Origins: The Iceland Viking Art Jam Saga

I went to Iceland, the home of my ancestors for the first time from October 21-November 4, 2016 with my dear friend and  Norse archaeologist, Michèle Hayeur Smith   who also participates on this blog site – see her profile here.

Michèle and I go back a long way, when we were young art students at York University in Toronto, Ontario. That is another story told on my page on Northern Women’s Art Collaborative.

Warning: this is a long, convoluted story, but is typical for sagas. I will get to the point eventually and the journey will be peppered with links. Especially about the art jam which was amazing!!  I will keep adding pictures and details to this post as it occurs to me.

Timing is everything.

Michèle texted me in the middle of a hellish moment in my day job with an offer I could not refuse: did I want to join her as a travelling companion for 2 weeks in Iceland? She would deliver lectures and connect with communities about the findings of her research in ancient textiles, much of which involved Icelandic wool – a complex subject as it turns out – and I would learn so much about it during this trip.

I was thrilled to have this offer. Not only could we reconnect in person after not seeing each other for at least 15 years, but I could learn first hand about her work and this mythological place in my family history – what would I find?  What could I uncover in our family narrative that was thin at best but layered with vague visions of Vikings and Icelanders? My family longed for validation. I was hopeful yet reticent. Maybe it was all just fantasy and myth-making.

I had only one document – a birth certificate indicating the archives of Reykjavik that I received from my sister in Manitoba. I will learn that this birth certficate is appparently not from my great grandfather as we thought, but his brother, my great uncle. I am confused beyond belief on this point but happy to have a family connection nonetheless.


From the family’s early history I learn from Michèle’s husband Kevin Philbrook-Smith, who is also an archaeologist that my family comes from northern Iceland. Here’s part of the dialogue and story of my ancestors:

Kevin Philbrook Smith

Hi Heidi, I’ve been trying to relocate your ancestors to give you some sense of places you might want to think about on your trip with Michele. As she mentioned, I went through the census records for the farm of Böðvarsdalur, which is near Vöpeafjörður in the NE of Iceland. Interestingly, there is no record of anyone living at that farm in the 19th or early 20th centuries with the names Guðmundur Arngrímsson or of his wife Johanna Jónsdóttir! This may not mean much, since people moved around quite a bit in Iceland – high mobility over the course of one´s life appears from the censuses to have been far more common than the current belief that families lives on the same farms for centuries…


Kevin Philbrook Smith



Michèle Hayeur Smith

That is the site report for Holtar on the coast where her family moved?

Did you find how many children were listed for the grandfather?


Kevin Philbrook Smith

In fact, I have found Guðmundur Arngrímsson and his wife Jóhanna Jónsdóttir in the 1890 census. Eight years before your ancestor Gunnar Hallgrímur Guðmundsson was born, his parent were living on one of three separate small farms on a larger farm called Holtar, in the SE of Iceland, not far from the current town of Höfn. The farms at Holtar (which means “the hillocks”) appear to have been abandoned in the 20th century – they were still farmed into the 1930s. Holtar is just below the glaciers in the SE – you will drive right past them as you go from Egilsstaðir to Höfn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur. A colleague of mine surveyed the site for archaeological remains. I’m attaching her report. It’s in Icelandic, and so will be entirely impossible to read, but the sections on Holtar are pp. 36-46, and there is an aerial photograph on what must be p. 112 that shows where Holtar was (the box marked 4). If you go a few pages beyond that on the PDF to Mynd 4 (Picture 4), you will see that boxed area in a closer aerial photograph. The yellow line encloses the old “homefield” within which, or around which, the old houses of Holtar were located. The current farm nearby is called Tjörn. You’ll want to find that, perhaps as you travel across.


Kevin Philbrook Smith

Guðmundur and Jóhanna were both born in the same parish (so very nearby). Arngrímur, Gudmundur’s father (your great, great-something grandfather?) was born in Kálfafellsstaður parish. The farm of Kálfafellsstaður is now a Bed and Breakfast near Höfn. Not necessarily the farm where Arngrímur lived, but it´s going to be very close. Might be an interesting place to visit or drive by, or stay:

Very pleasant – Review of Kalfafellsstadur Bed & Breakfast, Hornafjorour, Iceland – TripAdvisor


Kevin Philbrook Smith

The old man, Arngrímur Arngrímson, who was born in 1829 was working as a farm boy at the farm of Flatey, also in the same parish near Höfn in 1845, according to that census.


Kevin Philbrook Smith

Here’s what I would gather from this – although more could be put together, I’m sure, with a bit more time.


Heidi Bergstrom

This so fantastic Kevin! No one in our family knows anything except that they came from Iceland and we were vague on that. Michelle can we stay at that b&b if they have room??? Maybe we could stop in for a visit and some pictures? You 2 you have no idea how me and my family appreciate this!!

Michèle Hayeur Smith

Yeah I was thinking of breaking up the last leg if the trip I think the distances will be to great might book a room on the farm then go a little farther and maybe skip the golden circle tour .

So Heidi you owe me one!!! 😄 bring me a sketch book!!!!! 😂I DID DO THIS  – I MADE HER A CUSTOM JOURNAL AND GAVE KEVIN A HAND MADE NOTE BOOK FOR FIELD NOTES TOO!!!


Kevin Philbrook Smith

The earliest I’ve found the family is in the 1840 census (just haven’t looked farther back than that). At that time, the family was living on the farm Skálafell in Kálfafells parish, near the present town of Höfn. The father was named Arngrímur Arason, born about 1779. His wife, Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir, was born about 1799 and was probably his second wife. They had five children living with them, as well as one son by Arngrímurs first wife, and a pauper. One of those children was Arngrímur Arngrímsson, who was born in 1829. In 1845, he was working as a farm-boy on another farm nearby, called Flatey, and was not yet married. By 1861, they had had some children, one of whom was Guðmundur Arngrímsson, who was born in 1861. His wife, Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, was born in the same parish about 1866. In 1880, Guðmundur was still living with his parents at Holt (probably Holtar) at age 19. By 1890 he was married to Jóhanna, but they had no children yet. Their farm was very small and demographically unstable: there was the young couple, her mother (age 68), his father (age 61), a 44-year-old serving woman, and a 6-year-old pauper they had to support for the parish. There were hardly any people of young, hearty age to assist. Guðmundur was almost certainly working hard to keep his own farm going and probably serving as a tenant farmer for the largest of the farms on Holtar. This was a very hard time in Iceland, and extremely cold “fuck you” slap in the face from the Little Ice Age as it ended, which lasted almost a decade. We know from your birth record that by October 1898, they had left the farm at Holtar where the family had been since the 1870s and from the parish where they had lived and worked (on different farms) since the 1840s and perhaps the 1770s. They were in the northeast at that time, at the farm Böðvarsdalur, but they were not there at the time of the 1901 census, so this suggests they were on the move with one or more children. Why they went to Böðvarsdalur is unclear – if anything, NE Iceland was even worse off than the SE, where they had been. But, it is possible that his wife Jóhanna Jónsdóttir had a sister or some relative living or working there. The farm at Böðvarsdalur seems to have been taking on a lot of servants and workers and paupers in the 1880s and 1890s, with no stability in the farm at all. Suggests desperation: families who were there in 1880 collapsing, the farm bought by someone else trying hard to hire enough people to run it, then the farm collapsing. Most of the farms around it were abandoned then. By the 1901 census, there is no record in the Icelandic censuses of Guðmundur Arngrímsson, his wife, or his children in Iceland, and they´re not in the 1910 census, either. Suggests strongly to me that they emigrated from Iceland to Canada between 1899, when Gunnar was baptized (Feb 1899) and 1901, when the next census was done. It might even be that they had him baptized that February, although far from family, because they were planning to emigrate and wanted him baptized before they left, in case the ship went down or they never returned to Iceland.


Michèle Hayeur Smith

I think that makes sense so Heidi where does this Andersson come from?!

You should all be changing your names to Gudmundsson


Kevin Philbrook Smith

Bottom line is that the two of you should be taking me with you to Iceland 😉

But, since that’s not possible, this gives you something to explore.


Kevin Philbrook Smith

When I saw the birth certificate/baptismal record, I was thinking you would need to go to Böðvarsdalur, which is quite a way out of your best route around the island. It is pretty enough out there around Vöpnafjörður, but the road there from the Ring Road is high and in October or November might be a bit rough. Michele, this is where the Fjallakonan woman was found and the best guess is that she froze to death up on those highlands.


Kevin Philbrook Smith

It looks far more sensible to me that you should explore the area around Holt (Holtar) just beyond Höfn. That’s possibly a really great place to stop on your day after Egilsstaðir. That route is a long one because you´re in and out of fjords. If you stay near Höfn, perhaps Kálfafellsstaður, you have an easy drive the next day to the glacial lagoon and “diamond beach” and Skaftafell and on to Kirkjubæjarklaustur or even a bit beyond (unless Katla is erupting, in which case you’ll have to go back the way you came around the island backwards!).

Going to Iceland was going to be a revelation from so many perspectives – finally discovering our family history, side-kick for Michele’s research outreach tour, and going on a remote trip on my own for the first time in almost 25 years. What could be better?

I packed lots of art supplies, my camera and tripod, laptop and electronic gear, (even my little Sony portable speaker) the journals and field notebook presents for Michele and Kevin, and winter clothing. I booked an Air BnB in Reykjavik and was set to go.


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A lot of our trip was driving the ring road around Iceland. The thing that struck me was the dramatic landscape, changing constantly. Outside of Reykjavik, the capital city (population 122,141 in 2015) the population is sparse. The roads are narrow so you have to take pictures while driving – that was my job! The beauty of this place is overwhelming.

Our first major stop-over was to Snorrastofa in Reykholt, the home of   Iceland’s best-known and beloved author Snorri Sturluson who lived here from 1206-1241. Snorrastofa, is a centre for Medieval studies and the site has two churches, a cultural centre with a museum and library for visiting scholars to research or present lectures with wonderful guest accommodations (the King of Norway and his family stayed here too!). I am instantly in love with this place and the people here.

For a seemingly far flung location on a cold and wintery night (for us anyway), Michele’s lecture was well attended. The local farmers gave her great information about their sheep and asked intelligent questions about her research. One thing about Icelanders, they know their sheep! They also know everything about their culture and history; their people are some of the best educated and rank 3rd in the world for highest literacy.

Our next stop was the Textile Museum in Blönduós – which I have made a separate post about – read it on Northern Women’s Art Collaborative or here on Studio H Canada. This place is haunting both Michele and I – we must return there and do a residency. It is on the list!!


We left Blönduós and headed to Mývatn. This is getting closer to where my ancestors lived and worked and I can feel the connection to this place. The lava fields were pulling hard on ancient memory strings deep in my bones. When I see the lava fields I finally get what Michele has been trying to tell me all this time: I made images from here in etchings I created while still at art school. I was definitely channeling this place. Pictures can not describe this place – the cold, deafening wind, hot vents of sulfurous steam, slippery and treacherous oozing leaking earth, trolls and goblins lurking menacingly or comically as they like, crisp crunchy obstinate rock everywhere, persistent determined ground cover, paralytic beauty everywhere. Sometimes I just stopped breathing.

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If you have read my first blog post on the methodology of Art Jam, then you will know that there are some core ingredients that make up an awesome art jam: place, people, materials, and sustenance in the way of food and drink. These were all present in abundance.

We had also been reading our runes daily and were deeply in touch with the well of creativity and inward reflection, something everyone needs, not just artists. Viking Runes are an essential ingredient to art jamming for me now. The Viking soul is steeped in rune culture which looks within and questions one’s motivations and reminds one continually to seek the right path; looking for and receiving the guidance of the Norse gods.

After a fabulous day hiking through the lava fields, soaking in the hot pots, a great dinner and making some journal notes we were ready for a cold drink and some art jamming. The staff kindly gave us a large table at the back of the dining area where no guests were likely to show up. We had windows on the corner, overlooking a volcano cone across the road.

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What we were not expecting was the northern lights. This blew our minds – so beautiful and the hotel staff were so great helping us with our camera gear and long exposure settings that I had no clue about.

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Thanks for hanging in to the end for this Iceland Viking Art Jam Saga. I hope you enjoyed it. I may be updating this journal post as I remember some details; after all that is what journals are for.

If you want to read more about this saga check out Michèle’s blog post about it here.

Feel free to make a comment below and share your experience with art jams. If you are interested in coming to Studio H Canada in beautiful Metchosin, BC Canada for an art jam experience I am going to be offering this in 2019 on Air BnB so stay tuned or sign up for my email list here.


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