Imagine this; you are an artist and after a long time searching and dreaming, you have found the perfect place to live and work. For Norwegian artist Astrid, this was an old house of prayer with a beautiful room for a studio and a house for her to live in. It was located in the remote village of Austmarka, far away from her family and far away from Oslo where she had lived and worked for a long time. The house was worth it though, so she bought it and moved in, intending to make it her dream place.
Six months later, an electrical malfunction caused the entire house to burn down. All of it was gone, and all that was left was Astrid herself. With the insurance money, she decided to rebuild the house and to recreate it as something more than it was before. It was to be not just her own workspace, but a place for artists to come and to use it as a space for quiet, for contemplation, for love of nature and as a birthplace of new ideas and inspiration. In other words, an artist residency.
I visited Atelier Austmarka in November 2016 and found it a very special time; because of the story of the house, the beauty of the nature around it and because of Astrid herself; someone with an amazing attitude to life and a very clear and down to earth vision of what she wants to achieve. When I started the Residency Project, one of my first thoughts was to contact Astrid and ask to interview her. And true to herself, in this interview she talks not so much about the backstory, the fire and all that happened in the past but much more about the present and the future of Atelier Austmarka.
My time at Austmarka has had it’s effects long into the future as well, the work I made there and the ideas that developed there are still impacting me today-this is the place where I decided to become nomadic and I believe listening to Astrid and seeing this place inspired me to start this project.
Could you start with a bit of background about yourself and Atelier Austmarka?
Yes..I have been an artist for a long time, and some years ago, I bought a house with a church inside it. I bought it to be my own house and my own working space, but six months after I moved in, it burned down completely. I got money from the insurance and I used that to build a new house. Then I found out it was not so important for me to have the house for myself anymore, I would rather have it be a house for other artists. So that’s the short story!
Have you been on residencies yourself?
No, not at all. I didn’t know about artist in residencies at all when I started building it. I was thinking I could rent it out to Scandinavian or Norwegian artists and in the search for finding an artist who wanted to rent it, I contacted different embassies to find if there were artists from other countries who wanted to come. The embassy from the Netherlands found it interesting because they’re trying to create the largest database for connecting artists and artists residencies.
So they saw that my house could be an artist in residence. I didn’t even know that word, so I didn’t know that it could be that. They contacted me through Transartists, in August 2014 they put up a profile for me and in October I had 80 applications! So that’s how I found out, okay, this is something, and I started reading about artist in residence.
So it started very organically then!
Yes, I didn’t know about it at all. So, when I first got started I was very unsure. The first year people visited just without paying, for 14 days at the time, so I could get some experience at running this and get confidence. Many of those who visited me in that first year had been on other artist residencies, and I read a lot about it.
One of the things I decided I wanted to be special about my place is that it should be…you don’t have to leave with something. Everyone can come and work on their own stuff. Because at a lot of places, when I read about it, you have to deliver something. I want to have this as a space for quietness and not delivering. Maybe nothing happens when you are here, but a year later what you have experienced here will lead to something new.
How many people have been to Atelier Austmarka since you started?
About 50, maybe? In 2014 and 2015 there were a lot of people, but then I had to find out a way to make money with it, to keep it running, and then there were not as many people applying. I’m not sure how I should manage to the financial things. Now, in 2017, the prices you see on the site are exactly the costs of running the house. If you apply for a residency at Atelier Austmarka, you can apply for funding in your home country and to do that it needs to be clear on the website how much exactly it costs to come here. That’s why the prices on the site are as they are.
I feel the prices, as they are now, are too high for artists to pay for themselves. If you can get funding from your home country, then it’s fine, but if you have to fund it by yourself, then it’s high. I want to have a system where artists who can’t afford the whole fee can pay just part of it, and if you can afford it or you received funding, then you jay the full amount. It’s hard to explain that, but I want to create a system like that.
Like a system where people pay what they can pay?
Yes, like that. I’m not sure how to explain it, but people who have enough money or get funding just pay what it costs and those who don’t have enough pay what they can pay. The prices that are on the website are the costs for running the house and the residency, the prices I need to ask for making it run.
There is also a lot of work involved in working with each artist as they apply, especially if they need a visa to come to Norway. There are many hours of emailing with every artist who wants to come.
All of the emailing and the paperwork, is that one of the things you didn’t expect about a residency before you got started?
I didn’t expect anyone to apply! I got all of these emails and I’m dyslectic, so I almost got a nervous breakdown, it was so much! Luckily there was a volunteer who helped me with it and now I do it by myself. It’s alright, I write the way I write and people will understand, and if they don’t then it’s not my problem. I tell people, I’m dyslectic, so keep the emails short and be specific about what they are asking for. A lot of people are clever enough to understand and be short. Some people are not, so then I just repeat; please answer short. Then either they’ll stop writing, or they understand they have to write short.
I have made a routine for myself to help coping with it. If those who apply can’t understand that, then they lose the possibility to come because I have to set it up it in a way that I can handle it. That is a bit different from other residencies maybe, that I’m so strict in keeping emails short.
That’s a tip for people who apply; keep it short and clear. When people first applied, in that first round of applications, some would send three, four pages of writing, that’s just too much. It’s important to keep it short and clear.
What do you feel is the most fun about having your own residency?
For me, the whole project has been my own art project. After the fire, I stopped painting for myself. I paint a bit now when I teach watercolour courses locally, but I feel I will not be a painter anymore.
Some residencies are very established or come from a long history, I don’t have that, so for me the motivation is to create and manage something new. So if people ask me, don’t you miss painting, isn’t it sad that you don’t do that anymore? I tell them, no, this is my art now. The most fun part is to try to create an artist in residence place as an art project.
Also, I want to have a house where people can come and relax, that is important. Since this was a church, I want to have a house with good energy, where people can relax in their heart and feel good to be here. Not connected with any specific religion, but a kind of open heart, a good spirit in this house. If I find people call back to me and say they had a good time, that is good.
The location of this residency, in the forest, is very special and will become even more so when you look at the future of Norway. Right now, Norway is a rich country because of oil, but we have to figure something out for when the oil runs out. There are many thoughts and developments with the forests, and I would like to connect with that and create a place to work with these new ideas.
Do you feel the forest and the nature is one of the reasons people apply to come to Austmarka?
Yes, for the people who come to the residency, yes. They are coming because of the forest, the cleanness, the small village and the silence.
Do you feel like being away from the city and the pressures of the art world is helping people to come to new ideas?
Yes, I notice that. I notice when they come from cities and they come to stay for more than three, four, five days, they feel refreshed. The sounds from the city aren’t here, the lights from the city aren’t here. They feel that I don’t ask them to do anything, I leave them to do whatever they want. They see I’m not stressed and that calms them down, and that can be a new feeling for them. Especially people that may have lived in a big city like London or New York their whole life, and then they come here! It’s a big difference, but a good one.
Do you have sometimes that artists get inspired by the house, the story behind the house, the church and how it burned down?
Yes, there are a lot of people want to know more about that. We talked about it also when you were here, I remember.
The artists who come to Austmarka, do they adapt to the place easily?
Sometimes, the people who come from the city are a bit afraid of the darkness, or they are afraid to go out in the dark. They are used to city lights, so they feel a little lost. A lot of people feel a little bit lost in space when they arrive, until they go to the shop. The man who owns the shop is Arabic and he speaks very good English, Arabic and Turkish, and when they meet him and they talk to him they feel like, okay, this place is not at the end of the world. Then they realise the internet here is very good, and they go and read the guest book and they go through that and see all the international people who have been here and they start to relax. This place is still connected to the world.
What do the villagers of Austmarka think?
I feel that the village is supportive, they want the best for the artists. They’re saying hello, smiling and getting along, and so the artists feel welcome here. They like the activity of artists coming into the village, at first they were afraid people would get drunk but that doesn’t happen so now they are relaxed. Because of the large windows in the studio, the villagers can look directly into the studio and see the artists working, the activity here is not a secret. Artists go outside, they’re taking pictures and drawing outside, so the village is used to it and they like it. Actually, it’s funny, I think they are starting to be a little proud now. When they travel and talk about their home, they say; we have a school, a shop and an international artist residence!
What is your best memory of the past years of running the residency?
A memory..not a memory, because it is still going on. I get more and more support from different areas for the residency. Today, I received a message that an artist from Greenland received a grant from the government to come here. That is the first time that someone has received a grant from a different country to visit to Atelier Austmarka! That happened today! Earlier this year, I received a grant for the residency because of my work transforming something old into something new. The support is growing bit by bit, first from the village, then from the city, then from the province, and so on. So I don’t have a memory, my best thoughts are of the future.
Is that what you want for the future, that it keeps growing?
The future, I want to make it grow so it can support itself. I want artists all over the world to know this place and I want countries from all over the world to be able to help artists to find funding to make them able to come here. I want this place to come to that level. Also, at some point I want to find another person to take over my job, to become the host and leader of this place. I am the kind of person who can start things, but I’m not the person who can keep it going on, because then I’ll get bored. I think artists can understand that thought, this is also my art project and at some point it has to be given over to someone else, so I can start something new. I can work, work and work, and then there will be a stop for me. I hope at that point it will be big and established enough that someone else can take over.
Perhaps a visiting artist?
It could be, it could be an artist. That person needs to like to network, you need a network to manage things like this and be very social and around people all the time. That’s not really me. I know this is just for a period, I know I’ve learned something and I’ve grown from it, and eventually I will find someone who likes to keep a project going and they will take over.
What is your vision for Atelier Austmarka?
My vision is that the residency will keep itself going, that it will provide enough income to keep the house and provide a salary for someone who works here. That is the down to earth practical vision I have for it. My first vision for it..has come true. I wanted people to find it, to know about it and to come here. And that has come true.
Thank you, Astrid, for this beautiful interview, for sharing your thoughts and vision and of course for creating Atelier Austmarka! As a residency and as an art project, I feel it is a very special place that impacts the artists who visits it. It has certainly impacted me!