USM hosts Icelandic artist Ólöf Nordal

Arts & Culture

By Marshall Woods, Staff Writer

A conspicuous rusted shed, windows and doors sealed to prevent entry, sits on the sidewalk in Reykjavik, Iceland. Passerby may hear the soft voices coming from the speakers within and pause to lean closer, their ears pressed against the cold metal. The voices recite in unison: “Come ye, who wish to come. Go ye, who wish to go. Stay ye, who wish to stay. Me and mine remain unharmed.” Natives recognize the old Icelandic folk poem that invites elves into each Icelandic home on New Year’s.

This is just one of the many art pieces created—or in this case, collaborated on—by Ólöf Nordal, an artist who recently visited USM. Nordal is a native Icelander well known for her pieces like her addition to the “The Shed” project. She gave a talk on April 10 entitled “Experiment on Turf,” about her past and current art research and creations, and future plans. A sculptor by training, Nordal’s most recent fascination has been an unconventional yet plentiful medium: turf.

The artist spoke about her most recent exhibit, also entitled “Experiment on Turf,” which involved using turf as sculpting material. Creating her new pieces meant patiently harvesting large blocks of turf from a salt marsh in Iceland with hand tools (there are no modern tools for this purpose) and plenty of help. Some of the blocks weighed hundreds of pounds in water weight. Despite the handling challenges, “It’s wonderful to work with,” Nordal said. For her, the large amount of material was no new problem.

Her last sculpture involving turf dwarfs any creation a mere few hundred pounds; þúfa (pronounced thoo-fa,) is “By far my biggest work in size,” she said. The interactive sculpture reaches 26 feet into the air, and is 85 feet wide, a grassy dome located next to the HB Grandi fish processing plant near Reykjavik’s harbor. Created to offset the factory’s dull exterior compared to the natural Icelandic scenery in the distance, þúfa invites visitors to walk up its winding path around the knoll to visit or sit next to the small fish drying shack at the top, reminiscent of what old Icelanders used.

The project was created over three months, and Nordal solved the problem of manufacturing a stable hill with ancient knowledge: strengur, the viking technique for building sodhouses by layering sod, or turf, and stone. One problem remains though. An employee must routinely mow the grass, but she said that they haven’t found the best way.

As reported in the Free Press last week, Nordal was hosted by the USM Art Department through their visiting artist program. In the online announcement for the presentation, USM art professor Jan Piribeck said Nordal’s visit would “contribute to Icelandic cultural connections and the Maine North Atlantic Institute,” the new USM initiative to strengthen ties between entities on both sides of the North Atlantic.

The students, faculty and interested public who attended learned of some of the many Icelandic cultural fixtures that inspire Nordal’s work: “Hidden People,” strikingly intelligent Leader Sheep, the extinct Great Auk. And one not merely interested in culture, Nordal has received the Knight’s Cross, a Presidential award, for her own artistic contributions to Icelandic culture.

While here, she took time to travel around Portland. The city is “cute,” she said, and “reminds me of home.” Although never before in Portland, Nordal has been to Deer Isle, Maine, at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Part of her time in Maine she also spent trying to find new spots for extracting turf nearby.

Nordal has only begun experimenting with this new medium, and one of her future projects will be in Portland, possibly near the waterfront.She wants this public work to “involve the community,” and may incorporate history from the state into it.

Nordal will be back at USM in March 2020 to work on her public sculptures in Portland.

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