The Sculptural Path to Story: an Icelandic Saga

Today, a meditation on lines, and the art and society that sprout from them, as a branch to this…

rowan2Gunnar Gunnarsson’s Rowan Tree, Skriðuklaustur, Iceland

Bending to the earth and throwing her branches into the sky. To say that these branches and twigs were hair, or a mane, or arms and fingers would be a kenning, or a skaldic pun. She has her own dignity, though, I’d say. After all, rowans are sacred to the Goddess. Their red berries glow like drops of blood in the snow, or, if you wish, the strawberry coloured lips of the Goddess of the English celts, or, if your mind wanders so far, to the lips of your first love, or your deepest. They are also a symbol of Icelandic nationalism.

Yesterday I started this meditation by talking about elves, to suggest that the earth is very much alive with human imagination, and not in a fantastical way, either. If you missed that, it’s here. Today, I’d like to talk about lines, to show how story rises from that same imagination. A couple weeks ago, I introduced this thought on my Canadian blog,, with a thought from the sculptor and painter Ken Blackburn, that all writing and imagery, indeed all artistic culture, begins with a line. Here’s that post, if you’d like to see Ken and his strawberry-coloured raven. I’ve had many joyful arguments with Ken. He represented lines with panache. I argued for knots, deep wells, pools and other points of intersection between worlds. Well, look, maybe we were both right:

bubbleline1Icelandic Pool with Line, Skutustaðir

If you take the line away, you have a field, but no story.

I learned the skills for that kind of erasure by pruning fruit trees by starlight (I do not exaggerate) in the German Nordic Canadian dream that was my childhood, and learned to adapt it to the crafting of objects made out of words, which I thought for decades was writing, although it was really a form of sculpture. The addition of a line to a field, however complex, creates a tension, which human minds, structured to track game across grass and sand and to recognize the nuance and significance of the tiniest of plant forms and deviations, naturally follow. In terms of the craft which I track as a sculptor and many others lay down somewhat differently as trail makers, or writers, this is the root of story.


Footsteps on Lake Mývatn, Iceland

With the late afternoon sun rolling around on the horizon, like an eye. A writer looks forward here, into empty snow. A sculptor looks back into its story.

Before the line, there is indeed a pool (or a lake, a pond, a puddle, a sky, a moon, a well, a field, a face, or a room, and so on). It is endlessly fascinating but engages only one half of the split human mind. In storytelling, this is called a situation. To create story out of a situation, there must be two characters, who exchange powers at a point of transfer. That point of interchange transforms them.


Lines of Cosmic Energy Entering and Departing a Vortex …

… or rising from it. Driveway Puddle in the Early Morning, Skutustaðir

This kind of tension (and this unresolvable paradox), will continue to generate story as long as humans last on earth. This ability to read story into the earth’s processes is the signature of humans. It is the same tension that creates a poem within the boundaries of metre, or the balance that humans call beauty, which is a coming together in complex relationship to lines…



Driveway Puddle at 9:30 a.m. on a March Morning, Skutustaðir

Lines, of course, don’t always have to be simple. The one above, for instance, was taken while men with orange vests were fussing over the lone gas pump a few metres away, a woman was driving around crouching me on her way to take her kids to school, and the hotel cook was banging the snow off his boots after sucking the fire out of his morning cigarette before work. Lines, or story, shall we say, can be as complex as this…


… or this …


… or this …


… or this (you can probably surmise that a number of people had to drive around excited me) …


… or this…


Icelandic Horse Held in Its Field by a Line of Human Will …

… and continually at tension, between running free and being led (and fed). Notice the line in the foreground that humans have built in order to move past at speed, without stopping.

Sculptors stop. They get out of their narratives and find their stories telling themselves. The imagination that reads the human body into the sculptural forms of the land, also reads, and indeed creates, story, not as narrative but as something complete and whole in the world, that one can follow without moving at all. Pretty beautiful, I’d say. What does all this have to do with Gunnar Gunnarsson? Ah, I was getting to that. That is where you’ll find me tomorrow: in that story.

1 thought on “The Sculptural Path to Story: an Icelandic Saga

  1. Pingback: Gunnar Gunnarsson, Double Agent: Part 1 | A Farm in Iceland

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