From Iceland — Hekla Björt Helgadóttir: Paint The Poem

Hekla Björt Helgadóttir: Paint The Poem

Published September 3, 2019

angela rawlings
Photo by
John Rogers

In one frame, a crescent moon lays on its back. In another, a skeleton thinks. Cut-out words like “hernámi” (occupation) and phrases like “við fylgjum fuglunum” (we follow the birds) glue their meanings to images and objects near which they reside.

Hekla Björt Helgadóttir’s book-art is currently on display in ‘Vor’, Akureyri Art Museum’s group exhibition of thirty artists’ works related to north Iceland. “I have been developing this way of producing art for quite some while,” shares Hekla, “because I’ve always looked at myself as a poet but also as a fine artist. I’m very interested in blending those two, to work equally with text and images.”

Words cut deep

Hekla Björt Helgadóttir’s combination of book and visual arts is an unusual form of publication after receiving a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Iceland. Through her experiences in the Masters program, Hekla learned the value of editorial reflection. “I had to take myself out of my work and look at it from different poles, and listen a lot,” she recalls. “It was great to receive criticism, which is always good in everything we do.”

Her application of editorial skills has become physical in her book art, as she uses a cut-up technique to work found text into oneiric configurations.

Hekla Björt Helgadóttir

Penned and framed

One of two pieces Hekla has in the exhibition, ‘Paint The Ocean Instead Of Sailing’ hangs on the wall as a curiosity cabinet writ miniature. Hekla populated each compartment of an antique box with phrases, images, or objects. The antique box is reminiscent of the kind that held type for old letterpresses.

“It’s like a big laboratory, connecting pictures with text.”

Each compartment functions as a page in the larger work, or as a stand-alone poem. The work invites multiple pathways through Hekla’s text. “You could read it like a book—left to right, or you could read it right to left,” she explains. “You could begin each section from the top to the bottom, or bottom to top. That’s the main idea: it would make sense however you read it. You can read it like a snake, going between the boxes. Then you have created your own poem.”

Lost and found

Hekla Björt Helgadóttir’s work combines not only text and image, but also found material with original. She writes some of the sentences in her work, and includes her own drawings. But the bulk of material she uses is found.

“I have a huge collection of really old books from the 60s and 70s,” says Hekla, “with amazing texts and images in them on very good paper. I cut those out. Sometimes images yell at me that there’s a sentence that belongs to them. That’s when I use the typewriter or handwrite for the image. It’s like a big laboratory, connecting pictures with text.”

The boxes she uses to construct her book art are also found. “I collect old, weathered drawers,” she admits. “You can find a lot of old drawers if you go to the harbour or beaches. I don’t know why, but they have a lot.”

Collectors’ items

Glass bottle. Seashells, keys, cork. Mirror, spoon. In ‘Paint The Ocean Instead Of Sailing,’ found objects protrude from the pages they adorn. The objects are physical signifiers juxtaposed with their phonetic counterparts. The result is tangible surreality, the word made real. The result lulls the viewer into a calm bay of thinkership.

Rendering found material into such curious dreams is where the artistry lays in Hekla’s visual poetry. The objects, she explains, “look like pieces of junk. But it’s all about the stories behind these things. Usually I am the one who is creating the story behind them because I don’t know the truth.”

From Akureyri to Berlin

“What I like about being in Akureyri is the energy,” Hekla comments on her current city. “I work best here, something about the darkness in the wintertime and the mountains. It’s peaceful and energetic, but I always need to move from here a couple times in the year to be more inspired by the world and see things I don’t normally see here.”

Hekla has previously resided in Reykjavík and Berlin, travelling between Iceland and Germany to seek inspiration and material for her poems. “Berlin is a great place to find all kinds of junk on the street. That’s what I miss about it. You find more dramatic shit on the street there.”

Sailing into calmer waters

Though in their early stages, Hekla hints at her upcoming plans. “I have been working on poetry scripts, but I’m getting into the novel more and more. It relaxes me to write text that flows and flows together. It can be very exhausting to cut out sentences like an operating doctor. It’s good to switch gears and go back to solid text.”

Hekla Björt Helgadóttir’s book art is on display at Akureyri Art Museum until September 29th. Check out a travel guide to Akureyri here.

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