Interview with Olof Marsja, Artist in Residence at Stenebyskolan, Dals-Långed, Sweden
Most people who decide to go on a residency go to a place that is very different from what they know, but how about going back to a place where you’ve been before, but in a different role? Some art schools have an artist in residence program and are happy to invite alumni to come back as an artist in residence.
One of these schools is Stenebyskolan, an arts and design school in the little town of Dals-Långed in the South-West of Sweden, about 15 km away from RUD Air where I had been staying for two months. I didn’t know Steneby had a residency until I heard about it from some of the students there-the artist in residence was just opening his final exhibition, they told me. A few emails later and Olof Marsja, the artist in residence, was showing me around his exhibition and we had an interesting chat about his project at Steneby, his background and what it’s like to come back as an artist in residence to a school you’ve attended as a student.
I hope you enjou this interview, and if you’d like to see more of Olof’s work, check out his website!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I recently finished my BA exam at Konstfack in Stockholm and I did this residency here because I had so many ideas that I wanted to continue working with.
I grew up in a town in the north of Sweden and I went to Samernas Utbildningscentrumin in Jokkmokk, it’s like a Sami craft school. If you go to any Sami family, craft is always there because that type of living is more important for them than for the rest of society, that everybody knows it. I was interested in that so I went to the school to learn more about it and that’s how I got started. Afterwards I came here, to Steneby, because this is also kind of a craft and design school.
So the interest in craft and wood started at the Sami school and then you continued it at Steneby?
Yes..but then, being from the north and working with wood is really weird, because it doesn’t feel very contemporary in a way, since I come from a place where it’s a very long tradition. You go to these marketplaces and there will always be these men doing chainsaw sculptures and that made me think, I can’t really work with wood because people will only associate me with that kind of work.
Then I did an exchange with the art academy in Helsinki, and there I did a course with a Japanese teacher, a sculpture artist..and in a way, he gave me permission, made me realise that maybe other materials like plastic seem more contemporary but really, wood is a material like any material. That was such a relief, to learn I can do things with wood, to take back the feeling for wood. The forests are a big part of the world and of living, and wood can be anything, it’s not limited to certain ideas or anything.
So..that’s a bit of my background.
This was your first residency, why did you decide to apply for it?
I had a friend who did this residency before, he told me about it and since it’s open to Steneby alumni, I thought; hey maybe I have a chance of going there! I’ve been looking at residencies but sometimes it feels like they’re not really made for people who make a big mess, or who need a lot of stuff. I knew that here, there would be the wood workshop and I knew I could do what I wanted to do and work in the way I like to work. So I think..I wasn’t actually thinking too much. I thought, it exists, I’ll apply, I didn’t expect to be selected at all.
You’ve been a student here at Steneby, what was it like to come back as an artist in residence?
It was really weird, actually! The first few weeks I had such a panic! When I studied here, six years ago, I was at another point in life and now I come back with a different sort of knowledge and different expectations. I thought, I’ll come back and I’ll work the same way I do in Stockholm but then I arrived and it’s actually very different.
I was working in the same workshop I worked at when I studied here, ‘my’ workshop, and I would hear the new students talk about things and..they were the same things I had been thinking about six years ago, and it was like time stood still and nothing had happened! I was like..this is so weird, nothing has happened with me?
That’s the strange thing with this place..the time doesn’t stand still here, but if you’ve been here before it can feel like it does because everything looks the same and that can make it hard to see your own development. Coming to a new place..even though it’s a place I’ve been before..I realised I need to work, it doesn’t matter what I do, I just need to do things, to create in order to get comfortable in a new place. It’s a strange time. You have to be overactive almost.
Did you work with the students also?
Not really..when I applied I had an idea to do some kind of workshop, but then I got so sucked up into this project and we didn’t really plan it out..but it could still be possible, it would be nice. That’s actually another strange thing about being an artist in residence here, because the students are going to school here, so they have their obligations, and the teachers are having their obligations towards the students and you kind of fall a bit in between. You’re not a student, but not a teacher either.
Tell a little bit about the project you did here?
When I applied, I had the idea to work more with the figure..I had ideas from going to the Gustav Vigeland museum in Oslo, about figures that are perhaps a bit scary, but also about the perfect body, or the national body. I wanted to explore some of those ideas, and also explore how to combine different materials. What happens when the figure tells one story and the material tells a different story and how we can create shifts in the stories of the materials in relation to the figure, or how can we create these kind of shifts in relation to the story..that was kind of like the starting point. I don’t plan too much, I plan the starting point but my work is process based.
So you know the starting point but not where it’s going to end up?
Exactly. I’ve been thinking about creating…not anti aesthetic because it is an aesthetic, but a kind of unfinished, open work, and the time here influenced that a bit, as I was working in the wood workshop and I saw the design students working towards an end product. There are norms of what a table or a chair should look like and they work inside this framework, and then the feeling grew that these are things that we could be thinking about, also in relation to the perfect body. Using hot glue is not worse than using wood glue or a screw that you can see, thoughts like that.
I went to a ten day wood symposium in Czech before I came here, and there was this strange hierarchy where I felt like there was someone you had to get approved by. You would start with a sketch and you had to realise that sketch but I just..I changed along the way, I experimented a bit and it really confused them and even upset them because I didn’t follow the rules! They didn’t speak to me directly though, they spoke to the other people who were attending and they told me, you really upset them with your work. I realised that I wanted to create an expressionistic thing that was a bit sloppily done, but everyone else was working really neat.
I think that made me think about what I do and my work, and I could bring that here and continue to work from that.
Do you feel the surroundings here, with the forests and all, have influenced the work you made during your residency period?
A little bit..I’m from the north and I grew up next to the forest, so for me this is a very familiar place, although I’ve been living in Stockholm for a while now and spending most of my time in the city. I did pick some mushrooms that looked nice and dried them, so unintentionally the forest crawled into my work!
I think though..the forest goes through different states, there is the decay of the forest, the life cycle, especially now at this time of the year. I wanted to work with the idea that different materials have different lifespans. Metal would take a long time to disappear or perhaps it never would, but then the mushrooms are very fragile and they won’t last forever, it shows how the world changes over time..I could use soil as a type of material because it’s the end product but it’s also..this is going to sound cheesy, but it’s also life giving material.
I think when you’re in an area like this that makes sense because it’s just the truth as you experience it here, but then when you go back to the city, away from that process, then it sounds cheesy because you’re not seeing it as much.
Definitely, and also..the studio, it’s this old house up on the hill. The teachers who don’t live in this area stay there during the week, but in the weekends they go home and then it’s just me living there by myself. Then the wind is blowing and the house is making sounds, and you’re looking out at the dark forest and it can seem quite scary. The city can be scary, but it’s always light and nothing is unknown in the city. Even when you don’t know an area, everything that could come is something you know-a car, a bus, a person on a bike, it’s all man made. The forest is not like that.
Some of my figures are like fantasy figures and because I’ve been here, they become a sort of forest creature. They aren’t really, they could be anything, but now because of the context they become creatures of this place.
Where does the fascination with this human figure come from, what you called the ideal or national body?
Some of it is because I went to Konstfack in Stockholm and when I went there there was a lot of talking about norm criticism, about the ideal body and who that is. It becomes part of a bigger discussion, about xenophobic movements and far right movements all around the world, people who want to ‘protect the culture’. It embodies the idea, if you’re Swedish you’re supposed to look like this. If you’re European, this is what you look like. It goes back to those ideas.
There is a fascination with craft and the material of wood in particular in your work as well. How do you balance craft and concept, is that a difficult balance to achieve?
In a way, it’s a huge issue for me. I had these thoughts of..wood is chainsawing men at markets making bear sculptures and I feel that it can get really ‘crafty’. There’s nothing actually wrong with crafty, it’s just my own problems with it. I like to get crafty when working with wood, but when craft is the only expression and it ends there, I’ll get bored. I try to use different techniques to mix it up, do things you’re not ‘supposed’ to do.
I feel that if you show things that are very well crafted, people only tend to look at the skill that has been put into it and then it becomes a barrier to further engagement with the object. But at the same time..if it is something ‘anyone could do’, if there is no craft or skill involved, that can also become a barrier in a way. There needs to be a balance.
What is contemporary and what is not, it’s a fake problem. It doesn’t really matter, it’s always changing anyway. When I work and I think about craft and concept..I’m working against myself. I’m stuck thinking ‘this is bad, I can’t do this, people will look down on me!’ but then I know, people don’t actually do that and it’s just in my own head and because of my own background.
Are you satisfied with the work you made during this period?
Yes, I think so..it’s been a very work intense period for me and I’m actually really happy with the outcome.
Do you feel like your work has taken a new direction during this period?
I wanted to scale up and work with figures in a more figurative way, and then I went there and started abstracting again. Some of the things take a long time to do but when you reach a certain point they go very quickly. I’ll work on other things during that process and it becomes interesting when those become something where I can’t quite tell what it is. It’s like..I want to try to understand what it’s doing.
I worked a bit more intentionally to make whole figures, which I feel..works and doesn’t work. Creating a complete body is interesting, but it also closes them in a way, in ends them and I like it when something has the potential to keep going.
These things though, they’re mostly important to me and less important for other people who just come and see the exhibition. They see the moment, I see the whole process and where that piece stands in that process
Do you feel two/three months is long enough?
I’ve been here now for two and a half months, I worked on the project for two months and then started working on the exhibition for the past two weeks. Maybe more time to create would’ve been nice, but then again..things continue, everything is going on at the same time and especially with this unfinished aesthetic, it might be good that there were only two months because otherwise there would have been even more stuff! You’ll probably always feel like there’s not enough time, you can keep going on forever. Maybe two months is good. Also, it will be nice to go back to Stockholm, see my friends and go to the pub and have a stranger serve your beer for once!
Do you have any tips for artists who go on their first residency? Things you learned and felt that might be useful for other artists?
I had no idea what I was getting into, it totally freaked me out in the beginning, I thought, are they expecting me to be someone special, I’m just me?! Try to be open to the place and to the people who are there. I’m really bad with expectations, I may believe there are so many expectations of me and I’ll think ‘I can’t be all of that!’ So..don’t do that.
Do you want to do more residencies in the future?
Yes, definitely. I’ve been looking at other residencies, also because..you’re an artist so you may not have so much money but you want to do some travelling, and going on residencies is a great way to do that. I liked the wood symposium too, something like that would be nice to do again. It would’ve been nice if there had been other artists here as well, that I wasn’t the only artist in residence.
Last question..what’s next?
I’m moving, so the very next thing is to move everything, get a studio, applying for things, working, doing exhibitions in the new year..I’ve had a period here just creating, now it’s time for the ‘boring stuff’!
I feel that what I wanted to achieve here, I achieved. I didn’t plan too much before I came here but I still had a clear vision of what I wanted to do and I did that, and now it’s time to see what is going to be the next direction, where to go, how it’s going to develop. Now I can close this and continue on to whatever is going to come next.
Thank you, Olof, for showing me your exhibition and doing the interview, it was very interesting to see your creatures and hear about how they have been growing through this period, and I’m curious to see how they will develop in the future!
If you want to see more of Olof’s work, you can check out his website here
And if you want to read more about Steneby’s AIR program, here is their site