‘Asta Sollilja of Summerhouses’ exhibit

My 1998 solo exhibit: Asta Sollilja of Summerhouses



The House, 1998, Katarina Thorsen

It was a house and a stable in one.  All that was visible of the inner, wooden shell was the door and its frame, the door so small, the threshold so high that one had to stoop on entering.  Down in the stable it was cold and dark, the air sour with the smell of earth, the toadstools flabby, but when the trapdoor was lifted a faint gleam shone down from the loft.  There were mangers along the sides, and in the farther wall a gap just wide enough to allow access to a hay barn that Bjartur proposed building behind the house… – Halldor Laxness

Acrylic on Canvas

36″ x 48″

(Note the piece is made of two canvases, 24″ x 36″ each.  It is currently framed, with handmade cedar frame by Ralph Bowers- in frame measures 37″ x 49″)

In my private collection, Vancouver BC

The Book:

There is no more important novel to me than INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Halldor Laxness (1902 – 1998), Icelandic novelist, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.  I own several copies of the book.  Here is the dust jacket from my hardcover English edition (1946, Alfred A. Knopf, New York):

The exhibit:

The novel inspired a large exhibit in 1998 of multiple paintings, drawings and quilts.  These were exhibited at the beautiful Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, ironically just a month after Laxness’s passing.

Exhibit Synopsis:

In 1983, through my Scandinavian Literature class at the University of British Columbia (taught by my mentor Peter Stenberg), I was introduced to an extraordinary novel which forever embedded itself into my heart. I honestly didn’t know at the time how much it affected me, for my mind was cluttered with other university courses and accompanying distractions, but I did know that the book was very important, and indeed it was the one I have returned to again and again.

The novel is Independent People by Nobel prize winner Halldor Laxness, beautifully translated from Icelandic by J. A. Thompson, 1946, Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. The novel was reissued in paperback by Vintage international, January 1997.

It is an epic tale of a farm family in rural Iceland around the time of World War I. The central character is a rough and self-proclaimed independent sheep farmer called Bjartur, who early on establishes his croft in which the epic and isolated events of his family are played out. Bjartur is the centre of the story, but the most striking character is his daughter Asta Sollilja. This lonely pubescent girl is the heart of the novel, embodying beauty, pity, tragedy; she is the face of Iceland. Her relationship with her father is awkward, heavy, yet extremely endearing.

At once inspired by the words of Halldor Laxness and my Scandinavian heritage, I chose to do a visual essay on Asta, an essay that should allow the viewer to understand the character without having read the book first, but to inspire them to read it. The paintings and the quilts in the exhibit are strictly my personal interpretation of Asta, focusing on emotion and relationships with other characters rather than specific themes. The quilts are an important feature of the exhibit, providing a visual and tactile commentary- on women’s hand work, the bed covering as protection, the bed where birth, dreams, rape, death occur.

Central quote to the exhibit: page 351

He did not know what to say in the face of such sorrow. He sat in silence by his sister’s side in the spring vendure, which was too young; and the hidden strings in his breast began to quiver, and to sound. This was the first time that he had ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were to come he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song the world has ever known. For the understanding in the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy. Sympathy with Asta Sollilja on earth.

Asta Sollilja, 1998 (donated to the Missing Women’s Legacy Society, 2002) 
Detail from Bjartur Quilt, 1998


I was honored to receive amazing feedback from the show.  I treasure this comment in particular:



One Comment Add yours

  1. Paul Costoff says:

    Kudos. I love both your concept and the way in which you executed it. The novel Independent People is a work of art and your creations do it justice.

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