Grímur Hákonarsson


After the showing of Grímur Hakonarson’s movie, Rams, I introduced myself to him and arranged to meet him the next day at Victoria’s quintessentially British emporium, Murchie’s tea room. For the next two hours we discussed not only the making of Rams but also his films that I’d been able to watch on Icelandicfilmsonline.

He started by saying that his parents, Hakon Sigurgrimsson and U. Stefansdóttir, were from Flói. They had grown up in the country but like many Icelanders had moved to Reykjavik. As a result, Grímur had grown up in Reykjavik but was often sent to the countryside during the summer to live on a farm and when he was seventeen, he was sent to a farm where he lived and worked for strangers. It was part of the Icelandic growing up ritual. He learned about sheep. More importantly, he learned about the relationship of sheep farmers to their sheep. He said that many sheep farmers have a special relationship to their animals, particularly their sheep. This isn’t surprising since in Iceland, where the only crop was hay–no grain would ripen–the welfare of the sheep was paramount. The sheep provided milk and meat plus skin and wool for clothes. As well, he has relatives who were sheep farmers who had to deal with scrapie, a deadly disease that was brought to Iceland by an imported English ram in the 1800s. Like many experiences that influence a writer, these events lay waiting to be assembled and developed until he was ready to fit them into the story of two brothers who raised sheep in an isolated valley.

He writes and directs his own scripts and does it successfully. That, in itself, is quite amazing to me. I’ve had a dozen radio dramas produced and have sold a couple of TV scripts. As well, I’ve had a number of my stories made into films and, in my experience, most film makers cannot write a decent script. Grímur is a happy exception. He has a sense of narrative and understands the needs to link events together in a causal chain. As director he has an eye for detail and its use to express human emotion.

Writers have been compared to ravens who collect shiny objects to put into their nest. That image doesn´t do the writer justice in the sense that it implies the nest will be filled with brightly colored, happy baubles. Those shiny objects might also be finger bones or teeth or observed images that capture some aspect of a person. An example of Grímur’s ravenness is a scene in which a character cuts his toenails with a huge pair of scissors (one person suggested that the scissors were so large that she thought their actual purpose must be for sheep shearing). Grímur said that he had seen his grandfather cut his toenails with scissors like this and had tucked away the image.

Like all successful writers, he’s also got an eye for observing people’s behaviour and how they act out their emotions. A notable moment in his film, Wrestling, was after the two male lovers had quarreled over no longer keeping their relationship secret. The married farmer who had pushed the idea and was rejected is seen driving his tractor towing a large tank spraying liquid fertilizer. When I said to Grimur that I thought it was a perfect example of his ability to create a visual expression of someone’s repressed emotion, he laughed and agreed.

When he was a teenager, he started to make films along with his friends. He made two short documentaries. He then went to FAMU, the Czech film school. He made a short called Slavik the Shit. The plot is simple, there isn’t much dialogue, and the technique Grímur will develop is apparent as he focuses in on the tight scenes in which the setting reflects the internal life of Slavik. There are closely framed pictures of the bareness of Slavik’s work place, including one in which he is trying and failing to repair a toilet seat. In these scenes, it is the carefully modulated facial expressions of the main character that shows us what he is feeling. It is not mime because mime exaggerates, is larger than life to make its point, but with Grímur taking advantage of the possible intimacy of film in close ups, he is able to show us how his characters feel rather than have them tell us. If he were not a close observer of people and the tiny behaviours that reveal their controlled, repressed emotions, he could not do make his close up scenes so revealing. He does this exceptionally well in Rams with both his main characters: Gummi and Kiddi. They are externally stoic elderly, Icelandic farmers, but seethe with emotion, hate, fear, rage, jealousy, and since it is not revealed in dialogue, it has to be shown in their faces and in small actions.

I found Grímur particularly fascinating because he has the ability to make both documentaries and dramas successfully. Again, he bridges a gap many cannot cross. He admires traditional Icelandic life and wants to render the lives of the characters in an authentic way. Our lives are made up of small details, small events. We live in patterns. In Rams he has a sequence of scenes in which one of the farmers brings the main character a leg of lamb. Gummi cuts up the leg, makes a lamb soup and we watch him dish it into a bowl. The attention to detail is exquisite: the kitchen, the preparation of the food, the eating of it. It is in small scenes like this that Grímur allows the audience to get to know the character and care about his fate.

In his drama, Wrestling, we see the same techniques at work. Here, he chooses as his central image, glima, a form of Icelandic wrestling. Glima is little known outside of Iceland. In it, two men each wear a harness around their waist and under their crotch. They face each other and grasp each other’s harness on each side. Face to face, as close as if they were dancing as a couple, they begin to move in unison, attempting to find a moment when their opponent is off balance and can be thrown down. Wrestling’s plot turns on the fact that the two main glima contenders are gay–even though one is a married farmer–and lovers. Scenes of glima are repeated and choreographed so that a room full of men practicing looks like they are dancing. He has taken a traditional Icelandic activity and infused it with a modern dilemma and gradually reveals through details that might as easily have been in a documentary the lives of the two main characters.

There is about Iceland, a stately beauty. The land is stark. It has been a country of endless tragedy through historic violence, natural calamity, political oppression and disease. And yet, in the Icelandic sagas amidst the carnage and chaos, there is humour, Grímur says about himself that he has a dry sense of humour. He sees the fact that something which is admirable can also be ridiculous. In Rams, it is obvious that he admires the battling brothers, but he also makes it clear that their behaviour is absurd, even childish.

He crafts his narratives carefully. It took him three years to write the script for Rams. He knows that his toughest audience are the people the story is about. For them, the details must be accurate. The central scene in the film is an annual local competition to judge the best sheep. Not only is this scene about what goes on in the local valley and so must be accurate but Grímur deliberately chooses local people for roles. They know whether something is being portrayed correctly. He says that the stable of professional actors in Iceland is small so he is always looking for people outside this group. The main characters will be professional actors but many others can be local people. His concern for local people is apparent not just in  his attention to authentic detail but in his saying that he hoped the film would bring tourists to the area where the film was made.

His desire to get things right is apparent in the fact that a year and a half before the film was made, Grímur started working with Sigurdur Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson, the two actors who played the brothers in Rams, giving them books to read, writing a back story about the lives of the characters they would play. That way they would be able to act in character. As well, they had to learn about dealing with sheep and how to drive a tractor.

Something admirable In Grimur’s films is his willingness to take the risk of silence. That forces the audience to pay close attention to the visual images, the landscape, buildings, people, animals. When there is a lot of dialogue, visual detail is reduced to background. When there is silence, visual detail is foreground. In Rams, the film opens with the landscape of a farm in an isolated valley. It is important for the film to establish the possibility of isolation and to place the focus on the landscape, the sheep, the main character and the adjoining farms. This is all done in near silence.

Grímur emphasized that he wants a balance between humor and drama. In Rams, two elderly brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, who have adjoining farms have not spoken in forty years. The behaviour of the brothers is absurd but not uncommon among families and authentic in that Icelandic farmers have historically been known for being contentious. There is no attempt to explain the cause of the conflict. Grímur says it is unnecessary. It simply exists. However, there are hints in the film such as when we hear that Gummi actually inherited both farms because his father didn’t trust Kiddi. This domestic drama is shot through with humour. There is the dog that carries messages between the brothers when they have to communicate. There is the unorthodox use of a front end loader as an ambulance.

In his documentary, Viður Goes to Europe, he follows Viður in his search for the finest of Europe’s buskers. The documentary is gritty, its focus close in on the buskers, many aging, facing an environment that is becoming less and less friendly. Although aging, they are filled with romantic, youthful notions, they keep trying to live out their image of themselves as troubadours. Somehow, Grímur shifts from this gritty rending of reality to his short dramas such as Slavik the Shit and Wrestling, to keep the elements of the documentary while at the same time letting the necessity of the drama take over the story line. If he didn’t have that ability, instead of making Rams, he would simply have made a historic documentary of the effects of scrapie, the tragic sheep disease in Rams. Although the appearance of scrapie is the precipitating factor in Rams, Grímur knows that the real drama is the relationship between the brothers and their lifelong conflict. Few, if any of us, will ever face having to kill our sheep because of scrapie, but nearly all of us suffer from sibling rivalry. It is that which makes the film universal.

As a side note but with an implication of Grímur’s willing to take risks and overcoming them was his decision to have sheep play such a large part in Rams. Having animals in films is a big risk. Their behaviour is unpredictable. He says that he first tried to work with sheep from one farm and found that they were not used to being around people and difficult to manage so he used sheep from another farm.

In less sure hands, Rams would be a documentary or a character study but Grímur’s ability as a script writer means that he subtly works out the implications, not just of the brother’s conflict, but the implications of the appearance of scrapie for the sheep farmers.

The success of Rams has opened doors for Grímur. Not only has the film won a major award, Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes Film Festival, it is being widely distributed. It appears it will do the impossible, that is not only be critically acclaimed but actually be a commercial success. With the attention the film is receiving, Grímur is getting numerous offers to make films. The offers will pose their own challenges. With the possibility of money for larger films for larger audiences, will he be able to stay true to his desire to create films about the people he admires and loves?

Rams–Movie Review

There isn’t a lot of money in Iceland to finance the making of movies. No big costume dramas, no casts of thousands, no endless special effects because they all cost a lot of money. That means Icelandic movies are inclined to be dramas about the daily lives of people in Iceland. In spite of the financial limitations, Icelandic movies have regularly won prizes in Europe but they seldom make much money because the audience is limited.

Rams, by Grímur Hákonarson, will break this pattern. It is set in Iceland and it is about the daily life of Icelandic people. The main characters are two elderly brothers, Kiddi and Gummi, living in an isolated valley on adjacent sheep farms. Old animosities have meant the brothers haven´t spoken for forty years. They are the quintessential Icelandic sheep farmer-bachelors: independent, argumentative, difficult to get along with, and proud. Anyone who knows his Icelandic literature, on seeing the brothers as the movie begins, can’t help but think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People. And Grímur said in his comments on the night the movie was shown at the Victoria Film Festival that he had read Halldor Laxness´s Independent People five times so it is not surprising when similarities to Bjartur appear.

The film opens with one of the brothers in a field with farm buildings and houses in the distance. The opening is admirable for its use of imagery rather than dialogue to establish the basic elements of the narrative. It places the story in an isolated valley with more sheep than people. The farmer is walking toward the sheep. He stops to tighten the fence between the farms. He also stops to rub the head of a ram. In this largely silent landscape, the major elements of the story, the farmer, the sheep, the separation of the two farms, is laid out. This is a film filled with significant but unobtrusive detail. The attention to detail in every frame comes from Grimur’s experience in making documentary films.

Then the focus shifts to a sheep that has something wrong with it. The farmer picks it up and carries back toward the buildings. It is the first hint that something might be wrong in this bucolic landscape. It also is the beginning of a plot in which small details that seem insignificant will begin to turn the story toward the final outcome. In a successful plot, every event must cause another event. There should never just be a series of events without causality. Rams with its subtleties, its hints and suggestions, carefully fits the causes of each coming event into everyday life so that what happens is both logical and necessary but not obvious.

The use of silence emphasizes the importance of the sparse dialogue, makes the audience pay attention to every word that is spoken. It also forces the audience to pay close attention to actions, whether it is one of the brothers eating mutton soup or a prize ram impregnating a group of ewes.

A central scene is a local sheep competition in which Kiddi‘s prize sheep edges out Gummi‘s. Although this is only an annual local event to determine the best sheep, it provides opportunities to demonstrate how important it is to the participants. Gummi‘s reaction to his prize sheep being relegated to second place makes clear the intensity of the competition. The story line moves slowly because this is a story of local, personal values that the viewer must come to understand. For the film to work, a non-Icelandic audience has to understand the role of the sheep in the lives of the local people.The precipitating incident is the discovery of the disease scrapie. It attacks the spine and brain of sheep and there is no cure. With careful layering of scenes, the film prepares the audience  to understand how serious an event this is and validates the behaviour of the brothers.

Since there is no cure for scrapie, the local veterinarian decrees that all the sheep in the valley must be killed. When that happens, it not only means that the valley’s sheep farmers will lose their livelihood but it will be the end of a breed of sheep that has existed back to Iceland´s earliest history. Anyone who knows Icelandic history knows that sheep made the continued habitation of Iceland possible. In a country with only one possible crop, hay, the sheep provided milk, wool, and meat for both local consumption and trade goods. Although Iceland has urbanized, its rural traditions are still strong. The end of sheep farming in the valley is emblematic because it is not just the end of a way to make a living but the end of a way of life.

In a different context, the conflict of the two brothers might have seemed trivial; the scheming and planning to defy the order to kill the sheep, absurd. However, in the context of the film, the events move the narrative toward tragedy. With sparse dialogue and no large physical events, the intense focus of the film is on the two brothers. Gradually, although the viewer is shown many rams, it becomes clear that the rams in the title are the two brothers. At loggerheads over some long distant conflict only hinted at when it is revealed that both farms are in Gummi’s name because their father didn’t trust Kiddi’s judgement.

The movie has a solemnity about it. The landscape, the conflict, the seriousness of the situation for the local people all contribute to the mood. However, the film is shot through with wry Icelandic humour. Although the brothers haven’t spoken to each other for forty years, they do communicate by a collie that carries messages back and forth between them. There is also an unusual use of a front end loader that brought startled laughter. This stage business is amusing and enjoyable. At the same time the humour is more than stage business. The situation of the brothers is, in some ways, ridiculous and the ridiculous can be amusing, but Grimur takes some of his directorial cues from the sagas where a bleak humour is often mixed with  the most horrific events.

The stars are Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodor Júlíusson. With their ferocious beards and weathered faces, they might be Viking chieftains during the time of the great conflict of the Sturlungs. Much is demanded of them as actors because so much focus is on their physical expression rather than their dialogue. They began preparing for their roles a year and a half before the film was made. Grimur developed back stories for them, that is the lives of their characters before the time of the film, so that their character’s actions would be logical and consistent with their current lives as elderly sheep farmers.

The attention to detail in the visual images and in the characters, the fitting together of the incidents that comprise the plot, unifies and intensifies the film. Grimur spent three years writing the script. His attention to detail in all the film’s aspects–characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme–give the film the sense of reality that might be found in a documentary while, at the same time, create a narrative voice that can be trusted.

Because of the intense local rendering, in less adept hands, the film might have been parochial. Instead, the story takes on universal implications. It is about men and sheep at one level, about rural displacement at another level, but at the most important level, it is about the fierce family resentments between brothers. The film explores the forces that separate us but also those that bind us.

When Rams was shown at Cannes, it won the Un Certain Regard prize. It has been selected for the 2016 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The film has been sold to more than forty countries. It has the distinction of being an Icelandic film that not only will garner prestigious prizes but might actually be commercially successful.

Shown at the Victoria Film Festival, sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture series, and introduced by Helga Thorson, the head of Germanic and Slavic studies, Rams played to a sold-out house.

The Saanich Fair

Here in the diaspora on the foggy edge of the world once a year the locals put on a fair. This year is their 148th. That means they started twenty years before the first Icelanders skipped off the ferry and exclaimed, “What have we come to? Is it really summer all year?”
The Saanich Fair is the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. It covers so much ground that I didn’t manage to cover it all before I tired out and came home.
Since it is an agricultural fair, there are 4-H sheep judging competitions, a light horse show, rabbit judging, draft horse events, oodles and boodles of llamas and alpacas. There’s a corner market, a farmer’s market, Victoria market gardeners, and a flower arrangement competition. There’s a highland dance competition.
It’s not all just staring at the animals as they stare back at you. If your kids don’t know where t heir milk comes from, there is milking parlour demo that will show them. There’s also a rabbit care and grooming demonstration and a chance to talk to the donkeys and their owners. There are local farm talks and a chance to hear Marilyn: The Backyard Chicken Lady.
For those who like food and are competitive there is a pie eating competition and a spam eating competition. For the kids there are the pedal tractor races and the zucchini car races. If you haven’t filled up on pie, you can enter the cupcake, ice cream or watermelon eating contests.
There are, of course, the rides. The carnival area is so large that the trucks pulling the rides take up acres of space.
For me, the big thing about the Saanich Fair is that people bring their passions to proudly show them, whether that is roosters, ducks, eggs, apples, grapes, pickles, pies, cookies, bread, honey, goats. And more. I get to see the best that the peninsula (and beyond in some cases) provides.
There are flower competitions for every flower you can think of.
To my joy and delight I came across a booth that said Gluten Free Baked Goods. And were they good! I ate a pocket filled with feta and spinach and went back for a pocket filled with peaches and apples. Before I left, I returned only to find the spinach and feta sold out so I bought a pie and a tart. The owner/baker was shaking her head in surprise at the popularity of the spinach-feta pockets. She’ll have more ready tomorrow. It sounds like she’ll be baking all night.
There are booths and booths and displays and displays. There are numerous ethnic food booths, Lebanese, Jewish, Filipino, and many more. It’s a bit like Winnipeg’s Folklorama mixed in with Salish art, fresh vegetables, turkeys and miniature horses.
I ran out of energy before I ran out of things to see. For three days there is entertainment on the main stage. You could go to the fair for three days and just sit and listen. I promise myself that I will do that some year but when I pass through the gates with the surging crowd, I’m caught up with all the things I want to see and experience. I stop at the stage and watch and listen for a bit but there’s the amazing 4-H displays, the art and photography show, the… You get the idea. My feet take on a life of their own. They lead me here and there, willy nilly, into the heritage building filled with items I remember from my childhood, to the blacksmith demonstrations, to youngsters doing tricky manoeuvers on the backs of very large horses.
The line up for food and long. There are signs everywhere saying bring a water bottle with you. There are free fill ups. It’s that kind of Fair. The kind you should plan on attending some time. The kind you should take your kids to, especially if they live in the city. Get them up close to goat or an alpaca. Maybe even have them hold a rabbit.

Making Hay, 1862

making hay

The first time I went to Iceland, Finboggi Gudmundsson took me to the farm where my great great grandfather and my great grandfather lived and worked before they left for Amerika.

It was one of those fine Icelandic days with no wind off the North Sea, the sky was cloudless, the sun warm. It was the perfect day for making hay and, when we reached the farm, the farmer and his wife were in the hay field.

It was the greatest compliment they could give that they stopped haymaking long enough to serve us coffee and cake and have a brief conversation. I walked the beach were my great grandfather Ketill walked, sat on the stone wall where he used to sit. Then we were away and the farmer and his wife were back to the field making the precious hay for their sheep and cows.

In 1862 when A. J. Symington goes to Iceland, he stops at Thingvalla. They are treated well by the priest, Mr. S. D. Beck (are any of you descendants of his?).

“He is a pastor literally and metaphorically, farming and fishing as well as preaching. Hay, however, is the only crop which is raised here; and the Icelanders are consequently very dependent upon the h ay-harvest. With their short summer they might not inappropriately quote Shakspeare’s lines,

“The sun shines hot; and if we use delay
Cold biting winter marks our hoped for hay.”

Symington gives us one of the clearest pictures of haying that I have found. He says, “The scythe used by the Icelanders is quite straight and not half the length of ours. The numerous little hummocks, with which pasture land is covered, necessitate the use of a short implement, so that it may mow between and around them; the hillocks are form one to two feet high, and from one to four feet across. In some places the ground presents quite the appearance of a churchyard or an old battle-field. These elevations are occasioned by the winter’s frost acting on the wet subsoil. If levelled they would rise again to the same height in about 7 or 8 years; but the farmers let them alone, because they fancy they get a larger crop from the greater superficial area of the field, and this old let-alone custom certainly saves them much labour. The primitive state of their agriculture, as well as the peculiar nature of the Icelandic soil, may be inferred from the fact, that there are only two plows in the whole island and no carts. A spade, a scythe two feet long, a small rake with teeth about an inch and a half deep, and ropes made of grass or hair to bind the hay, which is carried on men’s backs or conveyed by horses to be stacked, are all that the farmer requires for his simple operations. The hay, especially that which grown in the tuns, is of fine quality, tender and nutritive; and, with even any ordinary attention to drainage, many a fertile vale cold be made to yield much more than is now obtained from it.”

One crop. Upon it life depended. Everyone turned to making hay for this was not a grain economy. The Icelandic population lived on hay for hay fed their sheep and cows and those two beasts provided milk, meat and wool.

The rule was simple. Harvest enough hay to keep your animals through the winter or you will die of hunger. Those who lived close to the ocean might supplement the hay with seaweed but it was a supplement, not a staple.

With every stroke of the short scythe, with every pull of the rake, the haymakers could think that will be another mouthful of skyr, a drink of whey, a piece of smoked meat this winter. It was a direct equation your ancestors all understood.

Icelandic lambs, 1862

icelandic sheep

Am I the only person from the Icelandic community in Manitoba who grew up knowing so little about our Icelandic heritage?

I knew about the Icelandic Celebration, except we called it Islendingadagurinn and were proud that it sounded so foreign and exotic.

I visited Grandma Bristow with my mother. They played cards. I got to look at stereoscopic pictures. I got to eat ponnukokur. However, I didn’t get to hear them talk Icelandic because my mother was an Irish girl from the city.In spite of her married name Grandma Bristow had come from Iceland.

Outside of someone having an Icelandic sweater, I don’t remember much about Iceland in Gimli. There was the Lutheran church but by the time I was going, the services were in English and the posters on the bulletin board were about raising money for Africa.

People had Icelandic names: Ejyolfson, Sigurdsson, Bjarnason, Narfason. Nobody was called –dottir.
When I read about farmers in Iceland getting together and discussing the sagas in great detail, I’m quite amazed. I didn’t hear about the sagas until I took a course on the sagas in translation with Haraldur Besesson. By that time I was in university.

Most of our childhood life was about Gimli. Hockey, playing baseball, soccer, football, riding our bicycles, going swimming at the dock, going skating on the lake or at the rink, prairie blizzards, deer, moose, pickerel, white fish. Icelandic only appeared in grade three when lessons were offered after school. I went a couple of times. My dad talked a little Icelandic in the barber shop. When we went for coffee at the relatives, they sometimes talked in Icelandic but not everyone could speak it so they usually stuck to English.

I don’t remember any Icelandic holidays. No bursting day. Although my mother did make cream puffs.

I don’t remember any Icelandic history. We didn’t know any Canadian history, never mind Icelandic.

Maybe it was because Gimli was more cosmopolitan than most small towns. From the time the trains arrived, I think in 1906, there were summer cottagers. They brought their city manners and behaviours with them. Then there was the airbase. We all knew airmen. The local girls married airmen. A lot of people got jobs at the airbase. We mixed with people from all across Canada and, later, from other countries.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for my own ignorance but it wasn’t until I took an interest in 19th C Iceland and began to do a lot of research that I started to learn about what life was like for my great great grandparents and my great grandparents in Iceland. The few things I’d heard when a few people were bragging about being descended from Icelanders turned out to nonsense. No, Iceland was not a democracy. No, everyone wasn’t equal. No, they didn’t just eat lichen in times of starvation. Etc.

That’s why it’s a joy to read a book such as Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington. It’s not a deep or profound book, it’s not crammed with statistics, but his descriptions and anecdotes are clear. As he and his companions travel through the Icelandic wilderness, he says

“We saw numerous farms as we passed along, each consisting of a group of irregular hillocks, with the windows hid deep in the grassy turf like portholes, and generally turned inwards so as to be sheltered from the roaring blasts of winter. We met ponies trudging along conveying lambs from one farm to the next. It was curious to see the little animals looking out of square crate-like boxes, made of spars of wood, slung in the manner of panniers on a donkey, and to hear them bleat: reminding one of the old nursery rhyme “young lambs to sell!”

That anecdote is worth the book. Isn’t a fine picture of how lambs were moved in a country without roads or wheeled vehicles. I’ve not come across such a description anywhere else.

I like to think of my great great grandparents riding with lambs in cages on either side of an Icelandic horse. It isn’t a Gimli scene. It is a purely Icelandic scene. What scene could be more romantic than Icelandic horses in a line threading their way through the wilderness, carrying crates with lambs?

Spinning, Weaving, 40 years on Salt Spring

This past weekend, I attended The 40th Anniversary of the founding of the  Weaver‘s and Spinner‘s Guild Exhibit and Sale at the Art Spring Gallery on Salt Spring Island.   They have done the exhibit and sale on a yearly basis for the past three years. There were two galleries. One gallery held the regular show and sale of fine textiles, clothing, and yarns.

The second held an art show. When I entered the gallery that held the Eye For Colour show, my viking genes caused me to immediately go to this paired piece by Valrie Short (weaver) and Karen Dakin (potter).  Val‘s  weaving is based on traditional viking/celtic design and colours and Karen Dakin‘s Viking rabbit in a helmet with horns made me smile. It was the kind of piece I‘d love to see at the Icelandic National League convention in Seattle this coming spring.


The Eye for Colour show was first held in 2006. This is its third time and the first time they have expanded the invitation to include artists other than painters. What a good decision that was. The marrying of the different arts with weaving was often surprising, always beautiful.

Mary E. Paddon, Yarns by Deerhaven

In the past the work of guild members was only paired with paintings. This year it was paired with artists from other guilds and featured pottery, basket weaving, painting and glasswork. For each piece of fabric there was a complimentary piece of art shown with it. One pairing was a painting of Christmas roses (white hellebores) by Victoria Olchowechi with a touch of pink matched with a white sweater spun and knitted by Susan Asatill. Part of the power of art is that it can, through association, stir both memory and imagination. These two pieces, classy, sophisticated, made an image of my mother spring up, for the moment I saw them, I knew that these were the two pieces that would have caught her attention, drawn her to stand in front of them and call my father to come and look.

There was a happy personal quality about this show that can be captured, perhaps, by some written comments by the artists attached to their products. For example, one note by Susan Astill said, “Fleece was Salt Spring fleece, produced by a sheep named Joan, a Cheviot.“ Donna Vanderwekken had a note on an exquisite blanket saying that her goal was, “To use only yarns I had dyed last summer. Indigo for different shades of blue. Dahlia petals for yellow, Bronze Fennel for lime green. Apple bark for rust.“ It is this personal quality, the connection between the producers of the art, the art and the viewer that was delightful.

Many of the local artists were present and available. There was both a spinning and a weaving demonstration.

Spinning, knitting and weaving in Canada are considered women’s arts and from my observation of the visitors to the show, it is still mostly women who are interested. During the time I was at the show, there were only two other men. However, my Icelandic background, and my interest in Icelandic history and culture brought me to the show. For those with little or no knowledge of Iceland, the connection between a spinning, knitting and weaving show on Salt Spring Island and Iceland will be quite obscure. Icelanders, living through centuries in a hostile climate that allowed no crop except grass, survived because of their sheep. The sheep provided meat, milk and wool. The other domestic animal was the milk cow but sheep are much more economical and provide a better return in a climate where there was no guarantee that even grass would grow well when icebergs filled the bays and the ground froze in summer. It was sheep that provided wool for warm clothes.

In the 1800’s a number of British travellers went to Iceland. One of those was Richard Burton. He wrote a book called Ultima Thule (1874) in which he said, “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding, not a little like that of ancient Egypt and of modern Central Africa, and worked…by both sexes, stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day. The Vaðmal…much resembles the tweeled cloth or frieze worn by the Leith fishermen.

“There is only one kind of Wadmal generally worn, but in most parts of the island, and especially in the east, there are finer qualities used for “store-clothes” and woman’s attire. The Ormadúkr is worked like a drill, the Einskepta like twill. It is sold by the ell,or two Danish feet (=2 3/8 English feet).

“The usual colours are grey, black, light-blue, and muret….It is excellent stuff, durable, and, after a fashion, waterproof.“

Knitting was so critical to survival that it started early with some accounts describing children being taught to knit at age four and, by age eight, required to knit two sets of fishermen‘s mittens a week.

According to Consul Crowe‘s report of 1870-71, in 1869, there were 76,816 pairs of stockings produced and 55,601 one fingered mittens.

Nowadays, in the Icelandic North American community, many homes proudly display spindles and spinning wheels but these, once necessities, are now sentimental family treasures.

It was with this background that I came to the Weaver‘s and Spinner‘s Guild show, with a mind filled with images of fishermen‘s mittens, stockings, fine and coarse wadmal, with images of  my great aunt sitting at her spinning wheel in her Icelandic costume. I brought with me a range of patterns and colours in my memory, a way of thinking about these arts.

Of course, the weavers of today don‘t labour in turf and lava huts with tiny windows covered with animal membranes. Today, the process has been made somewhat easier than it was in Iceland simply because it is done in well-lit, warm, comfortable surroundings. The knitter, spinner, weaver still must know about a great deal more than these processes. She has to know about sheep, about the characteristics of their wool, how to prepare it, and the use of dyes. For example, a weaver, buying wool “right from the sheep“ will have to wash and card or comb it for spinning and, in so doing, may lose up to fifty percent in weight in dirt and grease.

In Iceland, there is just one breed of sheep. But in North America the weaver or knitter can choose wool from many different sheep and they all  have different characteristics. For example, wool from a Romney will have less grease than Merinos and Corriedales. With a Romney, a spinner may only lose 30%. It was obvious in talking to Mary E. Paddon that weaving isn’t just a job or a task but a passion for she was able to tell me all about dying, spinning, weaving, wool, sheep, and the history of it all. Along with demonstrating spinning, she also had a piece in the Eye For Colour show.

The pieces on display vied with each other for my attention. One pairing, a painting of peaches (Libby Jutras) with a handwoven blanket (Donna Vanderwekken) reflecting the colours in the painting brought me back three times to look at it.

Pat Davidson didn‘t have anything in the Eye For Colour show, but she had pieces in the regular show. My favorite piece of the moment of hers is a tea towel that a friend of mine bought a few days ago and now adorns a family cedar chest. I found this tea towel quite extraordinary because it made me realize something that I once knew but had forgotten. That is that even the humblest items in our homes can be things of beauty.

Photo by J.O.M. Pat’s hand woven tea towel.

Icelanders plucked wool (Icelandic sheep naturally shed their wool and when it was loose, it could be pulled off)  to trade for necessities, they knitted and wove such long hours that it is said they used little sticks called wake picks to  hold open their eyelids. They wove wadmal they could trade for nails, for horseshoes, for rice, for grain to make bread. The goal was not beauty but quantity, utility, durability. They knitted and wove so they  might eat and be clothed. However, the need for beauty always exists and from all this knitting the traditional Icelandic patterns developed, the Lopapeysa was created and stylish Icelandic designs appeared. I wondered, as I stood and admired the weaving and the knitting at this Salt Spring show, what all those Icelanders would have thought of the beautiful items on display.

The 40th Anniversary of The Weaver’s and Spinners Guild Exhibit and Sale is about the talented people who belong to the guild, the people who raise the sheep, who prepare the wool. But it is also a tribute to all those who have come before, before the creation of the Spinning Jenny, the creation of artificial fabrics, all those like my great great grandmother and her mother and her mother before her.

Spun and woven and knit, wool clothed the world. In recent times, artificial fabrics replaced wool and made clothing more affordable. Lost, though, was the community connection, the relationship between the producer of the wool, the spinner, the knitter, the weaver and the people who bought the yarn or cloth and made the clothes. We no longer can say this fine blanket came from a sheep called Jenny, was spun by Mary, was woven by Susan.

The Weavers in the Eye For Colour show have taken what was a common, humble task and from it, created beauty and, in so doing, have paid tribute to all those weavers of the past.