Steven Hughes, assistant professor of illustration at NMU, was among a diverse team of artists and academics selected for a prestigious five-day summer residency in Iceland through Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. The collaborative journey of creative and natural exploration drew inspiration from the majestic landscape of Iceland’s southern coast: glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, sleeping volcanoes and moss-covered lava fields.
At each location, the artists completed plein air studies (sketching or painting on site) or elected to hike further and photograph additional scenery for reference later in the studio. Noteworthy sites they visited included Þingvellir National Park, a Game of Thrones filming location where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates divide. Hughes also did a plein air painting during a stop at the basalt sea stacks known as Reynisdrangar. According to legend, these iconic rocky spires formed when trolls tried unsuccessfully to pull a three-masted ship to shore, were exposed to dawn’s sunlight and turned into stone. Another memorable view was Rútshellir, reportedly the oldest man-made residence in Iceland and one of several caverns along a stretch of coastline fashioned into homes.
“It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Hughes. “Our leaders gave a description of what we were going to see at each destination, along with its history, importance and the folklore behind it. Then the artists were left to their own devices.”
The 12 members of “Team Moss” hailed from the United States, Canada and Austria. They led evening workshops on ideation and techniques at the residency’s home base, a farmstead near the city of Vik. Hughes delivered a workshop on unconventional drawing materials, which ranged from twigs to a piece of flattened aluminum pop can attached to a dowel and dipped in ink. He had experimented with the latter in a college calligraphy class.
“We had a lot of interesting dialogue there; the conversations were never dull,” said Hughes. “I had researched the other artists’ portfolios to become familiar with their work before I went on the trip, but it was great to interact with them in person. Spending so much time with a smaller group in relatively close quarters lends itself well to collaboration.
“It’s hard to put in to words the impact this experience will have on my work and teaching, but I will certainly be influenced by it. The residency helped me better understand the scale of landscapes and rock formations, which applies to my recent work in imaginative realism, or fantasy. I’m taking things that don’t actually exist and making them look real. I’m also telling stories of characters that might inhabit those landscapes. We participated in some good exercises and conversations during my residency that I can refer to in class. The industry contacts I made might also be relevant to my students.”
Light Grey Art Lab began its Iceland residency in 2014. Hughes applied successfully for this summer’s program and credits support he received from the NMU School of Art and Design and College of Arts and Sciences.