Monday, July 23, 2012

Upernavik and the Artist's Retreat

Home sweet home

I only had four full days in Upernavik, Greenland before I left on the kayak trip.  I’ve been back a few days now and am rewinding to tell you a little more about my surroundings and life here in this very small town on a very small island about 15 miles off the coast of the mainland.  

Upernavik means “springtime place” and is the name of the settlement, the island and a very large district that spreads north along the coast to Melville Bay.  This area was colonized by Danish traders in the 1700’s, but it has been home to Inuit and other indigenous groups for centuries.  

July 21.  I wake disoriented again, dreaming of people from home. Heavy fog, and some new icebergs have blown in close to the house.  Maybe I will paint outside.  I hate being out much during the work week because the burn station is just over the hill, where they burn all (and I mean all) the garbage from town.  Today is Saturday so there is a rest from the poison in the air.

The old church, no longer in use, burn pit is down the hill out of sight

Upernavik town

I’m told there are over 1,000 people living in this town with its bright red, blue, green, and yellow houses spilling down the hillside to the sea.  Hard to believe, even though there are a few cars here and even a few central roads to drive them on.  There’s also a small medical center, a post office, and a little market.  The grocery chain, called Pilersuisok,  holds an undeniable monopoly.  Each settlement has one, supplied with expensive canned, frozen and packaged food from Denmark that arrives by ship.  

The small medical building in Upernavik - anything serious requires an airlift out of here.

The refugium where I live and work is a restored 1800’s cooper’s workshop – the place where barrels for blubber were once made. It’s one of the original buildings from the settlement and I’m astonished when I look at old photos to see this house in them.

I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be here.  There are few, if any expectations of me imposed by the Upernavik museum.  In fact, when I arrived, I was handed a key and no questions were asked, no explanations given.   I’m figuring most things out on my own and am content with that.  Most artist’s residency programs involve teaching, having the studio open to the public, and/or getting ready for a final exhibit - and don’t include kayak expeditions!  Not so here, and I’m enjoying the time to experience as much as I can of Greenland; to film, paint and draw on my own schedule, knowing the major creative work will happen back in Colorado this fall and winter.

 Nine of the past ten months of my life have been spent living and working away from my beloved Colorado, and it was with some weariness that I embarked on this last, long leg of my self-appointed “Year of Art”.   It seems like I’ve been in near-constant transition lately, always juggling logistics and trying to find some relief from the anxiety I feel about my future.  The calm and silence I find here are invaluable to me on a deep, personal level.  It’s a luxury to have some slower time now that art projects in New York and New Mexico are completed and I accomplished the major fundraising effort required to make this Arctic trip a reality.

The logistics aren’t over yet. I still have to figure out where I’m living when I return to Durango, what studio space to occupy.  (I can’t wait to get my hands on some porcelain… there is so much work to be done!) And what source of income? 

I’m the proud renter of a storage unit - and that’s all.

But here, now. 

From what I can discern, there have been other artists working at the retreat from Argentina, Lithuania, Israel, Japan, Italy, the UK and others disparate locations.  And it looks like love has blossomed here as well as art!  An Australian photographer in residence met a policeman in Upernavik that she fancied (and he, her).  They were married earlier this year. 

The bottom level of the retreat is composed of a small kitchen and laundry room, with a living room facing the sea that also poses as the studio.  Lots of windows and light.  Wooden floors, ahhh.  (NICE.)  The ocean is my closest friend here, a stone’s throw from my writing desk, and icebergs shift imperceptibly on the tide.  There is always a new view.    

Part of my workspace

Some late night reading...

Upstairs is a cozy gabled bedroom and small bathroom.  Danish touches abound, reminding me of my months spent in Denmark in 2009.  There are no trees in Greenland, and the abundance of wooden houses is puzzling.  Until the 1950’s the Inuit lived in stone and sod huts – Danes brought the boxy houses we are all familiar with.  I wonder what forest provided the lumber for this place, and to house the thousand occupants of this town? There is no plumbing here in Upernavik either, but water runs from a hundred gallons tank that gets filled on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ve read there is a desalination plant that makes potable water from the sea.  Human waste also gets picked up on alternate days…

And enough said!

I’m off for a hiking break and to see what happens on Saturday in Upernavik.  The weekends are very sleepy but a soccer game might be going- and everyone here loves that. 



  1. I have been wondering about all of this... the space you are in, the grocery store, the landscape of the island. It is so good to see things from ground level (rather than the fuzzy aerial view you can see on google earth!). Thank you, again, for sharing all of this. Soak up the remaining time you have to own your days with no worries of logistics... I know the logistics of the future are daunting, but I have no doubt that you will land once again.

  2. Excellent choice bringing along Jensen! The shifting icebergs sound truly inspiring, and living near the ocean is always a pleasure. That mountain (is it?) behind the town looks simply amazing. Looking forward to your posts!

  3. Hi and Hello. Your blog is floating around on the facebook thing... I am happy for you stranger :") This place looks wonderfull

  4. LOL 24HITEF sticker among your literature :) Sad that with such colorful and natural surroundings there is an ever present stench of burning garbage, but nice that the odor is not transmitted in the bright and cheerful photographs. Lovely to read your personal accounts!

  5. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
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  6. i did a year and a half of art residencies, put everything in storage, and left all commitments up in the air. and when i came back to my life, it all arranged itself as if by magic. so please rest assured that the baby steps you're taking now will grow into something wonderful in a few years.