Icelandic-born visual artist takes an arctic journey for inspiration, receives a depressing wake-up call, and turns it all into art
By Cory Schachtel | January 18, 2023
When Hildur Jónasson returned to Iceland, her country of birth, in 2012, it was mainly to give her Albertan-raised children a chance to connect with her side of the family and immerse them in the Icelandic language. In that sense, her family’s year-long stay was a success. But it also came with a shock: Like the language she was raised with, her country’s glaciers were dying.
Specifically, she found that the Snæfellsjökull glacier (SNIGH-fells-yuh-kulk) was predicted to be gone around the year 2050. “I could see it growing up,” Jónasson says. “In Iceland, it’s visible across the bay from the capital city. It features prominently in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth — that’s where they go into the earth, through that glacier. And there’s a lot of folklore and mythology from the Viking Age, that there’s a treasure in there, and it’s believed to have certain powers. So it’s a cultural icon, and it will be gone.” Two years later, another locally well-known glacier, Okjökull (OWK-ya-kulk), lost its glacier designation.
Western Canadians are familiar with glaciers melting in the Rocky Mountains, but more locally, it would be akin to returning to Edmonton and finding out that, in a couple decades, the river valley will be gone. For Jónasson, this brought immense grief, “like losing your godmother, or your favourite aunt. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach, and sort of shifted something for me.”
This far into the climate crisis, that feeling Jónasson experienced now has a name: ecopsychology, which studies the “psychological, emotional and spiritual side of the climate crisis” and the detrimental effect a lack of exposure to nature has on our mental wellbeing. Simply put: not getting out in nature, and watching natural wonders disappear due to our collective actions, is more than just a bummer.
As a multi-disciplinary artist specializing in printmaking, Jónasson focused her grief into art, and in 2017, she got a lot more of both as a participant in the Arctic Circle Artist Residency. Jónasson went “on a tall ship” in a climate that “makes Iceland seem almost tropical” with 29 other artists, filmmakers, writers, scholars, painters and glass artists from around the world. “It’s very hard to write about the experience because it’s breathtaking, it’s ethereal, like stepping into Narnia.”
Throughout the trip, the artists would either do an excursion on land (where polar bears outnumber people) or stay on board to work on their projects. One morning, they woke up in a fjord filled with bits of iceberg — “bergie bits, we called them” — which Jónasson put on cyanotype paper. The bergie bits, being sheer as glass, refracted light onto the special paper, simultaneously creating and developing images in a non-toxic way. She also created an iceberg print by sprinkling charcoal on an 18-foot-long canvas and using her body, wrapped in a sleeping bag liner, as the press.
But on the very first day, the spell was spoiled. “I’d probably taken less than 20 steps on one of the islands when I came across this triangular piece of plastic in amongst the pebbles. There was a toothbrush lying on this beach where the pebbles were all dark grey, so it really it stood out, like neon. I was so disheartened, because Svalbard is so far removed from the rest of the world that I just assumed that there wouldn’t be that kind of garbage there. I was so disappointed in the human race.”
The group members cleaned up every piece plastic they could see (often within sight of walruses and other wildlife), and Jónasson brought some back, including a plastic bag that, from pressure of the sand, “had this interesting texture to it, and a printmaker’s brain — we go crazy over texture.” Using printmaking wizardry, she inked and pressed the plastic onto paper, creating a final product that looked unmistakably like a natural rubbing, as if Jónasson had once again pressed a glacier itself. “It felt so absurd that this plastic created these glacial-like images and yet the plastic is destroying the glaciers.”
These days, it’s easy to feel down, ecopsychologically. And Jónasson’s new exhibit, synthesis, turns plastic garbage into a form of art therapy for artist and admirers alike to work through the emotional and spiritual sides of the climate crisis. It can at times overwhelm, but Jónasson always keeps in mind an old Icelandic phrase that reminds her that every piece of plastic she collects, and every piece of art she creates, can be the ripple-causing pebble in a northern ocean of change.
“Margt smátt gerir eitt stórt,” she says. An Icelandic source translates it to “Many a little makes a mickle,” but Jónasson knows it as “Many small things create one large thing.”