Greeting me warmly at her front door, I was not surprised that Hildur Jónsson was wearing a familiar sweater of Icelandic wool. What a surprise it had been to discover I had a widely exhibited Icelandic artist living just across town!
After several years of admiring her art work, I was delighted by an invitation to come over for coffee and to see Hildur’s studio.
For many centuries artists have sought to evoke their experience of the Icelandic landscape through poetry and paintings. Hildur Jónsson invites us inside the natural beauty of Iceland through her hybrid art works constructed of fabric weavings.
When I first went to one of Hildur’s shows, I was immediately struck not only by the images, but the medium Hildur was using. Since wool is what weaves together Icelandic history, and Icelanders grow up with knitting and crocheting as skills they acquire with their language, it felt so right for me to see a work of art that held the colors and shapes of Iceland on a canvas of fiber.
Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1963. Her father, Ásgeir Jónsson, is a physician and when Hildur was eleven he took a position at the Cleveland Clinic. When the family moved back to Iceland after three years, Hildur kept up friendships in Cleveland and cherished memories of her time there. Hildur wanted to study Architecture, but there was no Architecture Program in Iceland in the early 80’s, so she decided to return to America and enrolled at Kent State University in 1983.
Exposed to her first class in sculpture at Kent State, Hildur realized she was drawn more to the fine arts than to architecture. She continued her studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art, one of the great art schools in the United States. Having learned to knit and crochet at a young age, she began to explore the fabric arts.
Hildur married Brian Schriefer, and they made their home in Cleveland Heights, settling into an airy white home with a third floor attic that they expanded into a sky-lit studio space. Brian is a Certified Public Accountant and among his clients he counts his wife, acting as her agent and business manager. They work in the same studio space, Brian in one corner at a desk overflowing with paper, and Hildur spread out over the rest of the room.
As Hildur showed me her studio, I was immediately drawn to the looms. Hildur weaves her art on a loom that looks just like the one I remember in my grandmother’s home! (The technology of looms hasn’t changed much over the centuries.) What Hildur brings to her weavings is a sensitive imagination that guides her application of paint to strands of silk to make an image whose colors and textures can call to mind the blue ice of glaciers, the white mist of waterfalls, the grit of a sandstorm or the green smudge of distant moss on a hillside.
Hildur begins her creative process with travel in Iceland. She and Brian own a second house in Iceland near the sea, and they go back each year during the summer and at Christmas time. Walking the countryside and travelling the country, Hildur documents her experiences with photographs.
Then she will work with the photographic images, zeroing in on one small part of the image, maybe blowing it up or looking at this one small piece intently until she has an interior image of color and texture that she wants to evoke. Then she draws that image. From there Hildur decides on the paint colours she will use to dye the yarn. Every strand has to be coloured at the right place for the weaving to reveal the image she wants.
Saul Ostrow, Chair of the Visual Arts and Technologies at the Cleveland Institute of Art, has described Hildur’s work as “hybrid”: “This cross breeding of painting and fiber vocabularies and methods permits Jónsson to by-pass the historical preoccupation concerned with the divide between craft and art.”
Hildur Jónsson has had several solo shows in the Cleveland area since 1994, as well as shows in Reykjavík, Akureyri, and New York. In group exhibitions, she has had work in shows in Spain, France, and Ireland. Her art is in the collections of many Cleveland institutions and the Reykjavík Art Museum. I was curious how Icelanders see her, since she has spent so much of her adult life in America. Hildur told me that her work has been well-received in Iceland.
Hildur’s work was accepted to the Akureyri Arts Festival last summer, and she continues to exhibit in America. Hildur Jónsson has never had an exhibition in Canada, but I felt sure that these subtle textured images that evoke the natural beauty of Iceland so well would find an appreciative audience anywhere in Canada.
With the coffee pot low and cinnamon buns all eaten, we compared notes about others of Icelandic descent we know in Cleveland, and we couldn’t get past counting them on the fingers of one hand. Whenever I am in the presence of Hildur Jónsson’s art work, however, I am transported to a land of fire and ice that I hold in my heart.