Carving the future

Jón Adólf Steinólfsson was born in Reykjavik. He has studied wood carving in Icelandic, Germany and England.

Jón follows an old tradition for he often works with driftwood. Driftwood from Siberia is caught in ice and gradually brought by the ocean currents to Iceland. Wood also comes from other parts of the world, ending up on Iceland´s beaches. Some historians have claimed that without driftwood, Iceland would not have been habitable.

Driftwood was so precious that a host of laws regarding its ownership were passed and enforced. Traditionally, driftwood was used for building nbut also for fuel, to make boats, furniture and to create charcoal. Imported wood was so expensive that it was only available to the foreign traders and to the wealthiest Icelanders.

Given this history, it´s not surprising that Jón carves driftwood.

In his show at the INL 94th convention, there are a number of pieces which reveal both his techniques and his interests.

Many of his works , if you look at his website,, are well done carvings and include things like picture frames or masks. However, he steps away from that role with pieces like Lif (Life), done in lime wood and birch. Here, he becomes the sculptor and, interestingly, for me, at least, I see in this piece influences of Iceland’s religious past.


Not only is a child being born from wood but given the texture of the wood on which it sits, it appears to be being born from a chaotic environment and even hell.

The other piece that caught my eye was Leit að Takka (Looking for any key). The face in the wood made me think immediately of the carvings of the West Coast aboriginal art. Often this West Coast art is obvious, representative of totems and myth but sometimes It goes beyond that and keeps within itself some mystery below the surface of the wood. Leit að Takka is like that. Or like, perhaps, like an iceberg where the tip only reveals a small part of what lies beneath the surface. Here, where the obvious is not invoked, mystery brings the viewers eye and mind back to look time and again.


Odin’s Eagle


For a very long time in Iceland there was little art. It wasn’t because Icelanders were not creative or artistic but grinding poverty where people lay in bed because there was nothing to eat, did not allow for money to be spent on art supplies.

There was very little silver coin. Financial transactions were mostly done in trade. The Icelandic land owners would trade their wool, meat, fish, feathers, skins, knitting, sheep, horses, with Danish traders and the Danish traders would, in return, provide all those necessities Iceland could not provide such as nails, horseshoes, European cloth rather than wadmal, needles, brandy, tobacco, sugar, rice, rye flour. The list of items needed from Europe was large, seemingly endless. The traders set the prices for both buying and selling.

There was woodcarving because there was driftwood available. It can be seen in askar, bed headboards, trunks. Therefore, it seems particularly appropriate at this INL convention that the two artists who have their work on display are both sculptors working in wood.

One is Tryggvi Thorlief Laram. His sculpture, one cannot really call it carving, is based around Germanic and Icelandic history and myths.


His piece called “Beast of Prey” is derived from an archeological find in Upsalla, Sweden. The original was a small limestone carving used for a mold to make decorated dress pins. It is believed to date from the 9th to 10th C. His notes with the sculpture say that “To date no full sale dragon heads carved for a Viking prow have been unearthed” and that “the dragon heads were meant to transform war ships into writhing dragons or sea steeds but were not permanently fixed to the war ship prows.”

A second piece called “The Horsemen” is based on a picture from the Europen migration period. Although the original is not a Viking artifact, it looks similar to images from Viking timesl

A three dimensional piece from Icelandic arctic birch with a base made from American black granite is called Odin’s Eagle.

Tryggvi informs the viewer that a Scandinavian name for an eagle was corpse-gulper and, it was believed, that at the birth of a prominent hero, an eagle would scream. That same eagle would later feast on the bodies of the enemies of the hero.

Tryggvi’s biography says that he was born in 1956 in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland to a Norwegian-American father and Icelandic mother and at three years of age he immigrated to California. .

In 1975, following in his father’s footsteps, he served as an American soldier in Northern Italy. Then, in the 1980’s, he returned to Iceland to retrace his ancestry while serving aboard Icelandic fishing trawlers.

Currently, he lives in California.

His work is impressive because there is a solidity about it that evokes the ages. It is not just that his subject matter is taken from ancient times  but also the way he treats the medium. The solidity of the wood gives a sense of age and permanence and quickly draws a viewer’s attention.

His art work has brought him recognition and awards. Further examples can be viewed at