Iceland - A Whimsical Tribute to the Hidden Folk

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I am paying tribute to Iceland with some original art to reflect my enjoyment of the country during our recent adventure there. Outside of Reykjavik, we encountered a great deal of small and large scale homesteading practices from raising lambs to building greenhouses and a great deal in between. You may be surprised to learn some of these homesteaders are literally invisible! There is great deal going on in this new piece. Let's start with some Icelandic legends.

Iceland - The Hidden Folk - By Joanna West Moser

When visiting a new place, my first interest is diving into its history, particularly stories unique to the evolution of its culture. When I did my preliminary research in preparation for our Iceland experience, I was particularly taken with the origin story of Iceland's "Hidden Folk", or "Huldufólk" in the native tongue. These are generally benign homesteading beings that are invisible to all but a select few. They live unseen in Iceland's unearthly landscape much as ordinary folk do: they farm, play, have families, and go to their own churches. Some believe they may cause perceptible mischief for humans when they feel they have been wronged or endangered in some way. They may also be persuaded to return kindness for kindness when the spirit moves them. 

Reynisdrangar from the black sand beach of Vik

Iceland's otherworldly landscape certainly feels symbiotic to the development of these stories. In fact, certain legends are clearly directly inspired by specific geological formations, such as Reynisdrangar—basalt sea stacks (pictured above) just beyond the black beach of Vik rumored to be trolls caught in an act of mischief by the morning sun. Once there, I could easily picture mystical beings employing the fascinating rock formations as homesteads. The internet will have you thinking that the vast majority of Icelanders wholeheartedly believe these beings exist, but I found that polls that make such claims are quite outdated and may not speak for today's population. Regardless, having the knowledge of them gave me a heightened sensory thrill as I explored the landscape and contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the country. 

The most common explanation for the existence of the Hidden Folk is derived from the collision of new religious influences (in this case, Christian doctrine) with established "Old Ways". Here, the influencing text is the Old Testament. Some time after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, God surprised them with a visit. As it happens, Eve was in the middle of bathing her children when this omniscient guest unexpectedly arrived. Not wishing to present God Almighty with filthy children, she hid those who were yet unwashed and introduced her clean progeny as her only children. God decided to punish Eve for this seemingly harmless deceit with some classic Old Testament retribution. He declared that those children whom Eve had hidden would remain hidden to her and all the world forever. A variation on this tale was penned by the Brothers Grimm whose version has Eve hide her ugly children as God blesses and bestows prophetic gifts on the handsome ones. 

An Apple a Day, by David Weidman 1968

In recognition of this origin story, I based my Hidden Folk characters on a 1968 illustration of Adam and Eve by one of my favorite artists, David Weidman (above). They comprise the central figures and all others are evolved from their style, as they are the originators of the Hidden Folk themselves. Although Adam and Eve are notorious for wearing fig leaves and the Icelandic legend often describes Hidden Folk as wearing traditional Icelandic costumes, I felt it was more logical for my Hidden Folk to be nude. It's likely that the children were already nude in preparation for washing. Even if they weren't, young children often seem to prefer the naked state. I like to think that, free from the influence of parents who would always mourn the loss of Paradise, these children were left to raise themselves with a naive sense of wonder for the natural world and freedom from the legacy of their parents' shame. I've therefore depicted them as happy sprightly souls uniquely at home in their landscape and bodies. 

I also wanted to acknowledge the longstanding history between Iceland and Norway in this piece. They share much more than color-swapped flags. Iceland was settled in the Middle Ages primarily by Norwegian people and the two nations share much Norse culture and history. Iceland was brought under Norway's rule in 1262 until both countries were absorbed into the Kalmar Union under Danish rule in 1380. To recognize this connection, I turned to another artist: Gustav Vigeland of Norway. An exceptionally productive artist, his sculptures depicting scenes of the human experience are the proud feature of Oslo's most beloved park. I used four sculptures of infants from the Vigeland Sculpture Park as the models for the four babes in my illustration. 

Child Sculptures by Gustav Vigeland of Norway

Lastly, I wanted to represent the landscape under weather conditions most suitable for channeling legendary creatures. Naturally, waterfalls help—you can't travel far without seeing one. When the sun is out, waterfalls often go hand in hand with rainbows, which is a magical sight unto itself. However, I found Iceland at it's most eerie and mystical when the skies were gray.  All of this, I attempted to put into good effect with my finished piece. Prints available in the shop.


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