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Finding the Familiar

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Kate Schafer overcomes foreignness in Iceland

My studio overlooks Hverfisgata, which is one of the busier streets in Reykjavik, Iceland. A little girl walks by outside holding a stuffed fuchsia unicorn under her arm. In the clear, glacial air her toy is so bright it is difficult to look at. I have been working about five months here in Iceland and my paintings have been influenced by this arctic light and its way of isolating colors in the cold climate. In front of this window is a large painting I am working on using images from both America and Iceland to describe the process of creating homes in unfamiliar territory.

Last year I was living in a small, well tiny, apartment in Chicago and finishing my last year as an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I decided to apply for a Fulbright Grant I was working on a series of paintings about an imaginary island and the different types of homes that existed in the harsh landscape. I chose to apply for the grant in Iceland in order to experience life on an island in a harsh environment and to continue to focus on the concept of home in tumultuous landscapes.

Having moved many times in my life, I am fascinated by feeling foreign in a place while knowing that it will eventually become familiar. When I was ten my family sold the house, bought the van, stored the furniture, and left Seattle. I sat in the back as months of road slipped away under the tires. We traveled first north, then east, south and finally west until New Mexico enveloped us in boulders and heat. It seemed to me then that our small house was precarious and precious against the hostile landscape surrounding it. That time living in New Mexico is the thing that gives my work tension and causes me always to return to tumultuous landscapes.

Iceland is another landscape that holds this power. In place of boulders it contains ice and volcanoes. The landscape towers and defies human structures. In my proposal for the grant I wondered how an environment influences the creation of home in a tumultuous landscape. After living here for five months I have begun to understand that it is with stability and practicality that Icelanders respond to their wild landscape.

The winter in Iceland has been a dark, cold time. For months it was only light for about four hours each day. The six hours we get now is startling. The roofs of the houses in Reykjavik are painted all different colors but the bright roofs are each isolated against the rock, snow, and water and end up in isolation from one another. The sky curves closely over head and on the very coldest and clearest nights it is possible to bundle up very late at night and walk to the top of the hill in town to watch the northern lights swirl around over head. Moving rapidly across the sky, the lights change from bright green to red to pure white.

When I first arrived here in Reykjavik I began by working with the idea of home in Iceland. Since then the series has expanded to include the concept of home in America as well. I am painting about home while not being there. In my paintings now I have placed the two different cultures against one another. I am working on a series of paintings using images of events in Iceland in combination with old American postcards, which are in and of themselves symbols of being far from home.

Currently, I am working on a painting using images of Luna Park, an old American amusement park, in combination with images of recent flooding in Iceland. The disparate images of the amusement park, which is warm and full of bright lights, contrasted with Iceland, which is blue, cold and dark, have a strange effect that illuminates the challenge of creating home in any type of landscape.

A certain loneliness exists for an expatriate, a certain precariousness in everyday life. There is a sense of hoping, fingers crossed and tiptoeing, that life will not be disturbed by a small misunderstanding. This precarious manner in which an expatriate exists parallels the general precariousness of a society that creates a home in a tumultuous landscape. The figures in my paintings have taken on this sense of timid loneliness as they enter new, odd places.

The kid’s unicorn, the pale green of the ocean, and the northern lights have taught me the way colors shine in isolation. Living as an outsider in Iceland I have come to understand the way homes exist in a turbulent landscape and the way we all exist timidly in life. It is precarious to be alive.

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