For painter Mille Guldbeck, a sojourn on a remote island in Denmark felt like coming home. Guldbeck spent the first six months of this year on Møn, about 100 miles from Copenhagen, living and working on her art. The trip was a reconnection with old friends, fellow artists and her heritage, and an opportunity to examine her relationship with nature.
Guldbeck, who lived in Denmark for half her life before coming to BGSU, was awarded a Fellowship grant from the Amanda C. Roleson Fund of the American-Scandinavian Foundation to work in Denmark. (See www.bgsu.edu/offices/mc/monitor/08-14-06/page22879.html) While she accomplished the goals of the grant—the exploration through art of the contemporary human’s position in relation to the natural world and the establishment of cultural and artistic ties between the United States and Denmark—there was another, unexpected outcome.
The “intense sense of belonging to something” she experienced in Denmark has led her to consider a new art project dealing with identity.
Small human, vast nature
The trip, so rich and fruitful in the end, did not get off to an auspicious beginning. Guldbeck, who like the German Romantic painters is interested in the concept of the sublime, in which nature can be both beautiful and terrifying, was almost thwarted by nature from ever reaching her destination.
Delayed by severe snowstorms on both sides of the Atlantic, she eventually got on a flight, only to then face a long drive in the night, in the snow and ice, in a rented car to an unfamiliar destination. “But living in Ohio prepared me for it,” she said, and she arrived exhausted but safe at the small house that was to be her home for six months.
To her dismay, the house had almost no heat and no insulation and was dirty and mouse-ridden—barely a step above camping. But her Viking fortitude sustained her and she persevered. “The living conditions were ‘crisp,’” she said with restraint.
Though she faced great loneliness, knowing no one, riding miles into town on a bicycle for supplies and battling the cold, “I felt very sharp and fresh in my head. I was very invigorated,” she remembered.
“The sense of isolation was overwhelming for a long time. You go a lot into yourself,” she said. “All winter there was just darkness outside the house at night. Nature can be very daunting, but it gives you a lot, too.”
What it gave her were “the early morning sky” every day, nightingales, horses outside her kitchen window, “wild swans everywhere” and, in the spring, “the most beautiful flowers in the garden you’ve ever seen.”
Guldbeck explores the sheer chalk cliffs of Møn.
Click the play button to hear island birds.
Møn is home to the only chalk cliffs in Europe outside England, and she spent hours exploring them, climbing up and rappelling down, examining the multitude of fossils that lay about. “The cliffs had succumbed to the massive amounts of water and rain this winter and spring and so there were three landslides, which made the finding of fossils easier,” she said. She photographed and collected an array of flint and fossilized sea urchins, ancient octopuses and other creatures. Also along the cliffs are Stone Age burial vaults and mounds, with ledges where food offerings were left.
Guldbeck studied and photographed the flora and fauna of the island, which, because of its isolation, is home to varieties not found elsewhere. “The bird life is amazing, as is the abundance of rare plant life in the form of orchids and trees which are sometimes 400 years old,” she said. She watched the hares and pheasants in the fields, “and the large Roman snails were in the garden and on all the walks,” she said. “I spent much time exploring the coasts and forests, documenting color and registering the shifts in patterns around me.”
These natural forms found their way into the paintings she was steadily producing. Her old friend and fellow painter Else Ploug Isaksen visited her on Møn and immediately recognized it—the textures of the flint and the fossils, the water, the shapes and colors of the wildlife she was steeped in every day. “The connections to the paintings were so obvious to her,” Guldbeck recalled.
Nature informs art
“The work is a direct result of a distillation process stemming from my involvement with the landscape on this very exciting island,” she said.
“My research time was governed by the production of about 40 diptych panels which were created in response to my investigation into the notion of the contemporary sublime,” she wrote. “The act of perception places the viewer in a state of potentiality, and I am concerned that my work remain open to interpretation rather than be a prescribed message.
“Human beings have achieved greater and greater alienation from nature, and it becomes difficult to say that we can navigate in it without having it first mediated through some kind of technology. For me, the use of the digital camera and how that mediation causes me to filter and alter my perceptions becomes interesting; I started increasingly to see nature at a remove although I was immersed in it, and there was at times a great sense, for me, of how dramatic my environment was. But there also exists the realization that precisely because that type of experience is so foreign, a loss is indicated.
“I became acutely aware of the precarious position most species are in in relation to humans and their well-meaning interventions; e.g., during the opening events for a geological center on the island of Møn, preparations were being made for the visit of the Queen. Part of the frenzy included extra television coverage of the island events as well as special attractions that people might be interested in, such as the fact that the falcons, which had not nested and produced young on the cliffs for many years, had returned and now had a fine family of four chicks. While a helicopter tried to get that extra-good close-up, they soared closer and closer to the nest, finally scaring the female so badly that she abandoned the nest for six hours, long enough for the weakest chick to starve to death, resulting in a quarter of that year’s population growth to disappear.”
A rich reunion
The artist made several trips to Århus, a day’s journey by bicycle, bus and train, to the Jutland Fine Arts Academy where she had once been a student and which had invited her to speak. She gave her talk “in the same classroom where I was drawing 35 years ago,” she said, and where one of her former classmates now teaches. “I lectured there for students on my own work, and again at the public library for a larger audience on the work of contemporary African-American painter Kerry James Marshall. There was a lively discussion afterward about current attitudes toward integration in Denmark and so the topic was very timely.”
Her visit to the academy “was a great reunification for us and a nice way to come back into that environment,” Guldbeck said. Her reunion with her artist friends was also fruitful and resulted in a show at BGSU of works by Danish artists, a visit by two and plans for more exchanges—another key part of her goal for using the grant. (See www.bgsu.edu/offices/mc/monitor/09-04-07/page35553.html)
But for Guldbeck, the question of identity and belonging still lingers and leads her to wonder where her true home lies. Her art will continue to reflect that, and perhaps will lead her one day to return to her ancestral land.