In a quiet residential neighbourhood of east Reykjavík, retired fisherman Sigurður Petersen can be found most afternoons sitting in his garage, lovingly carving figurines out of wood. He diligently works with the garage door open, especially in the autumn and winter. Walking past this unassuming workshop, you will notice shelves lined with the fruits of his labours: dwarves, wizards, characters from the Sagas, fishermen from his home village, masks styled after South Pacific cultures. Apart from a modest Facebook page and the occasional sojourn to craft shows, this garage, which Sigurður dubbed “Gluggagallerý” (“window gallery”), is the only venue through which he sells his wares.
Sigurður grew up in Stokkseyri, a tiny village on the south coast of Iceland. He spent his whole life in and around the sea: going to navigation school, joining the Merchant Fleet, eventually becoming a captain.
“In 2000, I quit sailing and started to work ashore, and started thinking about what hobby I should try,” he tells us, showing us around his workshop. “Like anyone else, I started by trying golf, but I didn’t go anywhere there, so I gave up. It was important for me to do something creative and productive. I’ve been doing carvings since 2004, and I enjoy every minute of it. The first two or three years, the stuff I made was nothing special, but I kept going.”
Keep going he did, and the shelves of his garage take us on a journey through his creative process. Dwarves, carved at the behest of his grandchildren, elves, and Saga figures such as Egill Skallagrímsson, Gréttir, Glámur the troll and others stand at attention on the shelves. Not that he confines himself to a strictly Icelandic context: he also takes his inspiration from books of folk art from around the world. “I like to do different things,” he says. “I don’t like to do the same thing over and over. Sometimes these guys are inspired by reading stories. There were no pictures; I’d just try to see in my mind what they look like.”
There is no shortage of raw materials, either, as Sigurður tells us the wood itself comes mostly from neighbours who offer him branches from trees they’ve trimmed. Otherwise, he gets his wood from Sorpa. Nonetheless, he is particular: he prefers to work with birch, which he believes “has the most life” to it. He also never sands his pieces, as he believes it’s important for the figurines to look hand-carved.
Despite this extensive body of work, the garage remains the main venue through which he sells his figurines.
“I have this Facebook page, Gluggagallerý, and that’s it,” he says. “I do bring my carvings to markets, about two or three times a year. Not Kólaportið, though. I like my freedom.” He has shown his figurines at Kex Hostel and Reykjavík City Hall, amongst other places. But mostly, he just carves figurines with the garage door open, and people walking by just stop over and check out his stuff. “A lot of tourists stop by, especially in the summer, as they walk by this way on their way to Perlan,” he says.
One of the most striking parts of his collection are a series of men, each completely individual from the other, standing with their hands in their pockets with expressions of anticipation. “These are fishermen from my home village of Stokkseyri,” Sigurður explains. “These guys would go down to the seaside early in the morning or late in the night, standing by the fish houses. They would stand and wait, especially if the weather was dubious, wondering if they should keep waiting or go back home again. Some of these guys I’ve given names.”
As for the future of Gluggagallerý, Sigurður has no ambitions to expand this venture into an actual shop downtown, but he intends to keep exploring new subjects for creation.
“I might start carving the old Icelandic Santas. The bad ones, you know. I’ve already done the Coca-Cola Santas,” he tells us. “I’ve tried other forms, but I always come back to the figurines. I can’t see myself renting a shop downtown and standing behind a counter for eight hours a day. I like my freedom. This is what I like to do.”
To see and possibly buy some of Sigurður’s work, you go to his Facebook page, and the page lists his phone number—he recommends people call ahead to be sure he’s home. Or you can email him, at email@example.com.