Iceland is a small island filled with great big things. Big landscapes, big stories, big personalities. One of the most insular and unique cultures I’ve experienced. Walking around downtown Reykjavik, you can see the island’s history everywhere, from the architecture to the handcraft culture that takes advantage of the rare materials and inspirations available on the island. That’s where Kolbrún S. Kjarval comes in, an artisan of Iceland using inspiration from the island in a non traditionally Icelandic craft, ceramics.
She’s a clay artist, a specialized potter who grew interested in pottery before it was really prominent at all in the Icelandic art scene. There there are now dozens of artisans making artwork, several of whom joined together to create Kaolin Collective. Kjarval’s a part of that group of (currently) all-female potters, peddling their eclectic and imaginative work in a beautiful whitely lit space in downtown Reykjavik.
I stepped into the gallery one day and Kjarval was in for the day. We struck up a conversation and I was fascinated by her story, so she let me interview her. I came back just hours later and even though she was the only person manning the shop, we were able to talk, frequently interrupted by friends from her book club, other potters from the gallery, and curious tourists. We barely got an entire question in at a time, but I felt the connection there all the same. Here’s a bit more about her, and her crazy handcraft:
Where are you located and do you do your work?
Akrenes, it’s just 40 minutes drive from Reykjavik. I moved there because it was cheaper to buy a house, and I wanted space. And I bought this old, it used to be a home for elderly people. After that, it was a club for young people, so upstairs that used to be the discotheque and I haven’t changed that at all.
What kind of tools do you use in your studio?
Well, I’ve got my throwing wheels. The table for the slab, the kiln — all the things you need for a potters studio. I do some painting too, so I want to have space!
It seems like of your stuff is very hand-crafted…
Yeah, I throw them and then I mold them, and I do them by hand. And we have to import all of the clay, because we don’t have any clay in Iceland. We have got a lot of clay, but not clay we can use. But we can use it for decoration, things like that. Sometimes I mix the lava into the clay to get spots, because it comes through the glaze in the firing.
And how did you get interested in ceramics?
It was through the family, because there’s no tradition in Iceland for pottery. When I was a child, we lived in an art school. We lived on the top floor, and three floors down it was one of the first art schools in Iceland. My father was an interior designer, a furniture designer, and we lived in his studio.
Then they started some pottery down in the school. So I’ve got some things that I made when I was seven. My oldest sister, she studied ceramics too. But when we wanted to study ceramics, you couldn’t study in Iceland because no one was teaching it. So she went to Denmark, and I went to Scotland. I was at the
Edinborough College of Art. And then my brother the farmer, he learned pottery, too. We are three — and then one of my brothers he died last year, which was very very sad. He was an architect and city planner in Reykjavik, and then my younger sister is a painter in Denmark. So we are all connected to art in a big way. So that’s why the only thing I can do is make something with my hands.
So you had a very artistic family?
I come from a very artistic family. My father made a lot of things, you can see them in the design museum today. But he was young when he moved to Denmark. My grandfather is a very known artist in Iceland —
they’ve got a museum named for him, Kjarvalsstaðir. It’s our family name. And he’s on some of the money, too! It’s very easy to be famous in Iceland. But they’ve got his painting in the museums in Britain, and US, and they just had a big exhibition of my grandfather’s paintings in St. Petersburg, in Russia. So he’s well-known Iceland.
It must have been nice growing up with a family that encouraged art...
When I was a child I thought everyone was like that! But when I found out it wasn’t, I was very surprised. Talking about colors, going to exhibitions — I thought everyone did that. That’s how I came to the clay.
And then the theme that you have running through your work...
The birds! They came because I was making some glaze tests, and I was throwing some things and pinched it together. And then I fired them and used them for glaze tests, and then one evening I was sitting in my studio and thought “it looks like a bird!” and that’s how it started!
How did you get started with this gallery?
I started my own gallery in 2000, here. I bought this place and had my studio. When my mother moved to Iceland in 2006 from Denmark I had to take care of her, I was very busy doing that.
Then my brother got sick. I decided to close the gallery in 2010, and right when I had decided that, my dog died. He was always here, in the gallery, and he said “I have done my duty here.” So I closed the gallery and had moved to Akrenes.
And then I announced the place was open, and everyone wanted to rent it. And then this group came, Kaolin Pottery. I knew some of them and thought that it was good, I would like to have a group. After they had been here just two years, two of them left the group and I thought that I could be part of it as well! I asked them if they would have me, and they said yes. So I came in, as the old lady. And I’ve been here since April.
So yes, it’s very nice to be in, so I love being here.
What do you see going forward? Do you have a plan for the future?
I never make plans, actually. Things just happen. They happen for a reason, but I think that’s yourself making those reasons. But I always thought I was just floating! I’m just getting old and I haven’t got the same strength I had. I’ll be 70 in January. But I’m just going to go on, and and I’m going to San Francisco one day, and Berkeley, I’m sure of that. And I want to see Seattle, too. You never know! But I’m going to make pottery and art always, as long as I live. I’m not going to play golf.