Carol Archer was granted a month-long residency in May 2017 in Iceland. The residency is located at Hafnarborg – Hafnarfjörður Centre of Culture and Fine Art, in Hafnarfjörður, the ‘town in the lava’.  The residency, which is located just a half hour bus ride south of central Reykjavík, is a exemplar of culturally-minded philanthropy. Until 1984 the building was the Hafnarfjarðar Apótek, the premises of chemist Sverrir Magnússon and and his wife, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. It was converted into Hafnarborg in 1983. The couple presented the town of Hafnarfjörður with a gift certificate stipulating that their house be used for cultural activities that enhanced the town’s art and cultural life – an art museum, exhibition rooms, a residency for international artists, and a venue for concerts.

Rock, gravel, sand; water, steam, sky; moss, grass, tree 

Some wag famously quipped: ‘If you are lost in the forest in Iceland, stand up’. There are relatively few trees here and those are mostly small – birches are shrub-like compared to those common to places like Sweden and Scotland.  What this means, in terms of experiencing the landscape, is that you can often see across kilometres of jagged black lava field or moss-blanketed rocks to where the scree-covered mountains rise sharply upward.  It isn’t hard to see why Kjarval chose to use short brushstrokes even for paintings of imposing mountains and promontories – the dense detail of the shattered volcanic surfaces and the vegetation that manages to cling to them is  essential to the amazement they engender.

This visitor may be struck by the rapid changes in the physical form, textures and colours of the land as one moves across it. The skies and the weather are similarly mercurial. There’s a sense of simultaneous hardness and softness to this place – shaggy grasses and cushiony moss are reminiscent of Icelandic sheep and horses but the ground is often hazardous; this is not a place to walk without sturdy shoes.

Carol’s research at Hafnarborg

As well as getting a sense of the cultural milieu in Iceland through visits to galleries and conversation with members of the arts community, Carol’s research during her artist residency took the form of an extensive catalogue of photographs and a number of watercolour and ink studies. These were informed by observations of areas close to Hafnarfjordur and Reyjavik and on trips further afield  (to places encountered on a tour of the so-called Golden Circle, as well as along the Reykanes and Snaefellsness peninsulas).  A month is not a long time to get the measure of a such a completely new environment, let alone to find ways to express one’s perception of it, so Carol’s research was necessarily exploratory and preliminary in nature. By the end of the residency, however, three strands of interest had emerged: (1) the shadows cast by birches in Hafnarfjörður’s magical Hellisgerði park (on an unexpectedly warm and bright and warm day); (2) the forms and colours of border-places such as the edge of a thermal pool and  a lake (3) aerial views, emphasising colour and pattern, of ground (and moss, heather, grass, rock and gravel and so on). Having worked mainly in black and white for several years, Carol was inspired by the subtle and often surprising colours in the natural and built environment of Iceland. Towards the end of her residency, on Sunday May 28, Carol presented a talk at Hafnarborg about her recent work in Australia and Iceland.