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Gunnella and Her Art

The Growth of an Icelandic Artist's Unique Style

By Bruce McMillan
© 2004, Updated June 30, 2007

Fine art doesn't just happen. It takes time for an artist to find one's way, to develop one's talents, and to discover what is within oneself.

Gunnella's twenty year journey can be seen in these two paintings leaning against a wall in her studio in 2004. From the cool angular lines of the three women who were painted with pastels in 1983 to the warm softness and fullness of the young lady in red, a work-in-progress painted in oils begun in 2003, her style has evolved over twenty years to what we now know as a "Gunnella".

A style evolves.
1983 pastel left, 2003 oil right

Snæfellsnesjökull (1990)

Summer Night (1995)

She began her art career as a graphic artist making serigraphs, such as this one in 1990 of the familiar Snæfellsnes glacier. The hard lines and the strong graphic quality of her art were of course influenced by her medium.

But her style changed dramatically when she turned to oils and began experimenting. In her painting, Summer Night (1995), the soft, full roundness of her characters yet to come can first be seen.

Evening (1997)

Memory (1997)

Jón Stefánsson (1929)
Sumarnótt (Summer Night)

But there was one thing about this and two other large oil paintings done in 1997, Evening and Memory, that Gunnella had yet to discover within herself. The colors of the two new paintings showed the influence that past Icelandic masters such as Jón Stefánsson, who painted Summer Night (1929), had on Gunnella with the use of dark foreboding colors. Within Evening there is a glimmer of the patterns yet to come. However, in her search to produce fine art Gunnella had yet to find with herself the answer to her search. Like the characters in all three of these paintings, all looking away, not confronting what is so close to them, Gunnella made a turning point in her career when she began to try new things (below) such as in the appropriately named, Speculations (1997). One can almost see a new and colorful style developing on the left with the woman, while the dark graphic style on the right is departing, as well as the men. Perhaps the title of her 1997 painting, Memory, had more of an influence on her future art than the painting itself. It would be her memories from within that would surface in her oil paintings.

Speculations (1997)

How Do You Boil Eggs?

In 1998 Gunnella painted Siggi, her husband, as the hapless cook at a loss and not sure of even how to boil an egg. However, the men in her paintings would soon slip away as Gunnella focused on the ladies. Her husband didn't slip away, though, and they are still happily married but with Gunnella doing the cooking.

Far Away (2000)

In Dreamland (2001)

You can see the graphic pattern from Memories turning colorful into a colorful shawl in Far Away (2000), a Mona Lisa-like painting that leaves the viewer wondering what the subject is thinking. Her painting, In Dreamland (2001), amply shows the robust fullness of her new female characters. I purchased this painting because it reminded me of picking blueberries in the north, and taking a nap in the sun, in dreamland, and I had also seen women out picking berries as I rode past seaside fields on the way to Siglufjörður. I was not surprised to find that, indeed, this was inspired by Gunnella's childhood memories of the north of Iceland in Siglufjörður.

As Gunnella blossomed with her new found colorful style and pulled memories from her mind, she became more prolific. As she discovered this vein of gold in her mind that was yearning to be mined, her production increased.

Humor Ladies (2002)
This painting was the inspiriiration for the author to write
Gunnella's second children's book How the Ladies Stopped the Wind.

Perhaps the happiest discovery of this new and present comfortable style is how much it is an extension of Gunnella, the person. Gunnella has a wonderful and playful sense of humor. It now can be seen in her art, again and again and again. Humor Ladies (2002) takes the all-to-common winds of Iceland to a new level. No longer are her characters looking away from you, but at you. Gunnella is comfortable with her art and she and her characters are looking and speaking directly to you the viewer.

Is the Grass
Greener on the
Other Side?

The Icelandic animals, sheep, horses, cats, dogs and chickens, all find their way into her art. Her art is a reflection of Iceland. In her painting, Is the Grass Greener on the Other Side? (2003), the animals and her humor is evident.

The Doll House
(Gunnella's Back Yard)

Asked why she focuses so much on the ladies and not the men, Gunnella is stumped for an answer. She's not sure why. However, a look in her backyard gives a clue. There is a large doll house. A look in the entry way to her house gives a clue. There is the teddy bear that she had as a child. The painting of hers on her wall of her living room with its title gives a clue, Memory.

as a small child

Teddy Bear

as a big child

Many people think that writers of children's books must have children as the focus of their lives. It has to be because they write children's books, right? Actually no, it is the child within them, the memory of that child within them that they are sharing. This is the case with Gunnella. You do not see her own children, now grown, in her art. Gunnella, when asked about this, is intrigued because she has never thought about it. She is too busy with the child within.

What about the doll house, the teddy bear, the Memory? When Gunnella paints she is playing. It is the same sort of play that she did as a child. The characters in her paintings are the dolls in her doll house. Her canvases are her doll houses. Just as little girls use their imaginations and have their dolls doing all sorts of things, the characters in Gunnella's paintings are doing all sorts of things. She's playing with dolls; she's painting a picture. Why aren't there more men in her paintings? When one watches little girls play with dolls, what sex are the dolls? There is your answer.

A Moment with Grandmother (2000)

Óli and Grandmother
However, males do make it into her art because they are part of her memories. In her painting, A Moment with Grandmother (2000), her little brother Óli can been seen peering in while Gunnella's grandmother Guðrún teaches Gunnella to knit. The house in the background is significant because that is her grandparent's house in Siglufjörður. It will appear in a major forthcoming work.

Memory (Work-in-Progress)

In production for some time, and still unfinished, the new Memory is perhaps one of the major paintings in the career of Gunnella. It is full in size and full with memories of Iceland. An old black-and-white photo of her brother, Stefan, her grandmother, and Gunnella, serves as a reference. The hand of her grandmother, who Gunnella is named after, is on her shoulder in the painting and also in her mind, as the memory of her grandmother helps her paint this fond memory. This will be a major painting in her career that, perhaps if the National Gallery in Iceland has the foresight and is fortunate enough, everyone will always be able to see someday.

Her brother, Stefan
May 2004

Stefan, Gunnella,
and their

Where do ideas come from?
Click to go to Hrisey.

Meanwhile, Gunnella is busy with her dolls. The ladies with their cakes and flowers, the chickens too, are going to a birthday party, and the children have trees to plant.

The Birthday (2003)
See this painting in Gunnella's children's book
The Problem with Chickens.

See this painting in Gunnella's children's book
How the Ladies Stopped the Wind.

The wonderful thing about Gunnella's art is that it is accessible to everyone. From the large corporate purchases such as Good Spectators (2003) (below) on display in the lobby of the corporate headquarters of Visa Iceland, to the small paintings moderately priced in the galleries, everyone can enjoy her art and of course Iceland.

Gunnella and Good Spectators (2002)
in the Visa Iceland lobby.

In this latest painting (above) for the Siglufjörður Exhibition in July of 2004, Gunnella's humor is ever apparent, and even some men. While the old folks happily dance thinking back to the boomtown days of the past and those bustling herring fishing days, they dance on the docks by the old barrels in the moonlight. The only ones getting drunk are the chickens.

The wonderful thing about Gunnella's fine art is it's sense of narrative. Her paintings, the characters in her doll house, tell a story. This is the reason I was able to see a children's book in her paintings. The Problem with Chickens, featuring paintings by Gunnella with a story written by me and published in the US and Iceland in 2005 and in How the Ladies Stopped the Wind published in the US and Iceland in 2007, as Gunnella spreads the culture of Iceland through her Icelandic art.
Gunnella captures the unique faces and characteristics of her fellow Icelanders. Viewing a Gunnella painting is like walking down the street in Iceland. The natives look like they've stepped right out of a Gunnella painting. For example, after viewing a work in progress, (top right) and visiting Stykkishólmur, another part of Iceland, and seeing this boy (bottom right), one feels like one is walking through a Gunnella painting while traveling around Iceland.
Work in Progress, June 2007

Friðrik Sigþórsson, Stykkishólmur

I encourage you to watch people as they look at Gunnella's paintings, perhaps at an exhibition. They are in awe of the fine quality of her art, and the Icelandic country and people as captured by Gunnella. But best of all, watch and you will see that they can't help but smile. They can't help it. Gunnella's art has that emotional tug, and that is what fine art is all about.
The front window of Gallerí Fold, Reykjavík
On Their Way Back Home from the Park (2003)
on display with Bruce McMillan and the bus in May, 2004.

© 2004, Bruce McMillan,
Updated June 30, 2007
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