Perhaps there is a shade of truth in this statement, but I prefer to think that creativity is unusually valued in Iceland. They recognize that to only view the staggeringly magnificent scenery is not enough: they need to be producers and creators of what is stirring inside of them. There is an infectious, creative spirit that seems to be transmitted in Iceland-- to not only have lofty thoughts or intentions, but to give birth to them. It is an enlivening, stimulating, beautiful place to be. Iceland makes you remember there is an endless array of possibilities to be a creator within yourself, and it resides in everyone else around you. Boundaries and barriers diminish in the Land of Fire and Ice, and every creation seems attainable.

The Danish cook/owner of the Pingeyri cafe makes dangerously delicious waffles for breakfast and a hearty lamb stew for dinner. She and her Belgian husband saw a need for a cafe in a tiny town,  and renovated an old post office. The moss green painted building is gorgeous, and people come from hours away for the food in the Westfjords.

In the small fishing village of Pingeyri, this is the Simbahollon Cafe that serves people all day long. I don't remember any other restaurant in town.
In the town of Pingeyri, population about 250, there were several museums. One was for music, and the other, blacksmithing,

My son, with the area's historian and owner of the blacksmithing museum---showing old historical tools.
At a small village in the middle Western Fjords, a man carves birds in front of a grocery store. 

This man, in his retirement, carves the many birds of Iceland. He is showing my son his book on birds. His love for birds and carving was infectious to me. He told me he goes to schools and recreation centers to teach young children how to carve birds too. 

Public art turned utilitarian, in a gorgeous meadow overlooking the harbor in Reykjavik.
Steinnun, an Icelandic fashion designer who brought knitting to the forefront in European, Asian, and U.S. markets, but then came back to Iceland. Her innovative style is famous. She has started some knitting groups in Iceland where she teaches more unique and innovative designs. You can read her bio and blog here: 

A friend and her husband brought a design class from Qatar to Reykjavik to view the new design trends in Iceland. Reykjavik, the world's most northern capitol, is becoming more influential in fashion and design. 

A friend admiring some parent/child clogs. 

More public art in the meadow

One of the best things about Iceland--their traditional sweaters. My daughters outside a second hand vintage clothing store, called Sprintnik. They do a brisk business with tourists who don't want to pay full price for new sweaters. Each of us (all eight of us) got a sweater here. 

Many of the buildings have lovely, interesting paintings on the outside walls. 

I thought that this was a very creative decoration on a entry gate. People who had found hats and gloves could put it in this place for anybody who was looking for one.

More public art--teaching people how to tie a tie....

A young woman at a small cafe in the Westfjords who is knitting her daughter a hat. One of the best things about going to the grocery store was seeing an entire aisle devoted to the most exquisite yarns. Most everyone knits, and it is a past time when anyone has a spare moment. There are knitting guilds in many towns. Women take great pride in their knitting projects. Family members proudly wear the sweaters and other winter gear that they loved ones make for them.

We loved the varying colors of the houses--often times with different colors of roofs. It made for a mesmerizing sight if you were high up looking over the town.
An innovative outside business, with picnic tables outside. This woman had just opened her little restaurant near the harbor in Hosfos, in the northern part of Iceland. She sold stinky shark and traditional marriage cake. Her lamb and vegetarian hotdogs were famous for miles around.

She is selling some handcrafts at her restaurant booth of handmade soap.
Matthias Jochumsson is a distant relative of mine. He wrote the national anthem for Iceland, and was a famous translator, playwright, and poet. We went to his home in Akureyi, Iceland. One of my children is named after him. If you want to read more about him:  Literacy and the power of the word are one of Iceland's greatest historical treasures. To write a poem is a sublime feat to any Icelander. If you can tell a good story or even better yet, you can write one, you are rich indeed.

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