The Idea of Iceland

I have a love for islands and even stronger love for volcanoes. I don’t know where this fascination comes from but it’s there and therefore it must be dealt with. So when two years ago fellow artist Barbara O’Meara asked if I would join her on an art residency in Gulkistan art centre, Laugarvatn, a village some 80km from Reykjavík, I said yes without hesitation. We both agreed that we wanted to be there in winter and we settled for the month of November of the following year. I filled in the application form, paid the deposit and didn’t think about it until it was time to go.

I didn’t do any proper research work to prepare myself for the month-long residency, or to know what to expect at that time of the year or where we would be staying exactly. What attracted me was the idea of Iceland as portrayed through a movie Cold Fever (Dir. Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, 1995) that I’d watched many years ago and the Iceland celebrated through literature, poetry, saga and music. This is why in my suitcase, beside layers of woollens and art materials I packed two novels set in Iceland: Independent People by H. Laxness, Burial Rites, buy H. Kent and a CD of the icelandic group Sigur Rós.

The reading of those books and the listening of the music turned out to be essential in keeping me there throughout the first week of the residency as I was adjusting to the environment, to the incessant rain and the darkness. At one point I even considered turning back home.

Looking back now I can see that that difficult week was in fact a period of initiation that I had to go through to deserve the right to be there, and Ice-land in winter is not an easy place to be for an Italian. I kept looking over with envy to Barbara who was working away totally immersed in her painting and at the other two artists, Molly and Merle who had been there a month already and had accumulated a substantial amount of work.

At a loss of knowing how to start I did some homework on the theme of animals that I had brought with me and took selfies wearing a pair of reindeers antlers that I had found in the studio the day I arrived.

Perhaps I was unconsciously trying to summon the deer’s animal-spirit to give me a hand, guide and support me; I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland but once there I found the rain and darkness unbearable. It reminded me of my first month in Ireland when I moved from Italy in 1985.

Luckily the wearing of the antlers worked as the deer-spirit performed its magic and one night the rain stopped, the full moon came out and it started to snow. Relieved I went out and started taking photographs of a landscape transformed and at dawn brushstrokes of vivid pink greeted us and as the darkness lifted, Iceland became finally visible. A lake appeared out of nowhere in front of our windows with a volcano on the horizon, clouds of vapour were rising here and there out of bubbling hot springs. Now it was time to draw and paint Iceland and I haven’t stopped since.

What you see in the exhibition are my first impressions, close up studies of rocks and lichens, of hot spring and geysers, of snow and ice and moonlight, the magnitude of the landscape against the insignificance of the human body lost in that vastness, and the wonders of the aurora borealis.

It is only since I have been back home that the Icelandic experience is taking on a more symbolic form in the artwork I am producing at the moment, it has a different form, both in its content and the choice of medium. While working I finally understand how important the body of work exhibited on these walls is. First I had to root the Icelandic landscape in my heart.

If you could have a look around my studio these days you’d see how many objects and images speak of islands and volcanoes, of ice and fire and strange presences. Thinking back at that week when I contemplated turning back home I realise that I have now come around to the point that I feel trapped forever in the magic of the Arctic Circle and don’t want to get out!

But this is a subject for another story and possibly the subject of a next exhibition!

To finish I want to thank Barbara for inviting me to be part of this adventure and be my companion throughout it. It was her presence, determination and enthusiasm that made it all possible. I think our combined work speaks for itself and although I am not in the habit of self-praise I just need to say that we are very happy of the work done and proud to have done it together.

Thanks to my husband John for his support and my apologies for abandoning him for a full month in the middle of winter.

Finally many thanks to our dear friend Stefania Russell. It is she who’s invited us to do this exhibition in the beautiful surroundings of the Russell Gallery here in Co. Clare ( It is thanks to people like her that the work of us artists gets to be seen by the public otherwise it’d be forever stacked in our studios as artists are notoriously bad in selling themselves.

Last but not least thank you for coming and please spread the word.

RATLJÓST – Enough Light to Navigate By. An exhibition of paintings by Jole Bortoli and Barbara O’Meara at the Russell Gallery, New Quay, Burren, Co. Clare runs until 31st October.