I was dusting yesterday (how sad is that!) and looking at the two new ornaments in my life. They are wooden. One is a leaping animal, and the other a tiny diorama of a fishing hut, with a boat and a little seated figure. Both are made from tag ends of wood and driftwood by an Icelandic artist. I might never have met this man if someone hadn’t suggested we check out the little museum at the end of the bay. We had time on our hands, so off we went.
You couldn’t miss the house, because it had a huge fish skeleton outside it, or perhaps a dolphin. Certainly something big and powerful had inhabited those bones. The house was tucked into the folds of a steep terraced garden and everywhere we looked there were sculptures made from pebbles, wood, wire and all the detritus of a regularly combed beach. This man could put one stone on top of another, and suddenly it was a puffin.
It was the dog who greeted us. A soggy old football bounced sluggishly down the terraces towards us, and we looked up into cheerful brown eyes and one pricked ear. Playtime! A slim black collie ran to and fro on the highest terrace waiting to get its ball thrown back. Some time later, when we had run to and fro, flinging the ball erratically up the slope and laughing as the dog sprang to catch it, we became aware of the man in the doorway. He was tall and spare, shabbily dressed, with sea-blue eyes. A lifetime of smiling – or perhaps squinting against the the light on the water of the bay – had etched a deep “V” at the corner of each eye.
He spoke English a little haltingly, with a lyrical Icelandic rhythm to his words as he showed us his treasures. Boxes of bones, feathers and pebbles. Wooden sculptures in a spare, simple style that captured the essence of the thing with one or two swift cuts.
He told us a little of the history of the bay. How the Icelandic navy was advised not to learn to swim, as the water was so cold that if they went overboard, swimming would only make for a “longer death”. He spoke prosaically of the various disasters Iceland had survived – volcanoes, floods, the war – and how the older generation never spoke of their feelings, but just carried on. We couldn’t tell if this was a compliment or a criticism – his face gave nothing away.
The dog trotted in, sleek and shining, and bounded up onto its favourite chair, and they smiled at each other.
We all bought some of his work. “I am not artist, I am carpenter,” he said, and gave us a discount. Perhaps because we had played with his dog.