For me, one of the best things about residencies is meeting other artists. Sometimes you get along just fine, you say goodbye at the end of your residency periods, you’ll probably never meet again and over time people fade a bit from your memory. Sometimes though, you really connect with a person or they make such an impression on you that they stay in your mind. For me, meeting Anna Kodama five years ago in Iceland was such a meeting. I remember we were eating pizza in an old church in Blonduos, talking about great things and complete nonsense, watching the Northern Lights, getting lost in the village(a feat in and of itself, considering it’s really, really not that big..)and accidentally walking into a friendly family’s home searching for a film screening.
When I started this project, I immediately contacted Anna to ask if I could interview her. I remembered not only her story but also her art and her attitude to life, her openness and the joy with which she seemed to approach everything. So many things that might have stopped other people from doing what she did didn’t seem an issue to her at all. So what if she was not formally trained? So what if she was the oldest artist there, so what if her family and friends were a bit sceptical about her going off to Iceland, so what if she was nervous about it?
I wanted to interview her to share some of that enthusiasm with you, to hopefully let her inspire you as she inspired me!
If you want to see more of Anna’s beautiful work, you can look at her website here.
Can you start with just telling a bit about yourself and your background?
I was born in 1955, so I’m 62, almost 63..and I’m from Ohio. I studied English in school and I wrote garden books, I worked for years for an organic gardening company. I’ve had a checkered career but I’ve always been making things..I’ve only studied art in community schools, never formal art education. I’ve also been teaching, I was working with high school drop outs for a long time, teaching them and their little kids, to break the cycle of illiteracy.
I was really committed to that, but in 2008 our youngest child died in the Alps in Switzerland in an accident, he was a snowboarder. He was this amazing kid, and it really changed my outlook on everything. I stopped teaching. I was already painting, but now I painted to figure stuff out, I threw myself into that. I was madly painting, I painted every dream I had and started working with a Jungian analyst to help me analyse my dreams and figuring out myself. After a while, I had a big show of these paintings which was really important to me, I didn’t think of myself as an artist but I felt I had a story to tell. The show was about how painting, how dreaming and creativity are healing forces and connecting us to all these dimensions we don’t understand.
So, I had that show and afterwards I applied to go to this place in Alaska, because Peter was very much like me, he liked being in the cold places and the North. I didn’t get that, but right on the heels of that I found out about NES, the residency in Iceland. I wrote the application letter and right away I heard back from Melody, and she didn’t say ‘oh you’re not a trained artist’ or anything, and I felt connected to her. So, I was off to Iceland! It was a big thing for me, and my husband wasn’t too happy about it, he was complaining, I thought we had a pretty modern relationship, haha that was surprising! But I went anyway and even extended my stay while I was there because I wasn’t done yet. It was a great decision, it was the best thing. It was really a big deal for me.
I think your work has this kind of mystical quality to it and that suits the atmosphere in Iceland very well. Was that also a reason you wanted to go there?
Yes! Well, to the North, the long night..I don’t think I would like Iceland in the summer. I like the cocoon feeling of the darkness and the winter. I think it was this desire to go North, that drew me to Iceland. I’ve since been to Greenland too, with my husband, that was in September, I think I would love it there in the winter. It was expensive though!
What did the people around you say when you told them ‘hey, I’m going for a few months on a residency to Iceland!’
My husband didn’t like it, my kids were a little worried because I have a reputation of getting lost, leaving stuff, running out of gas..they’re travellers though, so they get it. My friends thought I was brave and they were jealous, haha! I think they were also concerned if our friendship would hold up, I was only planning to go for two months but kept extending it..it showed me who my closest friends are. They were able to see me in a new light.
When you left, on that very first residency, can you describe what you felt like?
When I left home? Freedom. Frightening, but freedom. I felt like..it was a test, I was free to test myself and I couldn’t avoid it. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I felt very much like I was starting on the hero’s journey. I was working with a psychologist at the time and while I was in Skagaströnd I continued to Skype with her once a week to work on my dreams. It’s important for my process to have another person look at my dreams, because telling her what is happening in my dreams and then to have her look at that and listen to it validates it in a way; that it’s not coming from my ego but from the right place. I didn’t go to Iceland just because it was fun, but because it came from a deep, right place. It keeps you on track as well, helps you focus on your soul and yourself, rather than all the little things that don’t always matter. Especially the first year that was very good to have.
That first time you went on a residency, was there something that really surprised you?
I think it was the feeling of being exposed but also being able to work through that and get to a point where I could work. And also..there were a lot of photographers there and they sit around on their phones all day. They’re clicking away and I’m like..what are they doing?! At first I thought they were just fooling around, and then there would suddenly be the sun or the Northern Lights and they’d all rush out and do their thing and produce beautiful, amazing things! That process was different but it also had similarities to my own.
And there was the generational difference and I loved being around these people, there was this young woman from Brazil who was maybe 20 and then all the way up to me! I felt like the old lady of the group a lof of the time and that actually wasn’t bad! There was this young woman there, she was having a hard time with her work and I felt I could be a mirror for her, even though she was an artist in so many ways, more than me, but we could talk about creativity and I felt like I had things to give. That surprised me.
On your site you quote ‘We learn by going where we have to go’ do you feel that travel is an essential part of your art practice?
I don’t think it’s essential but I think..it’s almost like a crutch.Emily Dickingson, Jane Austen, they al stayed home and they were amazing artists. Travel can even be a distraction. I think purposeful travel..I don’t even mean discipline, I mean with purpose, that you know it comes from within, it can help you. It can be a tool to help you travel on the inside.
What’s your most memorable residency experience?
I have a lot..I really enjoyed travelling, the first year in Iceland I just stayed in NES, I don’t think I left except to go to Blonduos, ever! I was just so happy to walk everywhere, to be on the beach, got to know the lady in the grocery store and did her portrait, did her kids portrait, I was just so grounded.
The second year I did go off with a group to Myvatn to see different things, that was another revelation, that I could do that. The third year, 2016, I went to Hrisey, which is that little island North of Akureyri, that was a whole different experience. You’re dropped off by the bus and you have a mile to walk through the darkness and the snow with your stuff and you don’t even know where you’re going, down to the ferry, living and working in the school house at the residency..
Every day I would go to the pool and sit there in that hot pod in the snow listening to all this Icelandic, and that’s another thing I liked, not knowing Icelandic. I love that you’re off the hook, you don’t even have to eavesdrop because you don’t understand them! Those afternoons sitting there in the water with all these giant men and women..that gave a rhythm to my day, it made me feel like I was part of the village but I was apart of it too. I wrote a poem about it because it was very important to me.
How many residencies have you been on now?
Three, I was two years at NES and one at Hrisey. Last year I went to a writers and painters place in Masachussets, this elderly couple bought a house and you can go there and work, I’m going to go there again to work on a project. It’s sort of similar to a residency, I met a lovely screenwriter there, you can meet up with people or just go to your room and work. Every year since 2013 I go away for part of the winter to work on my art. By now my husbands expects it! He’s a geologist so he’s always going away on field work so that’s what it is now, it’s my field work.
Do you feel the work you make in Iceland influences the work you make back home?
I think so, I kept painting about Iceland back home. I think the vocabulary that I got for winter, I had dreamt about things that I then saw in Iceland, which showed me that I was on the right track. That stuff has worked into this work called ‘Stolen’ that I’ve been working on, it’s become a lot of the places I go to in my head.
There’s no place that looks just like Iceland, and it was so interesting going to Greenland because it was so different, the rocks are so old there, it’s very ancient and a very different feeling.
What are the reactions when you show people the work you’ve made in Iceland?
I’ve had a couple of shows for it and people often say they really want to go there. Sometimes people say ‘Iceland in the winter?!’ but then people who know me understand it, it’s amazing how many people don’t like the dark and the cold. To me, it’s beautiful. The paintings have actually sold well too, which is good so it can pay back for the investment of going there.
For me, one of the things that excites me about Iceland is that it removes so many things to be stimulated by. If you’re easily stimulated, here in Pennsilvania there’s the birds and the trees and everything, in Iceland it’s so clear, almost minimalist, calming. Is it like that in Sweden, where you are now?
When it snows and everything is white and even the sky is white, then it’s like that, but when there’s no snow it’s actually pretty busy, a lot of forests and a lot of animals! I’ve been hiking a lot and got lost a few times because at some point everything looks the same to me and you realise it’s very different from being in a city, in a city anything you see is made by people but out there, especially in the North with the cold and the snow, you don’t really belong there. It’s not made for you.
That happened to me in Iceland too, I was with another artist, a young man, it was winter and we were walking up to the top of a hill. He wanted to go to the top but I didn’t want to go, it was so slippery, so I said, go ahead to the top..and then he was gone. And I was thinking about my son on the mountain and I really panicked, what if he falls, who knows I’m here, what will I do if he falls, how can I get him back? It was white all around, no tracks, I couldn’t get back. Travel does that to you sometimes, it shakes you up a bit. I It’s a primal fear of the elements. It might be what’s drawing us both back to places like this in the North, it’s like a test for yourself.
Do you have any advice for people who go on their first residency?
I guess…have a sense of what you want to work on but don’t be chained to that. Let yourself make whatever comes up, because you really are free. Try to embrace that freedom, don’t be afraid of it. I met people who would get so panicked, they got their residency by getting a grant and they promised things and then they’re in this factory mode producing those things.
Also, if you’re going to remote places, don’t count on the mail to deliver your supplies in time. A lof of the times it will just get stuck, be resourceful, use the materials you can find. The other thing is, be part of the community on some level, even if you’re introverted, talk to your host community, not just to other artists. Go to the pool, meet people, especially in a small village like Skagastrond or Hrisey you’ll keep running into the same people and they’re so..Icelandic people are so great, in general, they care about getting things done, they don’t care much about gender or religion or where you’re from, they care if you’re helpful if the boat is sinking!
What are other places you’d like to go to on a residency?
More Northern places, I’d like to go on a residency in Greenland, I met an artist in Southern Greenland who runs a residency there and I’d love to do it, it’s just expensive..to test myself, I’d really like to go up to Northern Canada, and yet I will also say that I don’t want to increase my carbon footprint. My daughter is expecting a baby and she lives in California so I hope to combine something when I go there, maybe in the national parks..I think it’s also a mindset that I need to have, what is a residency?
I took a canoe and camping trip in the border waters in northern Minnesota with my brother, it’s incredible there, water everywhere, you just get lost, you can’t tell what’s an island and what’s a cloud and you’re just there with your compass and your canoe..I’m working on creating a book with my sketches and his photographs.I try to think of experiences like that of mini residencies.
You have a show now, right?
Yes, it’s been a great project, it’s about the myth of Erysichthon and it’s a big deal to me, it’s a good myth about climate change, it’s about this Earth destroying man who cuts down the tree of life. Everyone tells him not to but he does it anyway, and the tree bleeds and Demetor sends him insatiable hunger, he eats and he eats and he even sells his daughter into slavery but it’s still not enough. His daughter shape changes and keeps coming back to him in the form of different animals and he keeps selling her and it ends with him eating himself and leaving her. I did a collaboration with another artist-my first time doing that-and she mad a video of the the shapechanging, we have an instillation at the science and art center and I really worked with what she would’ve learned about being a shapechanger and seeing the world through the eyes of all these different animals. It was a big thing for me to figuring out how to paint this story and I hope it will generate discussions.
This writing/painting project I think, it will have to be this year, it will have been ten years since Peter died so I’ve set my goal to have something poetry and painting related to that. And then it’s time for another residency in 2018!
Thank you so much Anna, for the interview and for making me want to get back to Iceland as soon as possible! 😉 It was great talking to you again and I’m looking forward to seeing all the beautiful work you’ll be doing in the future.
If you want to see more of Anna’s work, this is her website. The residencies that were named in this article are NES in Skagastrond, The Old School in Hrisey, which is where Anna went to, and Listhús in Ólafsfjördur which is the residency I went to myself.