Stöðvarfjörður is a small (population 200) and stunning village in the East Fjords of Iceland. The village was once relient on its fishing industry, but that changed when its fish factory closed down ten years ago.
After its closure, the bank and post office soon followed—and then the town devolved into a collection of empty buildings with many of its young people fleeing west for Reykjavík. Even the town’s church was repurposed into a hostel to adapt toward a shifting economy favoring tourism.
Eventually, the fish factory was bought and transformed into a creative centre that hosts local and visiting artists of all disciplines. The town’s traditional fishing industry slowly transitioned toward a textile- and art-based economy, and the town started inching toward recovery.
“This is a place where people have learned to do a lot with very little,” says Gígja Björnsson, one of the four co-founders of Pólar Festival, a gathering that puts a spotlight on the town’s creativity.
From fish factory to creative centre
Gígja’s partner Viktor Pétur Hannesson spent a summer working at the factory-turned-creative-centre and they were so inspired by the town’s energy that they bought a house there. Together, the powerhouse duo teamed up with siblings Katrín Helena Jónsdóttir and Marteinn Sindri Jónsson. And two years ago, the first-ever Pólar Festival took place in Stöðvarfjörður.
The goal of the festival was simple: to highlight the story and spirit of this unique town and its people.
Pólar’s first iteration two years ago was idyllic and magical: Festival participants foraged for herbs in the mountains and made pesto and salads. The town graciously loaned Pólar fishing boats so festivalgoers could go fishing for their dinner. All of the food at the festival was sourced directly from the Earth, donated by farmers or recovered from waste.
“We wanted to show people that there is so much you can do for yourself and others,” Gígja says. “People in the town are really good at making the most out of everything, and we wanted people to feel that atmosphere.”
This year’s festival, which runs until July 12, is a free and open invitation for anyone interested in the values of sustainability, local production and communal cooperation. The festival runs on an extremely small grant provided by Austurbrú—which highlights a core festival idea that you don’t need a lot of money if a community comes together and actively contributes.
Even Pólar’s music artists were carefully curated. Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson—the crown-wearing lead of upbeat electro-pop group Prins Póló—is not only performing, he is also serving vegan sausages that he produces as a conscious farmer.
Pólar has been positively received by the town of Stöðvarfjörður. After its success two years ago, local community members have gotten more involved. Two women in the town, for example, offered their homes this year as temporary spaces for artists to showcase their work. Everyone is open to tour these cozy exhibitions throughout the festival.
From dump site to lounge area
The festival’s organizers want to make sure that it’s giving back to the community in some way as well. They’re converting an area of the town that’s been used as a dump site—though that isn’t its intended purpose—and cleaning the area up. The festival community will build chairs and tables out of found wood and design an outdoor lounging area that will serve as a pop-up café during the festival. Afterwards, the tables and chairs will be installed into the area so that youngsters in Stöðvarfjörður can have a central place to gather year-round. Another example: one of the festival’s workshops called “The Heart” will invite individuals to contribute to an art sculpture that will be permanently installed in the town near the fish factory.
In order to bring a younger audience to the festival, Pólar is strategically planned to be the week prior to LungA Art Festival, which takes place in nearby Seyðisfjörður. The organizers hope that people will make the trip out east earlier for an additional week of art, music and community. This year’s Pólar Festival seems to be attracting people from all over the world, including a group of international artists traveling from Siglufjörður after two weeks of intense collaboration at the annual REITIR.
“There’s so much energy here,” Gígja says.
Pólar also complements the town’s Maður er manns gaman festival, an eccentric but warm celebration that features rhubarb competitions and a ritual of sea swimming while dressed in fancy clothes.
Gígja says she hopes that festival participants experience how much is possible when a community can work together with a common goal.
“And I hope that they have a lot of fun too,” Gígja says.