From Iceland — Rán Flygenring Never Stops Playing

Rán Flygenring Never Stops Playing

Published December 1, 2023

Rán Flygenring Never Stops Playing
Photo by
Art Bicnick

With a shiny new prize, a just-released book and many projects in the works, Rán Flygenring’s creative journey is just getting started

“This is not my problem,” says Rán Flygenring, sitting in her studio on Ásvallagata on a crisp Tuesday afternoon. 

“Maybe it is, when I have to write a biography or put a title in a box somewhere, but this is not the problem that I have with myself. I feel fine with all the different things that I do.” Rounding her year with the prestigious 2023 Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for her book Eldgos (Volcano), the 36-year-old creative refuses to confine herself to one medium. Her projects span from illustration, writing and teaching to environmental activism and more. “There’s an old saying that being a freelance artist is like being a potato. Sometimes you’re fried, sometimes boiled, sometimes mashed,” she says.

As she offers me a cup of coffee, I take some time to look around Rán’s studio. I admit I was nervous walking here as she didn’t tell me the full address, just the street name. “Well, this building doesn’t have a number,” she says in her defence while the coffee is brewing. Finding Rán turned out to be easier than I had anticipated. Just as I walked close to Ásvallagata, on the approach to Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood, I spotted a large window with an anti-whaling poster Rán created during the summer. I knew I was at the correct address.

The coffee is ready now. I take a sip and we launch straight in. 

With an Icelandic mother and a Norwegian father, I’m curious whether Rán thinks of herself as Icelandic or Norwegian. Understanding how difficult, and frankly, in such a globalised world, often unnecessary it is to put oneself under any labels, I try to ease it with a joke, “Are you team Hraun or team Kvikk Lunsj?” [arguably the best candy bar offerings of each nation]. Rán pauses for a moment and says, “Good question. How do I answer this?”

She admits that having a bit of heritage from both sides has definitely had an impact on shaping her personality – an experience she’s grateful for. “I guess I never felt completely Icelandic and, at the same time, I don’t feel Norwegian either,” says Rán, adding that since both are relatively close cultures, her definition of herself has never caused much internal turmoil.   

She admits, though, that after getting a degree in graphic design in Iceland, she wanted to immerse herself in Norwegian culture independently, free from her parents’ influence, such as frequent visits to her dad’s side of the family. Rán moved to Oslo in 2014 to pursue a Master’s, which turned out to be, in her words, “a reality check with Norway.” She explains, “Then I sort of found out that I am not Norwegian in some way.” Rán speaks of feeling an outsider in Norway as being “big and wild.”“That was an interesting look in the mirror,” she says.

Photo by Art Bicnick, Illustration by Rán Flygenring

The language of Rán’s home

Despite speaking different languages with her parents growing up, Rán was quickly immersed in a creative environment. Both her mom and dad had been running an architecture studio from home. “I was always sort of half in there,” she remembers. “Even though, at the time, I thought they worked a rather boring office job, of course, having parents that were doing a creative job and applying problem-solving thinking shaped me.”

“There were always pencils and paper around. They would be drawing, I would be drawing. Drawing was just one language in the home,” Rán highlights that her parents always used drawing as a practical tool to explain things. “They were so used to drawing to demonstrate and explain things. It was their tool, basically.” 

Early on, Rán knew she would pursue a creative path, even though she wasn’t sure exactly what that path would be. Horses were another passion of hers and she spent every summer working with them, even training them for other people. She considered equine studies at Hólar University if she didn’t get into the Iceland Academy of the Arts on her first try [which she did].

At the mere mention of “finding her voice,” Rán says it’s a question that often comes up in interviews or conversations with starting artists. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but I don’t feel like that was something that I had to look for in a way,” she says. “Everyone has a different line. I’m talking about a literal line when you draw a circle. There’s a character in it,” she speaks of having that line and developing it over the years. 

“I don’t have that thing where I need people to take me seriously. I don’t feel like I have to elevate the work. It seems to reach people anyway, through the sketches.”

Her art never felt like a conscious choice, yet it is very distinct – raw sketches that seem a little goofy, often poking fun at herself or those around her, like sketching her review of Eurovision acts or humorously depicting her in-laws in a sometimes morbid way. It’s the visual storytelling that binds Rán’s work together. 

“I don’t have that thing where I need people to take me seriously,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have to elevate the work. It seems to reach people anyway, through the sketches.” She believes that there’s something about the rough sketch approach that helps her get the story across in the most effective way. “I’m just not good at the other thing. I’m just not good at painting,” Rán modestly adds. “I’m always so eager to tell a story or get the message through that, frankly, I sometimes get bored with the process. I just want the drawing to tell what I need to tell and then I’m on with it.”

Ordinary interactions, extraordinary ideas

While in recent years, Rán has been making waves as a book illustrator and writer – her first book, Vigdís, a picture book that tells the story of the world’s first elected female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, received the Reykjavík City Children’s Literature Prize in 2019 – her projects embrace various industries, from collaborating with the Iceland Post to create a hot dog stamp to designing murals at airports and ferry terminals.

“This was sort of where it all started,” Rán says of the summer of 2011 when she applied for a summer job as an official illustrator for the capital. At that time, the local youth centre Hitt Húsið was offering scholarships or “summer salaries” for various group and individual projects. “So, I applied with this title in mind – I said, ‘I’m going to be the Official Illustrator of Reykajvík. I’m going to walk around in the summer, draw what’s happening and then make an exhibition.’” 

Observing people remains one of Rán’s primary sources of inspiration. “I can name artists, art pieces, books and places that inspire me, but I think mostly it is kind of stepping a little bit out of yourself and becoming an audience to the world, as if taking a step back and looking at it as if it was a theatre,” Rán is confident that many ideas come from looking at how we interact with ordinary things. 

Over the years, she has collaborated with writer Hjörleifur Hjartarson on a series of books, Fuglar (Birds), Hestar (Horses) and Álfar (Elves), the latter having its release party on the night of our conversation.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Having read an interview where Rán confesses she couldn’t care less about birds, I’m curious to ask how the Fuglar project came about. “I used to, before we did the bird book,” Rán chuckles. “I didn’t think about birds much. After the bird book, I’m a total bird fan. I have to watch out not to turn into a bird weirdo.”

“I’ve been so fortunate to see, through different drawing projects, how fascinating things become when you start digging,” says Rán, adding that the meeting point between nature and people has been the focal point of her work. “I mean, people are nature, but there’s something really interesting in between. I’m totally inspired by this.”

She admits that there’s no logic in how the topics for the book series were chosen, before correcting herself, “I mean, this is logical in our minds. Birds are fascinating in the sense that we have so many stories about them and how they connect the whole world. Horses really shaped the nation. They’ve been with us here since people settled in Iceland. They have had such an immense impact on the land, just who we are and surviving here. There are so many interesting stories to tell in that,” she pauses. “And then the elves have this same quality – telling about them tells us as much about us as birds and horses. I think that’s how it kind of connects but in very different ways.”

Unlike other illustration projects, where Rán normally works with a ready manuscript, she describes working with Hjörleifur as a very collaborative process, where they shape the story together and spend a lot of time deciding what’s better told through a drawing versus text.

Illustrating the unseen

Despite often being labelled as a “tourist fairytale,” the belief in Huldufólk (hidden people or elves) is deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture. “When you start digging, everyone has a story involving elves,” admits Rán, adding that in the book, she and Hjörleifur collected both well-known and lesser-known stories about elves, but they presented them in a slightly different light.

“How are you going to draw elves? That’s such a massive thing to take on. How do you decide what elves look like?”

Interestingly, the book was created in a way where only those who wish to see the elves would be able to do it – the hidden people are printed with seemingly invisible ink, a mere sheen on the page. “In the book, there are illustrations that resemble the world as it is, but then there is a layer of activity that sort of interacts with the other drawings,” explains Rán. “That was something that I immediately thought had to be like that. Because how are you going to draw elves? That’s such a massive thing to take on. How do you decide what elves look like? The magical thing about them is that they cannot be seen by everyone at the same time, in a way. So that’s why I just thought immediately that they had to be hidden, as well.” 

Photo by Art Bicnick

She describes working on the book as a struggle, in which the deadline was approaching, but there was no progress until she had a vivid dream, as if a supernatural force was guiding her. The dream took her to the funeral of her co-author, Hjörleifur. “I could see the tapestry on his coffin in detail. All the people he knows were there and I was in the audience at the funeral. I felt like I was shown this vision.” Rán says that after the dream, her work on the illustrations really kicked off. 

There are no specific instructions in Álfar, but the book is still going to be informative even if you’re “the sort of person who prefers not to see elves.” Rán says, “If you see them, you see them, if you don’t, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Many thanks to new mountains”

Rán describes her visit to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 as “one of the biggest experiences I’ve had in life.” Naturally, when the eruption in Geldingadalir began in 2021, “I went there and I was absolutely amazed,” Rán says, explaining how her admiration for volcanoes came to be. “No, I was just absolutely gobsmacked – isn’t that a negative word?” 

“It was just a really big experience,” she continues. “I went there again and again – in total, like 18 times or something. I couldn’t stop.” 

“In between, I was just looking at the live feed, and I was not alone in being so fascinated by it and how close to us it was. It was so big and crazy and unlike anything else in our world – especially our manmade world,” Rán continues, as excited as if we were standing right next to the eruption right now. “And yet it was like so small. Why isn’t it just ripping the whole earth apart?”

Her numerous hikes to the volcano site grew into an eponymous book, a project in which Rán acted both as an illustrator and a writer. Eldgos, published in English in the translation of Jonas Moody, follows the story of a young boy, Kaktus, who joins his mom at work – on a tour around Iceland because his school got closed due to a lice outbreak. The story takes an unexpected turn when Kaktus and the tourists see a volcano.

Photo by Art Bicnick

The story was born out of fascination and observation. “There were people doing all sorts of things – toilet paper everywhere, people getting married, painting portraits, doing fashion photography, throwing frisbees over the lava, frying sausages,” Rán recalls. She wanted to tell a story and the inspiration gradually developed through her interest in observing people and “the big nature that isn’t beautiful or nice. You cannot pet it. It’s totally untamed.” 

She speaks of how the volcano reminded her of how incredibly small and mortal we are. She started bringing sketchbooks to the volcano site and drawing what she saw. “That’s just my way of processing something. Here’s something really interesting and I want to draw it because that’s how I work to understand things,” Rán says.

She admits that she never thought of the story as a children’s book, but in the reality of today’s publishing market, when you publish an illustrated book, it just gets labelled as a children’s book.

Rán’s candid about her surprise at winning the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize, specifically competing in a category with countries that have richer and older traditions of picture books. She adds, “I was really glad when I got the nomination, because the description picked up on those threads that I was working with, like the relationship between the human and the nature.”

“I opened my book, because once you publish a book, you don’t really look at it that much, at least voluntarily. I opened it and I was like, ‘Someone has to get this illustrator under control. It’s way too crazy,’” she says with a laugh. 

Any recognition that comes with the prize, as well as being able to take full credit for this work, admittedly feels good to the illustrator. “I acknowledge that the written word is very respected. Illustrations always come kind of second [billing] on traditional book markets,” she ponders. “So, when I’m collaborating, it’s easy to say this is the part that wins the prize.”

A total of 14 Nordic picture books, children’s books and youth novels competed for the prize. The winner was awarded the Nordlys statuette and 300,000 DKK (6,051,058 ISK or 43,991 USD). The awards ceremony took place at the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Rán, who dyed the tips of her blonde hair red for the ceremony, says she wasn’t planning to prepare a speech. “But  [Icelandic author] Arndís Þórarinsdóttir, who was also nominated, said, ‘Regardless of what you think or not, you do not want to be the idiot that screws up on national TV.’ So, I did have a speech prepared. It was just a crazy moment that I’ll never forget.”

Drawing for change

While many of Rán’s projects are intimately connected to nature, she shares that a few years ago, she grappled with climate anxiety, which led to a period of feeling lost. “I just took it to heart,” she says. “Just following the news was enough that I was unable to just go to the supermarket and choose something because I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility to do the right thing. And that’s not a very productive nor a very creative state to be in.” 

True to her nature, Rán turned to drawing to help navigate her emotions and seek clarity. A little later, she began studying philosophy at the University of Iceland, focusing primarily on environmental ethics, ecofeminism and ecotheology – an experience that taught her to formulate her thoughts better and dive deeper into topics in which she already had an interest. 

Once you publish a book, you don’t really look at it that much, at least voluntarily. I opened it and I was like, ‘Someone has to put this illustrator under control. It’s way too crazy.'”

Last summer, as whaling was set to resume in Iceland, sparking mass anti-whaling protests, Rán didn’t sit still. She joined the activist group and created an opinion piece for Vísir that later spread across social media, titled “A Visual Guide To The Rather Incomprehensible Situation Of Whaling in Iceland.” She explains that whaling in Iceland has upset her for a long time. In fact, her first activism started when she was five or six years old. Together with a friend, she was so upset about the treatment of Keiko (the orca from Free Willy) that they wrote to newspapers and attended radio interviews. “It’s just so wrong. If this isn’t something we can’t stop, well, what can we then stop?” says Rán about the current whaling industry in Iceland, which is run by one man, Kristján Loftsson.

On a personal note, one of my first encounters with Rán’s work was Hótel Nýlundabúðin, or the Grand Puffin Hotel Nýlundabúðin, in 2021. Back then, I didn’t really dig into what the project was really about, frankly, I was just curious about the quirky idea of a hotel for puffins. But now, with Rán right here across the desk, I’m eager to hear the full story. 

“Puffin shops, in general, have had such a bad reputation. And the puffin has become such a character that even Icelanders don’t want to own anymore in a way,” explains Rán. With these thoughts in mind, Rán teamed up with fellow illustrator and bird enthusiast Elín Elísabet for a collaboration that resulted in a two-stage project in Borgarfjörður eystri – The Nýlundabúðin Puffin Shop and its sequel, Hótel Nýlundabúðin.

What Rán and Elín Elísabet aimed to explore and highlight was, on the one hand, the puffin’s transformation into the face of tacky tourist shops and, on the other, to bring awareness to the puffins as a fascinating bird species. Over the last 30 years, Iceland’s puffin population has declined by 70%, primarily due to food scarcity caused by warming sea temperatures. This led to their classification as “Critically Endangered” on the Icelandic Red List of Birds in 2018.

“The Puffin Shop was basically an open studio where we were doing mockery products with puffins on them that were not for sale,” Rán explains, adding that the puffin hotel was opened a year later. “Hotels are popping up everywhere. They’re all for humans. We thought maybe we could bring this extremely human-focused industry out of the anthropocentric scene and provide accommodation for puffins. So we did that.”

While Rán and Elín Elísabet took a break from puffin-themed projects, they are bringing another “shop” to Reykjavík this winter. Rán explains they wanted to draw attention to consumption and sustainability during the biggest shopping season. “Maybe not directly linked to puffins, but I think of it in the same way – as a site-specific theatre slash art installation project,” says Rán. “It’s the only shop in the world that sells everything. You can buy whatever you want or whatever you want to give to someone without cluttering their garage or their living room – a kayak to an air fryer to a Tesla, or just a book,” she explains that you’ll receive the purchase on paper, completely carbon footprint-free.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Kaupaekkertbúðin, or “buy nothing shop,” will be running at Rán’s studio on Ásvallagata from December 1 through December 3, 12:00-18:00.

Creative force at play

An hour in Rán’s company is like getting an intravenous injection of inspiration. I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of projects we discussed, but Rán seems to be maintaining her composure. Maybe it’s the black turtleneck and glasses, but she appears calm. Her projects are interconnected in her mind in what she refers to as “child’s play.” She’s also considering starting a church and wants to create a TV series for non-human audiences.

How does she do it all, I ask, and she tells me what she and Hjörleifur have been telling kids on their current tour of local schools: “Being an artist is like being a kid, you just never stop playing. You never close off those senses that see all the weird things around us.” 

“Training your attention, being aware of what you notice, and just having a little pause before just walking on is so precious,” Rán continues. “When you’re a kid, you don’t say ‘I am limited to one medium,’ right? You just have something to tell. And you will find the best way to do it.” 

Before leaving the studio without a street number, I insist on Rán choosing her favourite candybar. Is it Norwegian or Icelandic? “I must say Norway has some good candy,” she admits. “I also always have Brunost in my fridge.” 

Discover the magic of Rán’s art at ranflygenring.com

Grab some of her books with wild illustrations at shop.grapevine.is

Check out Rán’s exhibition running at the National Gallery of Iceland by January 7th

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