An interview with Alma Mjöll Ólafsdóttir
I was running late, I somehow got lost and when I finally got to the Dusted Gallery, sweating and rain-sodden there was Alma, peeping out of the back. She was also running late due to helping with the preparations for the opening show for a group of art school students. She smiles, not minding at all about our shared lack of timekeeping. I am grateful she still had time to fit me, and my lateness in.
Alma is a 22-year-old illustrator, whose artistic reputation has ricocheted around Reykjavik in the past few months, with her original, sweet drawings of friends, strangers and those who have inspired her. On the cusp of her first solo exhibition, it is incredible to find out that Alma only started drawing a year ago, with unemployment forcing her to find a new means of income. Alma said, “I didn’t have any money, any plans or work. I made a portrait of one of my friends and just sold it on Facebook and then lots of people wanted to buy them. Little by little I sold more drawings and raised enough money to go to the sauna and to eat for a week. My friend was putting on a festival in the West Fjords which I wanted to go to so I started drawing again, so that I could afford it.”
By word of mouth, Alma’s reputation started to grow as did the list of requests for her drawings. In addition to her friends; strangers started to order drawings too. “People didn’t expect anything from me,” she said. “The drawings weren’t anything fancy, I was using resources from home and drawing only on math paper because that’s all there was.”
The past few months saw Alma’s work take a strident rise in popularity, as she further established her distinctive style. At Christmas she had a backlog of orders meant for gifts, feeling the pressure she switched from using a marker pen to a pencil. “I always drew with a marker,” she explained. “It was a big step for me, to draw with a pencil but with a pencil, I can erase, I can see that the drawings are getting better, little by little because I can use an eraser.”
I inquired about how her current popularity came to fruition, especially after only drawing or as she says; ‘doodling’. “I don’t know how people are finding me,” she laughs. “I spam a lot on Facebook, so I think it’s more about spamming than actually about how good I am. It’s so funny- I should be called a spammer, not a doodler.”
Alma’s first press appearance was a full page in the Icelandic magazine “Nýtt Líf” (‘New Life’). “I had to think about the price of my drawings because they wanted to print the price, I’d been giving people discounts all the time.”
Her first drawings, which were sold over social media networking sites, began at 250 ISK and with the encouragement of her friends, talent and escalating fame her prices began to rise, although they still sell now at very reasonable prices. “I told them 7,500 ISK, and I was like – gasp – its just doodlery, I can’t have it expensive!”
Alma seemed overwhelmed by it all, things have moved fast. Just two weeks previous her face graced the front cover of ‘Morgunblaðið’. After being contacted by the owner of Dusted Gallery who offered her a solo exhibition she now has her first exhibition. Alma took part in the rather prestigious, ‘DesignMarch’ which is the annual Icelandic Design Festival
Alma appears to be unaffected by her growing recognition and she has humble persona about her, finding it humorous that ‘DesignMarch’ tagged her as a ‘graphic designer’. “My sister was like ‘you’re not a graphic designer’ and I said, I know, I’m a doodler I asked them to change it to ‘doodler.’”
My Imaginary Friends
Alma’s show, entitled “My Imaginary Friends,” is a collection of Alma’s ‘favourite persons’ in the world.’ When there was a lull in orders for portraits she decided to look at those who have inspired her such as Halldór Laxness, Tolstoy, Freud and Frida Kahlo, which formed a charming universe of iconic figures. “The only shame is that I haven’t done a lot of women,” says Alma, “because most of the famous authors and philosophers of the past are men. Now, I’ve gotten better at drawing male faces—I’m really bad at drawing women.”
It is interesting that prior to her opening, Dusted Gallery is hosting a three-day collective exhibition by students from the Art School. Alma, with no formal studies has a solo exhibition for three weeks. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” she says. “I think it’s surreal, It’s a dream, I feel really happy. But they are doodles! My sister is studying graphic design, and I’ve never ever studied.”
At times Alma seems self-conscious about her lack of training. “Sometimes when I’m drawing, I think, I don’t know how to do this, like creating different textures. But I’m afraid that if I had lessons on how to draw, my style would disappear. A friend of mine, a fine artist, told me the other day, ‘I think you’re getting too good at drawing.’”
The lack of formal training doesn’t appear to be holding her back; In fact it just doesn’t show. I ended up wondering if the charm of her drawings comes from flourishing outside of the well-worn pathways of ‘artistic institutions’. Her drawings are crisp and stylised, but pleasingly homemade and unpolished exposing a soul of their own.
Of Page, Stage and Screen
Alma’s talents lie not just in her ‘doodles,’ but also across many mediums; her first love is writing. “I want to become a writer,” she smiles. “That would be my real dream. I was head of the theatre department in high school- I’ve been in the theatre since I was 12.” She is currently finishing a play, which is almost ready. Consistent with her humble shyness about her drawings, when she was asked and accepted to do a television interview regarding her play, Alma called if off the day before. “I called in and said, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t talk about it.’ But I really want to pursue being a playwright. It’s a struggle knowing which path to take, what with everyone liking the pictures. I sometimes think, “Am I losing Alma?”
For now, her art is at the creative forefront as well being a useful source of income. “I just love doing portraits of people, I’d like to learn more about how the body is and I’d like to have a go at doing children’s books, too.” Her portraits do perhaps have sweetness like children’s books, without being overly twee. They are pure, the product of a raw kind of talent and in a sense, a universe of ‘Alma-ness.’
At present Alma doesn’t have any other upcoming shows, resolving to do only ‘My Imaginary Friends,’ and to do it as well as possible. “I’m training myself to say yes to everything and just do it,” she says. “This show is the biggest commitment I’ve made in such a long time, I’m so happy that I’m just finishing it. I’ve never done this before. I hope I get the chance to do this again, because it’s the best thing ever.”
I suspect, having come this far she’ll continue to find her own way.
My Imaginary Friends runs until April 16, at Dusted Gallery, Posthusstræti 13
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