Iceland is an unlikely place to find an instrument manufacturer. A census done in the late 1830s found that there were almost no musical instruments in the entire country.
The first pianos and large church organs arrived only towards the 1840s. And yet the country has shown itself recently to be full of instrument-making zeal, at a popular as well as artisan level, as demonstrated by the many do-it-yourself instruments used by bands in the Icelandic indie music scene.
Hans Jóhannsson is a representative of the high art of violin-making, but his personal interests are remarkably wide and varied.
A fan of heavy metal music since his youth, his Facebook page shows him astride a motorcycle speeding along on his way somewhere. He easily straddles the worlds of science and art, belonging to a select group of violin-makers & scientists studying how to improve the modern violin, and is collaborating with international art phenomenon Ólafur Eliasson to create a new violin for the 21st century. I spoke to him on a sunny day last October in his wood-paneled workshop across from the big Bónus grocery store on Ingolfsstræti in downtown Reykjavík, amid bubbling pots of glue and the skeletal wooden forms of his works in progress.
During our conversation he was continually picking up and adjusting some of the violins he was working on, playing short scale passages and little bits of melody. So I asked him first of all about the relationship between making a violin and playing one.
Does a good violin-maker have to be a good violinist? I think it helps. I have colleagues that don’t play at all, but I think their work takes longer because they have to constantly be consulting with musicians. But I’ll never become a good violinist myself because I just spend too much time making violins rather than playing them.
How does one become a violin-maker? Up till 50 to 80 years ago there was the apprenticeship system, but nowadays you get your formal training in a school environment. I went to England for mine. From 1977-1980 I was in the Newark School of Violin-Making in Nottinghamshire.
They actually have schools specifically to teach violin-making? Yes, but there aren’t very many of them, only 4 or 5 high-level schools in the world, so they’re not in every community. It’s not a very common thing to learn. And once you’ve acquired the skill, where do the components come from? The wood is extremely difficult to find.
Most of it is spruce, from the Balkan peninsula and the southern Alps, although I’m very keen at the moment on using Canadian spruce because it’s so light, especially Engelmann spruce. There are some beautiful varieties that grow in British Columbia.
Being really light means that it responds well to sound waves? Anything light is easier to get to move and it takes less energy to transform the motion of the violinist into sound. You mentioned your “colleagues.” Do you mean fellow Icelanders, or are you the only violin-maker in the country?No, there are two or three others here in Iceland, but I am the only one, I think, who makes violins full-time.
There’s a need here for restoration and repairs, but I don’t really do much of that. I’ve always been quite stubborn and I refuse a lot of work, although, I do re-hair bows. It’s kind of a nice job to do in the morning with your cup of tea. How many different instruments do you make? I make violins, violas, cellos & double basses.
Double basses I make with a colleague in Holland. We have made maybe one bass a year for about the last 20 odd years. But mostly I make violins and cellos. And then I’m doing some experimental work, which is really fun. I’m doing a project with the artist Ólafur Eliasson in Berlin and an architect in Oslo, Andreas Eggertsen. We are developing a 21st-century violin, which is basically just a violin, but it’s based on the aesthetics and the trends of contemporary design.
Is that the future of violin-making? You’ll always have the classics. The wonderful achievements of the Italian violin-makers of the 17th and 18th centuries, Stradivarius & Guarneri, are still with us, but I’ve never understood why there is no contemporary design movement. I mean, why didn’t we have an Art Nouveau violin, or a Bauhaus violin in those days? I continue to make mostly traditional instruments and that’s my clientele, but I also have this side project that’s really exciting, which I am very much involved with these days. I prefer to do it, though, through the world of art and architecture worlds.
Classical musicians are notoriously … Conservative? Yes, conservative. How much are you an artisan and how much are you a scientist? I know that I will never be a scientist because I don’t have the time to train myself in the maths and the engineering, but I belong to a group of violin-makers that has a dialogue with researchers. There’s a very interesting group that’s actually working together on certain problems of violin-making, and …
Do they have an official name? It’s all centered around a group that meets at Oberlin, Ohio every year. It’s called the Oberlin Acoustics Group, and there are some extremely fine scientists in that group, people who are particularly interested in the problems of violin tone. And so it’s extremely interesting for us as violin-makers, learning to re-shape the way we imagine things to be working in our heads. But, having said that, the finest violin-making still comes from an empirical way of learning how to do things. Science still hasn’t found the answers.
There’s a violin of yours in the hands of María Huld from the Amiina string quartet, but she plays an electronic stringed instrument, as well. And the jazz-rock fusion band Agent Fresco has a stand-up bass that’s just like a big plastic toothpick with strings and electronic gear on it. What do you think of these new-fangled electronic stringed instruments? Well, I think it’s very interesting for people to explore that avenue, because with an electronic signal you can do almost anything. You can manipulate it in any way you want, but I still think that the complexity of an acoustic instrument is far beyond the complexity of these electric instruments.
So how many instruments do you produce a year? Around 8 to 10. And are your clients from Iceland only, or international? Mostly from abroad: Europe, from Luxembourg where I lived for many years, and then from the US, as well. And what does a good violin cost? My violins are around 30,000 US dollars. Excuse me, the glue is boiling over … (we go over to a pot on the table near the window, where a small pot of glue is bubbling over a little gas flame)
So you know how to make different types of glues. Yeah, but it’s actually just one type of glue. The best glue there is. It’s gelatine glue, just made from skins. The Egyptians used something similar. I’ve just come from there, actually, from Egypt, and I went, of course, to visit all the tombs. They made some incredible furniture, the Egyptians, glued together with this stuff. And it still works.
The gelatine swells up and then you melt it, then when it dries it shrinks again so it sort of pulls things together. It’s an extremely strong and good glue. And the good thing about it also, for instrument-making, is that you can always get it apart, without damaging anything. If you would use normal white Elmer’s glue, it doesn’t stay. You can’t use this traditional glue after someone has used white glue. So it’s a real no-no to repair violins with white glue. And unfortunately many of them have been by people who didn’t know what they were doing. One final question.
Your son is in the heavy metal band Swords of Chaos, and you are a heavy metal fan yourself, I understand. Has your son expressed any interest in your trade, or have you tried to lure him into your profession? I have never tried to lure my children into what I am interested in. But he is studying composition, so he is interested in anything that has to do with sound. He has no plans to become an instrument maker, although he has made his own electric bass and a couple of other instruments, as well. So it does run in the family. Maybe, yes, because we’re interested in the same things, really.
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You can learn more about Hans Jóhannsson on his website at http://www.centrum.is/hansi/ and about the Oberlin Acoustics Group at http://www.oberlinacoustics.net/
On March 31, 2010, Ione Thorkelsson was in Rideau Hall, receiving a Governor General’s (Bronfman) Award, one of Canada’s foremost distinctions for excellence in the artistic disciplines. These awards carry a prize valued at $25,000.
Ione has an interesting and impressive list of accomplishments. After four years of studying architecture at the University of Manitoba, she started working in the artistic field.
In 1973, she started making vividly coloured functional blown glass.
Over 35 years ago she built her own studio and proceeded to teach herself the intricate technique of kiln fired glass. As she was a pioneer in this art form, years were spent perfecting the techniques necessary to create finished pieces.
From her unique home on the edge of an ancient escarpment of glacial Lake Agassiz near Roseisle, MB, Ione has begun creating a body of cast glass pieces and installations based on biological forms. An image of her work is displayed in the Icelandic National League of North America’s 2010 Artisan Calendar for November.
After 40 years of working as an artist, Ione has an impressive list of contributions to the artistic community in the form of exhibitions, collections, shows, publications and journals. In 2007, she was inducted into the Royal Canadian Association of Artists. More can be learned by visiting the CanadaCouncil.ca web site or Ione’s personal web site at http://www.thorkelsson.com/.
Ione’s grandparents, Halldor and Gudrun Thorkelsson arrived in Winnipeg in 1914. They lived on Sam Baldwin’s Island by the Narrows for a year, then homesteaded near Dog Lake and later moved to Ashern. Her parents Edwin and Margaret Webster were both from Ashern.
For years she has been involved with the Icelandic community which as she says, “has been such a great support for me”. This same community was watching with great pride as she accepted the award from Governor General Michaëlle Jean in the capital city.
David Ingvar Gutnick has been a CBC radio reporter and host for 25 years. He lives in Montréal. David is the son of the late Þórdís (Thordis) Ásgeirsson and Nelson Gutnick of Calgary.
Snæfellsjökull is an important symbol of your Icelandic heritage is it not?
Snæfells – the volcano Snæfellsjökull – and the surrounding region of the Snæfellsness Peninsula are a deep part of the mythological Iceland that I have been living with for as long as I can remember.
Our family has roots there we children were told, though details were scant; there were no albums of fading pictures of homesteads, no story-filled evenings where we would hear of our ancestor’s heroic battles with the sea or tragic tales of poverty and hunger. Conversations on the farm were about the weather, and Tommy Douglas and the CCF, and about whose turn it was to dump the slop pail.
There were few explanations of why my mother’s parents and grandparents had left paradise to homestead in North Dakota and Saskatchewan.
My handsome afi had come to Canada with his brothers, signed up to fight in the muddy French trenches – we had a sepia photo – and how he had left a Guðmundur dead in Vimy. We knew that for the rest of his life he carried a dark sense of guilt and shame.
My little amma, a Guðmundson, was born in the states and with her parents eventually settled near Elfros.
My sisters and I heard Icelandic but never figured out what the adults were saying. I knew the precious books near my afi and amma’s sagging bed contained poems and sagas, myths and stories. But since I could not read them I had the impression that the Iceland was therefore inaccessible….
So instead I invented a country of my own.
Iceland had been home to Ásgeirssons and Guðmundsons in a foggy past, a dream filled with geysers and sheep and ice and lava that was as close to perfect as perfect could be.
Mother-earth Iceland was white and pure, the Alþingi was the real birthplace of democracy, a no nonsense place where poetry spilled from the lips of farmers and fishers.
Icelanders ate vínarterta and rúllupylsa and pönnukökur, the foods my amma and mom and two aunts cooked up at Christmas. Men tucked rock-hard lumps of sugar under their lower lips and slurped their boiling strong coffee off saucers.
And then there was my father’s Jewish culture – the other grandfather was zeida – which we absorbed in different ways.
Always, always from the days on the farm through elementary school in the Northwest Territories and Fort Qu’appelle, Saskatchewan to high school in a Calgary to university years in Halifax and Québec City, I watched people and made-up stories about what I had seen.
In 1985 I had a job working with Inuit teenagers in Québec City. They were flown down from the north and billeted with families so that they could learn French. I was their big brother, their guardian; I distributed their bus passes and made sure they showed up to class and dental appointments. I rented a house where they would come on weekends to hang out together and eat the caribou and seal meat that their parents sent down.
One Friday evening Talasia Tulugak was kneeling over a seal carcass, slicing off chunks of blubber and meat and handing it to the hungry students who crowded around her. Talasia handed a piece to Tommy Putugu who stuck it in his mouth, along with an Oreo cookie. And I had a epiphany: Some of these teenagers had been born in igloos, now here they were in the south, spending their weekends watching rock videos on television and stuffing themselves with junk and the country food that they so loved. The entire history of Inuit culture was in Tommy’s mouth, a chewed up bloody chocolate mess that he found entirely delicious.
I went to the CBC and told them that this was worth a story. Someone gave me a tape recorder and I did it.
Summer came and the students went home. They are now leaders in the fourteen villages of Nunavik, the Inuit territory in Northern Québec.
I have been reporter for CBC radio for twenty-five years.
Question: But I rarely hear you on the news.
I am not really a news reporter. I do go and cover news events occasionally, but I am not good at being tight and focussed and smart in a minute ten seconds. Many of my colleagues are extremely good at simplifying very complex stories and working under tight deadlines. Not me.
I spent three weeks in Haiti after the quake. My job was to try and tell stories about the people I met so that listeners would have a better idea of what the daily lives of Haitians were like in Port-au-Prince.
I took palm-sized recorder and microphone with me wherever I went.
I wanted to put names and faces to these people because they deserve to be known.
Before January 12th the eleven members of the Merisier family had been living in a house in a neighbourhood called Delma 56. Now they live in a tent made from sheets in a vacant lot. I asked if I could stay with them for a couple of days because I wanted Canadians to hear what it is like for a family to live with almost no food, little clean water, no toilets and no electricity. I wanted them to hear the anguish in the father’s voice and the sadness in the voice of the teenagers who no longer had a school to go to and who were not allowed to go out in the evenings because their father Madsen, and their mother Nadine, were too afraid they would be raped or get lost.
I did lots of other stories as well; I spoke to a Voodoo priestess – a mambo – who was helping to organize food into her community, I asked a factory owner if he was running sweatshops or paying decent wages for work well done. I asked an economist how the tug of war between Haiti’s rich and poor could change now that so many people were out of work and desperate.
I continually try to make pictures that are so clear that they remain in listener’s heads. What happens after that is out of my hands.
I could go on and on about Fifi and her gang of courageous women in Mali who are fighting genital mutilation one small village at a time, or the underground church preacher in Beijing who leads prayer sessions in secret, or the piano teacher in Montréal who left his bust of Beethoven to an immigrant girl who was his most prized student ever.
As a reporter I have the privilege of listening to passionate people talk about their lives. If I can get their stories to you so that they are clear and make you think and feel then I have done my job.
Back in 1979 I moved to Québec City because it seemed so exotic, I had this deep need to try and become part of the other, to live and dream in a language that was not my own. Perhaps I was trying to relive the immigrant experience that my afi and amma and zeida had lived a couple of generations earlier, betting that a better life could be built on new soil.
Sunday morning. I am sitting at my kitchen table in Montréal looking east. The spring sun has turned snow into slush. Dogs sniff around the alley, a kid on a bicycle rides through a puddle. A group of teenagers heads up to the treed paths on Mont Royal, a quick way of getting away from the hustle bustle and drone of constant traffic. This evening I will be having supper with my teenage daughter. She thinks of herself as a Québécoise, more Francophone than Anglophone. Her middle name is Sóley – buttercup. She will be spending the summer in Iceland and likely stay on a farm in Snæfellsness.
There must be a story there somewhere.
Complete interview available on our Online Stories page.
Vala wasn’t a common name in Iceland when Vala Ola was a child; she searched the phone book every year for other Valas. So when I told her that I had a seven-year-old granddaughter named Vala who dreamed of being an artist, Vala Ola wanted to meet her.
Bill Valgardson had sent me a photo of one of Vala Ola’s paintings, and I was moved, for the first time in my life, to write to an artist I’d never met to tell her how much I admired her work.
She replied to my e-mail immediately, informing me that she lives in Cave Creek, Arizona, and that her work was being shown that very month at the Celebration of Fine Art in Scottsdale. And here I was, spending the winter in Oro Valley, Arizona, and my granddaughter, Vala Ingolfsson, was visiting.
It didn’t take us long to make our way to Scottsdale to Vala Ola’s show.
Born Vala Ólafsdóttir in 1962 in Reykjavík, Vala Ola is the daughter of Ólafur Jóhann Jónsson and Ingibjörg Þórðardóttir. “As a kid growing up in Reykjavík”, she says, I would stand in front of Einar Jónsson’s bronze monument, Útlaginn [The Outlaw], awestruck as it towered over me against the grey sky”.
When Vala was four, she showed her father her drawing of a horse with a green scarf and hat. She remembers that “his eyes opened wide”, and he called her mother to come and see their daughter’s creation. Even at that young age, she came to a significant realization: “I must be good at drawing”. From age 13, she took classes drawing live models, then attended Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlið and Listaháskóli Íslands.
But art came so easily to Vala that she never considered it challenging. When her father suggested that art would be a good career for her, she was insulted. “Is he not encouraging me to take a proper university degree because I’m a girl?” she wondered. And so she enrolled in computer programming.
Then one day, on her way home from school, she experienced an eureka:
As I walked that morning in the newly fallen snow, I became acutely aware of my every step. I stopped and looked back at my trail, and realized that I was free to take my footsteps in any direction I fancied. Three days later I sat at a drawing table in my new job as a graphic designer. Seven years later I represented Iceland for the Nordic Graphic Design and Illustration Awards.
(She could have added that she won the Icelandic Design Award at 26).
Having decided that her future was in the visual arts, Vala attended The Art Institute in Bournemouth, England, where she had an exhibit in 1992. It was in England that she visited a psychic who told her that she would soon live in USA. She scoffed at the idea: “Pink flamingos and cowboy hats. I don’t think so!” But her future would prove the psychic right and Vala wrong: “If you want to make God laugh”, she says, “tell him your plans”.
In 1994 she visited her brother in Dallas, and travelled with him to the famed artists’ center of Santa Fe. Arriving there with nothing but her backpack, she decided on the spot to make Santa Fe her home: “It was love at first sight. There was no turning back. I surrendered to the unknown, the wild west. Like a piece of blank paper, I awaited what was to come.” What was to come – and quickly – was a career as a highly successful portrait artist who was fully booked a year in advance.
In 2001, Vala moved to Arizona, and turned to a new blank page. She began to define herself as a sculptor.
Fellow artists thought I was crazy to let go of a successful career as a portrait artist, but I had reached a point where I had to expand and explore new territories. In 2002 I sold my first sculpture, and I haven’t looked back since.
By now Vala is used to turning pages. And she encourages every artist who wants to change media to “have courage, and let go. It’s a freefall for awhile, but you’ll learn how to fly. So if the urge comes, embrace growth.”
Vala’s flights have lifted off from a sound base. Her rigorous training in Iceland and England have provided her with the type of solid background that she would recommend to any young artist: “Drawing from a model is essential to mastering the figure in art. Joining an atelier to study under a master is a classical system that has produced some of the greatest artists in history”.
Vala Ola has been honoured again and again in Europe and North America by art critics and her peers. She is a Professional Elected Member of the National Sculpture Society in USA, and her work appears in some of the most prestigious galleries across the country.
To see more of Vala’s work, you can go to www.valaola.com. Or better yet, Google “Vala Ola”, where you’ll be guided not only to her website, but to a world of art dealers, art gallery owners and art critics who hold her work in high esteem. One such site, run by Western Art & Architecture, with a section known as “Ones to Watch”, brings the work of highly talented visual artists to the attention of fellow artists.
Spotlighting Vala, it reads: “The smooth bodies and delicate limbs of Vala Ola’s figurative sculptures seem to dance on the head of a pin... She embeds each piece with emotional power, somehow trancending her materials to express passion and innocence, self-awareness and complete abandon.”
Even the uneducated are awed by the exquisite detail and inherent motion of Vala Ola’s sculptures. Turn away for a second, and you’ll be sure you saw that bronze bunny move its paw, that bronze mother squeeze her child a little tighter. But beware. Vala’s pieces worm their way into your heart, where they embed themselves forever.
After once seeing Sunkissed, I found myself envisioning it every night before I fell asleep and waking to an image of it sitting on our coffee table in Gimli. The second time I saw it, I noticed new detail – the mother’s toenails, the muscles of her legs, the pride in her little boy’s face as he kisses her, hiding his gift behind his back. The third time I saw Sunkissed, I brought it home.
And as for the meeting of Vala and Vala? It was a touching moment. Then learning that they’re seventh cousins – what could be sweeter!
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Anne Bishop: On April 11, 2010, Anne Bishop of Mount Denson, Kings County, was the guest speaker at the AGM of the Icelandic Memorial Society of Nova Scotia. Anne was born in Ontario and moved to Nova Scotia in 1979.
She apprenticed as a shepherd in Pictou County at a sheep farm with 750 ewes. She is an adult educator and for the past five years has taught provincial government employees.
In 1972 she worked on three farms in Iceland. She now runs a l0 acre farm with her partner, Jan Morrell.
Vikings: Anne’s slide presentation began with scenes of how the Vikings bred sheep for meat, milk and wool. Their summer clothing items were made of linen, but the majority of their clothing was made out of wool. It was woman’s work to spin and weave and the tool for spinning was the “drop spindle”. A “spindle whorl” was discovered at the Viking site at L’Anse Aux Meadows. This provided evidence that sheep and women were at that early Viking settlement.
Spinning Wheel: The spinning wheel was invented in the 14th century and Icelandic women adopted a German form of it called a “castle wheel”. This is a bit different from the side “saddle wheel” commonly used in America. Anne brought along her portable spinning wheel. On the long winter evenings, in the main room of the farmhouses all over Iceland the women would spin and the men would carve wood while someone read from the sagas.
Transporting Sheep: The Vikings transported their livestock, including their sheep, in knarr ships where they evolved into the Hebridean, Shetland, and the Soay breeds of sheep. These, along with the Scandinavian members of the family, like the Spelsau, Gotland, Roslag and Finnsheep are now called the “Northern Short-Tailed Breeds”. In Iceland, the breed was kept isolated and preserved in pure form. It is illegal to import sheep into Iceland and for many years it was also illegal to export them.
Knitting: The Vikings did not have knitting. Instead they made socks and hats with a technique called “naalbinding”, using a large wooden needle with an eye, like an oversized darning needle. Now a great deal of knitting is done in Iceland, particularly the famous Icelandic sweaters made from the equally famous “Lopi wool” from the Alafoss woolen mill.
Iceland Training: In 1972 Anne worked for four months on farms in Iceland. The sheep are turned out in the spring to wander on their own for the summer. In the fall the sheep are retrieved in an event called the “rettir”. The farm families go out on horseback and drive the sheep into pie shaped pens where each family’s animals are separated out by nicks in their ears.
Icelandic Sheep In Canada: The first importation of Icelandic sheep to Canada happened in 1985. Stefania Sveinbjarnardóttir-Dignam emigrated to Canada in 197l. She and her husband Ray Dignam bought a farm at Parnham, Ontario in 1979. In 1984 when she began trying to bring Icelandic sheep to Canada it was still illegal to export them. It took her a year to convince Iceland’s chief veterinarian for an export permit. She got it with so many conditions that the importation looked impossible. Nevertheless by 1985 she finally brought 12 animals to Canada. She died in 2007, but by then her flock was the foundation for every flock of Icelandic sheep in North America.
Icelandic Sheep In Nova Scotia: The founding flock in Nova Scotia belongs to Bill and Kathy Crowson near Canning. They became interested when they heard Stefania interviewed by Peter Gzowski on CBC. Later Bill Mathewson from the Nova Scotia Agriculture College went on tour of the sheep industry in Iceland. In 2005 the Crowsons ordered eight ewes and two rams from Stefania.
Before they arrived they got a call from a neighbor who had found two Icelandic ewes wandering along the road on North Mountain. They were captured and after some research it was found that they had escaped from a farm of a young couple on North Mountain three weeks earlier. They had already decided to sell their farm and move elsewhere so were happy to have Bill and Kathy buy their ewes. Stefania later produced new copies of their registration papers.
In 2009 the Crowsons acquired two rams from a couple in Bridgewater. Also in 2009, after six months of paperwork, they imported six breeding animals from a flock in Maine. The Maine owners had been importing semen from Iceland and had established a more meat oriented line than the one Stefania was breeding.
Currently the Crowsons have 20 animals, 14 ewes and six rams. Beside the foundation animals they sold to Anne and Jan to start their flock, they have also sold breeding stock to Newfoundland, Cape Breton, the Magdalen Islands and the Malagash Peninsula. The Malagash flock began with two ewes and a ram which Bill placed in the Labour Day Breeding Stock Sale in 2007. These were the first Icelandic sheep to be sold at auction in Nova Scotia.
Last year’s woolclip from Bill and Kathy’s flock has gone to a spinner and weaver named Pia Skaarar Neilsen to be made into authentic curtains for the bed benches at the L’Anse aux Meadows historic site. This year’s woolclips will be made into blankets for the beds.
Characteristics: Anne showed pictures which show that Icelandic sheep are small. They are “primitive sheep” with a double coat (tog and thel) which spins up into a lovely soft yarn. The tog wool is used to make rainwear. The thel is softer and used to make clothing next to the skin. Anne said the wool grows up to 16 inches and their animals are sheared in the spring and the fall. She brought along samples of the wool and the tools used to make yarn.