It’s a surprising sight, after driving the snowed-in mountain passes and grey, rocky coastline of the southern Westfjords, to round a tight corner on an obscure coastal dirt road and see a vast pink sand beach sprawling towards the horizon. Violent blue waves race far up onto the sand as the tide comes in, causing a fog of spray to hang over the snow-streaked expanse; in the distance, a hulking flat-topped mountain emerges from the fog. Across the fjord, vast glacial valleys appear and disappear behind fast moving clouds and bands of rain, each one cradling a band of mist. I open the car window, stunned by the raw and vivid view, and taste sea salt on my lips. The Westfjords, even after plenty of exploration, never cease to amaze.
The dirt track in question is Route 619, an unserviced 25km track that runs from the tiny town of Bildudalur to the remote and mostly unpopulated valley of Selárdalur. It’s an obscure spot that wouldn’t usually be much of a destination—the road is rough, and although the nature is spectacular, there are many more accessible places to see it. But at the end of the road is a true Icelandic oddity: Listasafn Samúel Jónssonar, or The Samúel Jónsson Museum.
Samúel Jónsson (1884-1969) was a farmer who spent his life working at the Brautarholt farm in Selárdalur. Upon his retirement, he started creating art, having never trained or established an artistic practise previously.
His collection of paintings and sculptures developed and grew over the years as he enthusiastically set about this new task. Samúel’s ambition seemed to know no bounds. After he designed an altarpiece that was rejected by the church at Selárdalur, he simply built a church of his own to house it; his sculptures of people and wildlife mushroomed around his home to include a fountain surrounded by colourful, cartoonish lions. The house itself also later received a colourful makeover, and Samúel picked up a nickname: “Listamaðurinn með bjarnshjartið,” or “The artist with a child’s heart.”
Slipping into disrepair
After his death, this artist’s farmstead started to deteriorate. Selárdalur is lashed by unforgiving Arctic weather in the winter, and without Samúel’s presence, the sculptures became worn to the point at which it seemed they might disintegrate. The fountain stopped working, and the house and church slipped into disrepair.
So it was that in 1998, a company was started to protect and preserve his oeuvre. A film about Samúel’s life and work was released in 1999, which brought some new attention to the crumbling museum, and in the Spring of 2004, restoration work began. A German sculptor named Gerhard König led the restoration work, supervising teams of volunteers over several summers to renovate the buildings and restore the sculptures to their former glory.
The cluster of buildings that make up the museum are a striking sight as we roll around the final bend and arrive at Selárdalur. They stand perched in a field near the ocean, a spot of colour amongst the rough, rolling farmland and vast mountains. Although it’s May, Iceland is still struggling to make the transition from Winter into Spring. We pull up and walk over the farm, and the icy grass crunches beneath our boots. I pause for a moment to take in the view: there isn’t another soul in sight, the air is crisp and cold, and the surrounding natural environment feels powerfully pure.
The church door is left on the latch. Much of Samúel’s work has been removed for safe keeping, but there are waterproofed prints of his paintings on the walls. There are several photographs of Samúel at work, and a couple of architectural maquettes—grand visions that were never realised, perhaps.
The sculptures themselves stand clustered behind the colourful museum building, which is locked for the Winter. The lion fountain is turned off, but a plastic pipe coils away towards the house; Gerhard got it working again, eventually, and it’s turned on when the summer visitors arrive. One sculpture is of a tall man looking into the distance and shielding his eyes from the sun. A break in the churning clouds occurs with almost theatrical timing, casting a shadow over the sculpture’s face, as if he might spring to life and turn away at any moment.
Nearby, a small duck sculpture carries ducklings on its back next to a man feeding fish to a tame seal. The lions have spiky whiskers made from wire, and a knee-high blue seahorse sits to attention. They’re playfully naive and beautifully stylised cartoonish representations of Samúel’s environment, his life, and his visions, and each one brings a smile to my face.
We linger for a long time, snapping photographs and taking it all in. An information plaque tells us that the farmhouse is being rebuilt, and will one day hold a living space for visiting artists and scholars. As we finally head back towards Bildudalur, I’m struck by Samúel’s unlikely legacy. His museum stands as a proud monument to the simple joys of making art, and with the ongoing restoration efforts of its determined team of protectors, his work will continue to bring joy and inspiration for generations still to come.