Painter & Print-Maker Creates Art About Mankind’s Daily Struggle & Lifelong Search for Meaning
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Iréne Jensen is an artist who has called Reykjavik, Iceland home for the past twenty+ years. I bought a piece of her work while visiting the island nation, and was inspired to seek out a further connection with her. I’m delighted to share our exchange with you, which I believe offers a message of hope and optimism.
My visit to Iceland and subsequent dialogue with Iréne both helped me look at this voyage called life in a different light. I have long heard the mantra that “life is a journey not a destination,” and appreciated the concept intellectually, but will admit, have found it difficult to put into practice. I have spent most of my life as the little kid bouncing around in the back seat repeating over and over “Are we there yet?” From a young age, my focus was on the end, not the means. I continue to try to put on the brakes and enjoy the view from the slow lane.
The time I spent in Iceland was invigorating, and its fantastical landscape made living in the moment easy, with so much to see in every mile. Learning the back stories to some of Irene’s works, such as “The beginning of a journey,” “Looking ahead,” “Connecting,” “Endless possibilities,” and “Ascending” has been inspirational. I think you’ll find her themes are universal and uplifting.
Meg: Do you have a message in your work?
Iréne: I want to express the feeling of mankind’s endless daily struggle and lifelong search for “something” more, new and better life-fulfilling experiences, always on the move, in various surroundings. And, in a reverse, man seeking inside himself and in his own “reflection.”
The leading theme in my works is about “the journey of life.” It took me a few years to realize that all my pictures had essentially the same theme, life is a journey, our human journey through life. I always have “my people” on the move in various surroundings, often in a country landscape, and sometimes in a city landscape. I found “my people,” the figures in my images, ten years ago in 1999, when I learned this new non-toxic printmaking technique, photopolymer etching.
The “figures,” four silhouettes, are very important in my artwork in printmaking. Often there is one, two or four beings together in a landscape, but sometimes I duplicate them so they make a whole crowd aiming in different directions without any “background.” So these figures can symbolize an individual soul or humanity. In recent works have I used my own shadow as well.
In my approach to the concept, I try to give the viewer a positive impression, messages in words and images. An experience of a direction, usually forward, both in time and space. Like the walking people are just silhouettes of human figures, which makes it easier for the viewer to identify himself in the design. Similarly, the titles just give you a suggestion about the content, a vision which allows an openness to personal interpretation of my works of art. Examples of titles include The beginning of a journey, Looking ahead, Looking to the future, Connecting, Endless possibilities.
In my series of painted art prints, I have no particular place in mind, it just becomes an Icelandic landscape, though the viewer recognizes himself somewhere special. In other works of photo-etchings I shoot close-up images, in my neighborhood in the old city of Reykjavik. It could be cracks in walls, broken pavement or even graffiti, images of destruction. Then I transform the photo image into a new kind of landscape, where the beings are just small figures in a city landscape or in the wilderness, in their natural surroundings again.
Meg: Can you describe your process?
Iréne: I make my print plates by a non-toxic etching process, using photopolymer film. The film is a thin light-sensitive layer that I fix to an aluminum plate and expose to UV-light along with a kind of transparency, the image (painted, photo or mixed), it´s done in a darkroom.
The process produces an intaglio plate similar to those made by acid etching, now widely regarded as an inherently toxic method.
I try to spare my health and the environment as much as possible by using this “new” art printmaking technique. For instance, I recycle the aluminum plates, and paper from the newspaper industry and I print the images on acid free cotton paper then clean the plates using food oil.
When I print I try to use the light and the coloring to create certain feelings of, for instance, mystic or serenity in the landscape or put the focus on the figures. I often build up a print by using two-three plates of the same image printed “together” or combine several plates in one artwork.
“A uppleid” or “Ascending” is an example of that.
The Stories Behind ‘Ascending’ & ‘Endless Possibilities’
Meg: Can you tell me about that piece?
Iréne: I got my main education in art here in Iceland, but I was born in Sweden and I visit and travel there a lot as well. In 1995, I took my prints to “Grafioteket”, a gallery on the main street in the Old Town of Stockholm, and asked, “Can you sell it for me?” And they took it in.
In 2003, they invited me to have a show. It’s a tradition in Sweden when you’re in print making (graphic art) that you sell your pieces unframed. People just choose the piece and then frame it themselves. For a show, artists have to buy the frames themselves and don’t get paid until they sell the piece. This gallery owner took care of all the arrangements of the exhibition. They did everything for me. That was great. And I had later a show in his other gallery in Gothenborg as well. So this was a success and a kind of recognition for me, in my “old” home of Sweden.
This piece “Ascending” is maybe showing my growth, but I think it’s the same for all people. You have to aim higher and higher, strive upwards to achieve more and hopefully reach your goal. As well as maybe for some, this is a spiritual experience — going up towards the light, seeing the light.
The background image is a photograph that was taken in the midtown of Reykjavik, of pavement that was broken. I changed the dimensions and the figures become just like little ants on a big mountain. If you look closely, you can see a leaf in the image.
Meg: And was there anything going on in your life or your spirit, at the time, as far as Endless Possibilities that you were thinking about that theme?
Iréne: Well–the only thing I can say, when I think back, that I’ve been happy to get my chance to work as an artist.
Meg: What is a typical day like for you?
Iréne: I used to take the bus at 10 a.m. and come home at 6 p.m. My work contains both a creative side and a most practical one. It´s many moments and steps involved. As a printmaker, you often print your works in an edition, at the most 30 of each image. I can play around with the colors on my printing-plates, so the edition sometimes becomes various, it makes my work more interesting and fun, instead of just printing it “by the book.” On a typical day I print a couple of each chosen images at the time, in the following days I can frame the pieces and deliver them to a gallery.
I’ve been involved since 1994 in a printmaking group, “Grafikvinnustofan,” of five artists, all women, who jointly run a small workshop together. Our studio was until 2008 in the old city center of Reykjavik, near my home. Now we have moved to the suburbs, almost like the countryside. “Korpulfsstadir” was originally built as one of Scandinavia’s most modern farmhouse for milking cows in the 1920s. This large, beautiful building, now houses about 30 studios. SIM (the association of Icelandic visual artists) rents us the space at a reasonable price.
I have a much longer route to my work now with the bus, but I get such a refreshing walk and I’ve made several new connections with other artists. So this change broadens my horizons a bit. We have an open house once a month and also various exhibitions together.
The Light & Contrast of Icelandic Landscape & Mystical Beliefs Provide Ongoing Inspiration
Meg: Are you inspired by Iceland’s landscape?
Iréne: Yes, I get a lot of inspiration from the Icelandic landscape, as I think you can see in most of my works. Especially the variations of the light conditions are amazing. Like the enormous contrasts that appear in the landscape due to the rapid changes of the weather. Dark and cloudy sky, rain, wind and then suddenly a small window opens between the clouds and the sun shines through and lightens up a spot on the mountainside, but just for a short while. It´s very dramatic and brings a certain mystic atmosphere to the landscape.
As an artist it can be pretty difficult to chase and try to catch that perfect moment of greatness on a piece of paper. But you must try and you always get a new chance and discover something new.
Skogar is one of my favorite places, in the south of Iceland, beneath the “Eyjafjalla” glacier. My husband’s ancestors once owned this land. They were farmers and fishermen who lived in “thorfbaer,” houses made of peat and timber that had floated ashore. The temperature inside was only +10 degrees Celsius on average all the year around. It’s strange to imagine these hard living conditions just about a century ago. I think that the history of Iceland is very fascinating. Now, I can study one of a few preserved peat-houses at the picturesque museum there. The magnificent waterfall, Skogafoss, was just a practical part of the surroundings at that time, and not the special attraction it is for us today.
Meg: I learned while visiting Iceland that there is a strong mystical belief among its people, generally tied to nature.
Iréne: About the folktales, with a little imagination you can suddenly see mystic, big and scary figures, trolls (tröll) in a stone formation or in a rock on the hillside, when the shadow falls upon them. On the other hand, you can also study nature more closely, nearby you, and find many interesting things. Some rocks and stones are inhabited by little elves (huldufolk), whole communities. You can´t see them but maybe feel their presence or hear a conversation on a bright and quiet summer night, when nobody else is around. These are good and friendly elves, if their homes are not disturbed. Unexplained accidents have happened, when road builders have tried to move a certain rock, so the road had to take a bend around it. That’s quite a powerful and mystic side of the Icelandic nature, still today.
I feel a great respect for the Icelandic culture and its spectacular nature, after having been living here for twenty years now.
Meg: How did you come to live in Iceland?
Iréne: I met my Icelandic husband at the health university in Jönköping in Sweden. We were both learning to be occupational therapists. The students came from different parts of Sweden as well as Denmark and Iceland. This was a great time and we still have many of our best friends from then.
We settled down in Halmstad, a small town on the west coast of Sweden. But Finnur, my husband, got homesick, having lived abroad for 11 years. Every Icelander want to return to their family and community, sooner or later, like true islanders do and you can almost say that they are all related in some way. We moved to Reykjavik in 1988. I worked for a couple of years at the rehab-center at the hospital and in the meantime I went to an evening course in croci (model-drawing), to refresh my abilities from my earlier studies in art school during the 1970s.
My husband encouraged and supported me very much to fulfill my childhood dream to become an artist. I passed the test and became an art student again in 1990. I graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Arts degree in fine art printmaking from The Icelandic College of Art and Crafts (now the Visual Art Department at the Iceland Art Academy).
I think it was good to have some “life-experience” because you put more pressure on yourself to get the most of the education.
On the Way: Constant Movement in Time & Space
Meg: Can you describe how the piece “On the way” evolved?
Iréne: My first solo show with this concept “the journey of life” was in 2001, “A leidinni,” which means “On the way.” It was the first show that I used “my people.” I think it’s difficult to describe and vivify this event in words. As a symbolism, my figures moved in, on and out of the images on the walls, kind of traveling around the showroom. The idea was to create an experience of “the eternal cycle”, a constant movement in time and space. For instance, the environment was changing from the countryside to a more stressful city landscape. So, it was people in a life-long struggle. Like in this piece with a graffiti as a background.
My people, they all hope, but they can’t keep still. Nowadays I make some images where people spend the time in nature just enjoying themselves. But in this particular show I thought it was about being on the move all the time.
Meg: I know a lot about that.
Iréne: That will change.
Meg: I’m hoping it will. I need to learn to relax a little bit more. So I’m taking that as a good sign that we’re talking about this.
Iréne: Yes, yes, a race. At that time I thought it was about stress, but nowadays, when you get to 50, you have to think in another ways. How do I keep my life going on?
Meg: Tell me about the piece “Children of Nature,” which is the print I purchased!
Iréne: In 2006, my work was featured in an annual calendar published by Throskahjalp, a national health organization of 22 associations representing disabled people. It is their primary fundraising effort, it raises most of their income. So this was an honor for me, as well it’s good to help people. And one of my thoughts about this project was of “Natturubörn,” the children of nature. I think that every individual has the right to be treated as an equal, and get the opportunity to get around in nature as a “free spirit.”
Meg: Is there an exhibit you have participated in that involved travel?
Iréne: In 2007 my printmaking group, Grafikvinnustofan, collaborated with the Rodd printmakers´ in Wales, U.K. We took part in two linked exhibitions, “Antarctic views,” at the Sidney Nolan Trust in May and September. Sir Sidney Nolan (1917–1992) in his lifetime was recognized as one of the foremost international modern painters. He was born in Australia and moved to England in 1951. In 1964 Sidney Nolan visited the Antarctic as a guest of the United States Navy and a selection of his Antarctic series of paintings was shown in the summer of 2007 at the Rodd. The Trust adopted the theme in our joint shows.
The collaboration culminated with almost two weeks art residency at the Rodd manor and farm. It is a most charming place, a complex of ancient buildings, in the countryside on the boarder of Wales and England. We took part in and held seminars, workshops in various printmaking techniques during our well-organized stay. It was very intensive and also included time for local sightseeing, visits to artists and Herefordshire Art venues with the lovely Rodd printmakers´ members, as well.
Two of my contributions to “Antarctic views” were “Connection” and “Transformations II.”
“Connection” is about the individual seeking inside himself, to connect, challenge and conquer himself. And maybe searching for new and life-fulfilling experiences by going to remote places, like the Antarctic. As well as the individual is reflecting himself in other beings to get feedback.
“Transformations II” is about the global warming. In what way will the changes in the climate affect the glaciers in Iceland and in Antarctic? Will the ice melt away and the glaciers disappear? Will Iceland become a green land-country in the future? And, of course, the global warming is a very big issue concerning all the world today! I hope the meeting in Copenhagen can come up with some “agreements” to reduce this catastrophe.
Meg: Tell me about some of your other pieces and what they mean to you.
Iréne: “Endless possibilities” is about being at the beginning of an adventure, starting up fresh, free and open-minded to choose, gain and/or reject every opportunity that life may offer you. You will meet some new challenges and obstructions on the path, but you can overcome them and become strong.
“In time and space,” this image is about people connecting, passing through each other both in time and space. Generations come and go and pass along, share what they have “learned” in their lives. I used this image both in the 2006 calendar and in the show at the Museum of the archipelagos of Stockholm in 2007. The “background” is a close-up photo of an old rowing boat built by my grandfather. This image is to me personally like paying my respect to my ancestors.
Meg: Has a stranger ever made a difference in your day, and, if so, could you describe the experience?
Iréne: I just remember a little incident in my workshop in midtown of old Reykjavik, a long time ago. It was open for everyone to visit us. One day a woman came in and I was showing her around and talking about my work, techniques and the Icelandic culture. When she left she said, “You made my day.” Maybe she was two hours with me. I expected maybe she’d buy something, but she didn’t. But she said, “You made my day.” And I was glad anyway.
Meg: When was the first time you traveled alone and what was your impression of the experience?
Iréne: I myself am not a globetrotter, but some of my art prints has been in shows and international print exchange portfolios all over the world. It´s very convenient to be able to send your work- prints on paper, unframed, to participate in exhibitions in other countries.
Marcel Proust said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I think that these words represent my point of view as a visual artist. I mostly pay my attention to the nearby surroundings, where ever I am situated, to collect and select new impressions. I focus on and take close-up photos of various surfaces like the ground, walls and things that now are “useless” or out of repair. I can later on use and transform some of these images in my printmaking. I change the dimensions (micro-macro) and create a new kind of landscape.
Meg: A lot of people question their “inner voice” or “intuition,” and can be afraid it is only wishful thinking. What is your experience with intuition?
Iréne: I sometimes hear my inner voice, but as a most practical person, you know, I´m not always paying my attention and respect to it as I should. I think maybe it’s a lifetime process to understand yourself, find out who you really are, what´s right for you by trusting your intuition.
Meg: Have you ever taken a “wrong turn” and had an experience or learned or seen something that you would not have wanted to miss?
Iréne: Maybe I can say that when I was going to begin studying occupational therapy, I wished to stay in Stockholm, but I got entrance in Jönköping. There, I met my husband. I ended up in Iceland, and I got my childhood dream fulfilled to become an artist, in this little country. Even though things maybe aren’t exactly what you want at first, it turns out well in the end.
Meg: Do you consider your work a spiritual practice?
Iréne: Not in general, but in some stages of the creative process. For instance, when I reach that total concentration, a kind of meditative state of mind. A timeless space, where I find my own right rhythm and feel the power of my inner sources. All my actions, ideas and thoughts make sense, comes together and everything falls in its right path. Then suddenly I feel the right “flow” and I can perform and create new artworks.
Meg: What is a spiritual practice you engage in?
Iréne: Yoga, although I don’t practice it daily, I do it when I feel sad or need some private time and space to sort things out, and find my own rhythm.
Meg: Have you ever had an experience that affirmed you were on the right path, that made you feel you were moving in the right direction?
Iréne: It happens now and then, for instant, when I get feedback on my work, when someone has been moved in a positive way by it. It makes me feel grateful.
Meg: Can you describe an experience where you felt fear or self-doubt, and how you dealt with that?
Iréne: Every time I open a solo show, I get a sense of exposing myself — and you have to go through with it, there is no return, or you are just a failure. You have to accept the critique, but most of the time you get a good response and feedback. You get stronger and more self-confident.
My first big show in Reykavik in 1995, it was a big project on the history of Iceland, up to today, from my point of view. It involved an image of a stone with rune letters, which are all over the Nordic countries, it was about the Viking warriors, the Icelandic Sagas, one shape was the “Last Icelander,” the last Catholic bishop, whose robe is preserved at the National Gallery, he was decapitated in 1550. The big volcano eruption during a period of three years in the 1780s, and it was also about the country being known as the “book nation”- Iceland has one of the world’s highest literacy rates and its people publish, buy and read a lot of books.
There was a conflict between Norway and Iceland in 1995 about a fishing zone between the two countries. In my piece, there were a lot of fish hiding in this “small” area. The Norwegian ambassador bought the piece, he understood the humor of it. A critic made a reference to Havamal “Glöggt er gests auga,” or ‘a guest is keener in noticing peculiar things than the locals,’ in commenting that I was not Icelandic. Havamal is the words of Odin, the highest god in the Nordic mythology. So I was very pleased with that reaction to my work.
Meg: Can you tell me about your piece “Towards the light”…?
Iréne: I’m also a member in “Islensk Grafik,” the Icelandic Printmakers Association. The Association has built up a fully-equipped workshop and a showroom as well, but it still runs on voluntary work basis. This society marked its 40th anniversary in 2009, with several events held to bring attention to fine art printmaking. In November-December, I and about 40 of the 70 members held a show with great diversity and variety of contemporary prints, in the Nordic house.
My contribution was a piece entitled “Towards the light,” it´s like a message to the Icelandic people. Because, I think in those hard times in Iceland, with the economic and financial collapse, it was quite a depressing year for us. And as I say with the theme, I wanted to try to give some hope of better times. Put some light in the darkness and make for a brighter future.
The year’s “tragic” events also inspired me to create two political sculptures made of aluminum plates and Icelandic coins. I tried to depict the unstable Icelandic currency’s difficulty to keep its course, floating or falling. I hope that the crisis awakened people to note that money and possessions are not what is the most important in life.
As Albert Camus said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads.”