THE ORIGINAL: NORWEGIAN BLACK METAL

By Kaycee Boe and Rachel Levy

For many people, black metal is as synonymous with Norway as snow and fjords. Imagery of young men with dark painted faces burning down churches and causing trouble in the grey Norwegian winters often comes to mind. The legacy of black metal draws fans from all over the world, who hope to learn more about the history and find out if the music they love still exists in Norway today.

Many are interested to find that black metal only existed in a small community throughout the 1990’s, and may not be as prominent today as they hoped.

Anders Odden, 44, has been around the black metal community since the genre was born. He was drawn into the black metal world when he was only 13. Living on a farm created an isolated universe for him that drove him to create.

“You basically don’t have any friends around so you can turn to music or something else to get busy or get inspired,” Odden said. “That was my case, and the case for many others actually.”

In 1988 Odden formed Cadaver, which he says was the first death metal band in Norway and first band to sign with a label in the U.K. Now, Odden plays guitar and bass in multiple metal bands, including influential and major label black metal band Satyricon. He has watched black metal grow and evolve from its inception.

The black metal community was small throughout the 1990s. According to Grete Joanne Neseblod, co-owner of Norway’s black metal music shop and museum Neseblod, most of the culture was centered around 15-20 key people. Bands such as Odden’s communicated by meeting in each other’s rehearsal rooms and trading tapes.

“I got like 10 letters a day from people everyday at the peak of it – magazines and tapes and demos and contacts around the world,” Odden said. “It was inspiring to be a part of a world movement that was very unique and that nobody knew about.”

As with many extreme music genres, black metal was never meant to blow up. It was born in Norway’s underground, and according to Odden, it wasn’t supposed to leave the underground.

“Back then, nobody cared really,” Odden said. “That’s the thing that people don’t understand, it didn’t get any attention in music magazines. At the time, most people were into grunge or more polished American stuff.”

It was anti-establishment attitudes and authenticity that drove the genre forward.

“These were just young people who were 16 to 17 years old who just wanted to do something really new,” Grete Joanne said. “They had these guts because in the beginning, people thought that it was weird and strange.”

The brutality that is often associated with black metal came later, when Varg Vikernes of fellow black metal band Burzum attracted media attention through what Odden refers to as publicity stunts such as the burning of churches. Odden believes that artists like Vikernes hurt the genre musically.

“People doing this were really looked upon as animals in society for a really long time,” he says.

While black metal may have been known for being filled with tales of arson and murder, that is no longer the case. According to Odden, the legacy of the genre is much more prominent than the scene ever was. This is a common perspective on black metal culture in Norway.

“I think the history of it draws people in,” Kenneth Neseblod, owner of Neseblod records, said. “The murder and all the mystique around it. They want to see how dark and evil it all is, but it was more back then than it is now. It is not so dark and evil anymore.”

Peter Beste, who has been studying black metal for years and published a book on the subject, notes that many artists no longer stand by the aspects of black metal that made it so brutal.

“It’s part of the sensationalistic story of it,” Beste said, “but it isn’t really the essence of it.”

Through exposure and developments in production, black metal has transitioned to a more mainstream genre.

“Black metal is more clean, it’s not so underground now,” Kenneth said. “But you have some of the same people who still play in the bands and are pretty dark.”

Fans and those who have followed black metal notice this as well.

“I think the best Norwegian bands are, like, Mayhem and Emperor,” says Sanvik, a young member of the black metal community.

As for Odden, he is currently touring internationally with Satyricon. However, while they may be touring at a more professional level, Odden notes that there is still an edge to their music. For them, their music has changed, but it still fits their definition of black metal.

“For us, it’s about the vibe and how we think it should be, not how others define it,” Odden said. “We are defining what black metal is to us, and we never care for other people’s definitions.”

As for the fans, most will agree that the black metal and metal communities are very tight knit.

“They like to wear the clothes and the patches to show that they are outside of society,” says Grete Joanne, “but also that they are a part of something.”

For young fans Emilie Sandal and Jone Hoftun, who sit on a hillside at Tons of Rock Festival clothed in band t-shirts and high tops, the metal community in Norway could be described as united and also surprisingly, friendly.

From an onstage perspective, Odden says that black metal fans are generally quite mellow. “Metal fans never approach you like a crazy person,” Odden said. “If they recognize you from a band they approach you very politely. They just want to talk to you about music.”

People still come from all over the world to Norway to see where black metal started even though the genre has moved more towards other countries. Black packers, as they are called, travel to Norway to visit many of the spots where black metal formed.

Up until 2012, Odden conducted a black metal tour during Inferno Festival, a black metal festival held during Easter each year. Black packers would take a bus to Neseblod Records, a record store once owned by Mayhem’s Euronymous, then to Holmekkon to see the church burnt down by Varg Vikernes.

“I think it’s strange for them to come here to realize it’s quite normal people doing this,” Odden said. “I don’t know what they think, that people live in cages or in caves or in castles, people have all kinds of weird expectations, so it says more about them than the reality.”

Kenneth also notes that some black packers may be disappointed to see that the people of Norway aren’t actually walking the streets in corpse paint.

People from all over the world heard about everything black metal bands did in the 1990’s and believe that all black metal bands were alike. According to Odden, the point of the tours were to teach people about the background of black metal and what really went on during that time, how it was not all church burnings and satanism.

“They are really interested in that,” Odden said. “Somehow they were caught up in the myth of it so if you try to tell them how it really was, you can’t really get their heads around it, so I stopped doing it.”

While to outsiders, it may seem that black metal is still an integral part of Norwegian culture, the general consensus is that the genre lives mainly in its legacy.

“The people that are in the original bands are still making new music,” Odden said. “We’re just going to continue on our paths regardless of what’s going on.”

Kenneth Neseblod agrees. “A lot of the music was invented in Norway by black metal bands,” he said. “They were the first to start black metal, but there’s not so many people who are very black metal anymore.”

SERVING UP YOUR BIAS AT THE BIAS BAR

An unusual bar is serving up biases and its patrons are sending their own biases right back.

The bar is the Bias Bar, an interactive exhibit at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. It shares space on the first floor with Detours, an exhibition about people who find themselves forcibly displaced from their homes. It is a floor below Hope Over Fear, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize exhibition that presents a strong portrait of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his efforts to integrate members of the FARC rebel group with the rest of the Colombian people.

Participants at the Bias Bar get small cards designed to look like drink coasters. A bias is written on the front of the card. On the backside of the card is a blank space where people can write and share biases of their own. The cards are displayed on racks mounted on the museum wall.

The front of a typical card has a bias such as, “I am not a racist but…” Turning around the card people have written their own biases such as, “I’d rather live in a white than black neighborhood,” “You don’t look like a foreigner,” “But you are white,” and “#BREXIT.”

Another bias card reads, “All terrorists are Muslims. What do you think?” A patron’s reply to that was, “If all terrorists are Muslim that means all Italians are Mafia, all Russians are part of the Bratva and no one is a human being. Everyone is different, everyone is special and everyone needs an opportunity prove themselves [sic] and be who they are. Be proud of who you are.”

“We have printed, I think, 2000 cards since March and people are writing and sharing biases and their thoughts,” said Ingvill Bryn Rambøl, Director of Information at Nobel Peace Center. “It’s quite entertaining to explore the cards on the wall there and see what people write. People are very open about the fact that they have biases themselves and that they have met biases.”

The Bias Bar even has its own version of an open mic event.

“A Bias Night is where we invite Norwegians with different backgrounds to sit and discuss biases and people can sit behind and talk to them afterwards,” Rambøl said. The first Bias Night “was very popular and we had a lot of visitors that night with an immigration background or with different ethnic backgrounds, and they were very excited about discussing something very dangerous in such a light manner.”

The next Bias Night will be in August. “It will focus on Islam,” Rambøl said.

Exhibits like Detours and the Bias Bar have connected with Norwegian school children, because topics such as immigration are covered in school curriculums, but the school books have not been updated yet on the current refugee crisis and the war in Syria.

“They have been very happy to have the opportunity to come here and learn about that issue with updated information,” Rambøl said.

The Nobel Peace Center was opened in 2005. The building used to be a railway station, which closed in 1990 and was reinvented as the home for Nobel in Oslo. The museum depicts stories through a variety of permanent installations, and temporary exhibits of paintings, photographs, interactive digital films and other art.

Rambøl said the museum is famous for its modern, artistic design conceived by the British architect David Adjayeand.

“He did what he calls ‘room manipulation.’ You can tear down the whole museum from the inside and you will have the train station the way it used to be,” Rambøl said.

Nobel prizes are awarded in six categories including Literature, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry, Economics and Peace. The Nobel Prize in any category is one of the most prestigious awards in the world. It was founded by the multi-millionaire philanthropist Alfred Nobel in 1901. Nobel created his immense wealth by inventing and manufacturing modern explosives into dynamite and patented it in 1867. He left his estate (the modern equivalent of $200 million) to be used as award money for the betterment of the world.

Swedish institutions choose winners in five categories (Literature, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry, Economics) and the awards are presented in Stockholm, Sweden. The winner of the Peace Prize is chosen by a Norwegian committee and is awarded in Oslo.

The challenge for the Nobel Peace Center is to create an exhibition honoring the winner in just eight weeks. That exhibition is created within the context of the permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Peace Center, including the Bias Bar, is open seven days a week and the center has averaged more than 100,000 visitors annually since it opened in 2005.

MURAL ARTIST CASSIUS FADLABI

BY KAITLYN HUSS

Our interview started in front of a mural that filled the entire side of a building. Brilliant with an electric blue background, the piece featured a Somalian man dressed in a spacesuit. Its creator, Cassius Erixon Fadlabi, posed for a photo in front of it with his arms crossed over his chest and a huge grin spread across his face. He titled it ‘The Sky’s the Limit.’

The mural towers over a playground in an area called Tøyen that Fadlabi explained was occupied primarily by Somali and Pakistani immigrants. Tøyen is known for its multicultural ambiance, stunning botanical gardens and The Munch Museum, which contains the largest collection of Edvard Munch’s work.

We walked to a café not far from the playground after only a few moments under the mural. The coffee shop was like most I have been to in Oslo; clean, shiny and trendy. Fifteen minutes into our discussion, Fadlabi exposed some context in the neighborhood we were in. “This area’s under gentrification. And you see it from this café. So it wasn’t this fancy before. And now what holds it a bit more diverse is that they have subsidized housing. If those disappear, you’ll see no foreigners here.” Leaving the neighborhood, however, is the Munch Museum. The museum that has existed in Tøyen for 53 years will be relocated to the bay area by the opera house in the Bjørvika area. The museum has been steadily seeing an increase in the number of visitors and has outgrown their current space.

Earlier, he had elaborated on racism in Norway, touching on how Somalis are discriminated against in particular. “Oslo is like this: there is a hierarchy of superiority, you know, that goes all the way, even among foreigners themselves. That was basically why I wanted to make a guy from Somalia who looks really cool, like really fly, with a nice haircut and he’s even a spaceman.” When asked if his work was meant to inspire the kids Fadlabi said, “I just got the wall like that and then I made the sketch to be site-specific for that neighborhood, wanted the Somalian kids that live in that neighborhood.”

Fadlabi was born and raised in Sudan. At 19 he attended The Sudan University, studied painting and political science and received his bachelors in political science. That was also around the time that he joined the Democratic Front because he said he felt it was the right thing to do.

Fadlabi explained that ultimately, he had to flee Sudan. “At some point it just because too much and I to leave the country. Because I’d been arrested so many times. And you know, arrested means like kidnapped in a way for like a week or even tortured… but that’s very common. It’s not like that’s just a story, that’s my story. It’s happening now to some people in Sudan.”

However badly Fadlabi wanted to leave Sudan, he found it very hard to get a visa anywhere in Europe and the West. An opportunity for Fadlabi to flee arose shortly after 9/11. “Europeans started doing these workshops to understand Muslim countries.”

He explained, “That was the ticket you know. I applied to a workshop in Germany, and it was called The Language of Colors; where they brought German young guys to meet some Muslim young guys. I wasn’t even Muslim then, but I lied anyway. That was my ticket out of that country.” A few years later rules and regulations had changed in Germany, and Fadlabi knew that if he applied for asylum in Germany he would be sent back to Sudan. He was 26 then, and he made plans to head to Norway to seek asylum.

In Oslo, Fadlabi earned his Masters at The National Academy of the Arts. In his second year at the academy, Fadlabi founded a weekly Monday night gallery exhibition called ‘One Night Only.’ This was a platform that blossomed for artists over the seven years that it existed. No artist, no matter how recognized would have said no to ‘One Night Only’; and at times artists put in their application to have their work shown an entire year in advance.

After growing little by little over the seven years the show ran, the artist-run project was dissolved as it had seemed to plateau. Because of One Night Only’smeticulous documentation, Fadlabi is now in possession of possibly the largest database of young Norwegian artists. He plans to put out a book either this year or next year outlining One Night Only’s exhibitions and detailing the artists that created them.

Fadlabi considers himself to be a visual artist. Although he works primarily as a painter, Fadlabi stated, “I work mostly with projects. I find some subject that I want to research and then I find the right way to talk about it through art.” “When you research the subject, it will basically tell you which medium to use.”

In one of these projects in 2014, Fadlabi and another artist, Lars Cuzner, completed a replica of a human zoo that existed in Norway one hundred years earlier. European Attraction Limited was named for the entertainment company that produced the original exhibition, and cost around 1.7 Norwegian Crowns (over $200,000 USD) to recreate. When asked to describe the exhibition in an interview with The BBC World Service, Lars Cuzner said, “We’re gonna try to recreate something that is very poorly documented; something that has been lost from the collective consciousness here, and try to recreate something that is a monument of misrepresentation, that has had an effect on this society.” The project’s completion coincided with the 100th anniversary of Norway’s constitution, and was funded by Public Art Norway.

For his most recent work, The Sky’s the Limit, Fadlabi was sought out by the local municipality to conceptualize and paint a piece on that particular wall. He was only required to provide a sketch. The process of approval took about four months, but the execution of the brush-painted mural took only about a week.

He fits his work into a barbershop style, or a commercial sign style. “If you go to a barber shop in Lagos and Dakar, you’ll find a chart with heads drawn, and they’re all drawn wrong. Everything is wrong about the head. But you’ll pick the haircut and the barber will give you the haircut and you’ll both agree that yeah, that was it,” Fadlabi said. The style uses distortions to be accurate and descriptive. Fadlabi also added that, “It’s also more free, it’s more jazz.”

Much like the motivation for Fadlabi’s latest mural, he sought artistic influences that he could also identify with. “You know everything is so Eurocentric; art history in Nigeria or Sudan, it’s European art history. So I was trying to find find a parallel one. The oldest recorded one that I could see was the Ethiopian church paintings. But those, they’re not really about capturing the similarity of the image, they’re more about capturing the essence of the image.”

He found parallels in art around the world; earmarked with similarity in pallet and distortions from people who had been displaced because of slavery in places like The United States, The Caribbean, and South America. “They all paint in a very, very similar way; as if they really learn it from somewhere.” After five years of research Fadlabi found work to which he could relate. “That was the whole point, trying to figure out a parallel painting history and not the Eurocentric one.

In the last five years Fadlabi has had work shown in Olso at Kunsthall and The Museum of Contemporary Art among many others. In 2013, Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner held a conference at The Tate Modern in London to discuss ‘European Attraction Limited.’ He has just wrapped up shows in Cologne, Germany at Temporary Gallery and in Cairo, Egypt at The Nile Sunset Annex. Fadlabi has an upcoming performance piece in collaboration with the Munch Museum this October in Oslo, and a solo show this November at The QB Gallery in Oslo. He also has shows coming up this year in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and in Egypt.

​ROBERT BIEDRON ON POLITICAL ACTIVISM

Within the confines of the typically left-leaning liberal European governments lies a country in a bitter battle with the ultra-conservative right. Robert Biedron, a former parliament member and current mayor of Slupsk, entered the Polish political arena in 2011 as the first openly gay elected official in all of Eastern Europe. He’s been chipping away at the controversial face of domestic democracy ever since.

Poland is a country that’s testing the limits of modern democracy and putting citizens on the shaky ground of individual liberties versus religious and political tradition. In 2015, the country saw a complete political sweep of the Law and Justice party in Parliament. The party’s aim is to undo the policies that were passed by what they view as liberal, un-Christian and unpatriotic former politicians.

Biedron has stepped up as a symbol of hope, change and progress for many Polish citizens. In the face of the uphill battle in front of him, Biedron doesn’t let it get him down. “I’m an optimist,” Biedron said, “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.” Biedron’s transition from gay activist to politician wasn’t necessarily a predictable one.

“If you had met me 20 years ago it would have been unimaginable for me to call myself a Polish politician because of the situation I was in,” Biedron said, “I am gay. I’m an atheist. In very conservative Poland, it usually means you have no chance to be in public life.”

Biedron was invited to open Oslo Pride 2016 with a panel discussion on political activism with other gay rights leaders. The next day, a discussion was hosted by Jeff Lugowe at Pride House, where Biedron was able to discuss his individual story and take questions from the audience. There was no shortage of an eager audience, with attendance skyrocketing for such an event on a Saturday afternoon. It was further proof that Biedron’s impact has gone far beyond the borders of Poland. He has become a political leader for gay rights and progress across Europe.

It’s a position that Biedron doesn’t take lightly. After he established Poland’s Campaign Against Homophobia in 2001, the first LGBTI organization dealing with social injustices in Poland, his life as an activist began. For the next decade, Biedron would spend his time promoting acceptance. Soon, however, his path would take a turn. “I found out that being a gay activist was not enough,” Biedron said, “I needed to do more.”

Biedron’s political campaign did not focus on his sexuality, but instead on him being a visible and accessible human being. His approach was simple, “People see me. People can touch me. People can spit on me. People can hate me. People can do something with me as a person because before they didn’t have any occasion to meet a gay person,” Biedron stated, “I think this was the recipe for winning the elections. I spent a lot of hours on the streets talking to people. I knew this was the only chance I had to persuade people.”

Biedron’s struggles didn’t end with his historic election to Parliament. “When I entered Parliament the reaction was terrible. I remember my first speech in front of the whole Parliament and government. I was defending my colleague by saying, ‘Your arguments are below the belt.’ And they started to laugh and I didn’t understand why. So I repeated it and they laughed again. Then the media asked them why they laughed. Many of the members of the parliament said, ‘We’re laughing because he’s gay and gay people can speak only about sex.’”

These stereotypes weren’t easy to overcome. “Being a member of parliament in Poland, the first two years it was a disaster. I was beaten up several times,” Biedron said, “In the modern history of Poland there’s not even one incident of beating up a member of parliament, except me. People were calling me names, but I knew if I wanted to change something I needed to survive that.”

Biedron saw his same battles reflected in his female associates in the misogynist society. “Many of my female colleagues were struggling with the same story,” Biedron said, “They were focusing on how they look and how they dress but not what they were talking about.”

Biedron then made an unusual decision. Before completing his first term in parliament, he made a run for the position of mayor in the modest town of Slupsk, the 40th largest city in Poland.

Biedron explained the transition easily. “Being a mayor is practical,” he said, “Being a member of the parliament is more ideological.” Biedron feels like being a mayor gives him more of an ability to influence policy. “You have direct influence on issues,” Biedron said, “You can shape the city; you can talk to people directly.”

​FIRST NORWEGIAN SUPERHERO IS AN AFRICAN IMMIGRANT AND SCHOOL TEACHER

Josef Yohannes is the creator of “The Urban Legend,” about the protagonist he claims is the first Norwegian superhero. The comic series features a black African immigrant who fights street crime with martial arts skills, protects the innocent, and is committed to justice in the fictional setting of Capital City, a city ravaged by corruption.

The first issue of “The Urban Legend” was published in January 2012 in Norway. The comic was received with critical acclaim and garnered a digital publishing deal with USA Today.

“The Urban Legend” follows the story of Malcolm Tzegai Madiba, a 29-year-old high school teacher. As Capital City is nearly bankrupt, and the police force is cut back causing crime to take over, Malcolm dons the alter ego of The Urban Legends to fight crime’s reign over the city.

“I got the idea in 2010 when I visited Africa, went all over the place and saw a lot of things that changed my life forever,” Yohannes, who studied political science and human rights at the University of Oslo, said. “I saw a lot of poverty and I saw a lot of kids without any parents or role models.”

This is the thought that drove Yohannes to create a superhero that can inspire kids to believe that they can be somebody important in this world. From there, Yohannes developed his concept for “The Urban Legend.”

Yohannes had a very clear vision of how he desired his superhero to be during its conception. He wanted to create a very human superhero people could relate to and see pieces of themselves in.

“I think a lot of people see something in him that they wish they could see in themselves,” Yohannes said. “Like standing up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves and giving people who don’t have a voice a voice, and then just fighting against injustice and crime in a whole different way than all the other superheroes.”

The Urban Legend has set a significant precedent as the first Norwegian superhero. The superhero market in Norway is not nearly as strong is in the U.S. and Asia. That he is black, an immigrant and a school teacher are factors that also resonate in comics culture in the U.S. and abroad.

In the history of popular comic series, representation of people of color has not been relative to population demographics. Comics have had a long history of “whitewashing” their main characters. Through “The Urban Legend,” Yohannes is creating a wider, comprehensive scope of representation and providing a role model for those who otherwise would not have one.

Yohannes has also used “The Urban Legend” as a tool to address social issues through several collaborations. A Nobel edition focusing on Ebola was created in accordance with the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Center.

Yohannes also collaborated with the Malala Fund to focus on education for girl’s rights. The comic sheet created from this collaboration was incorporated into school curriculum in Norway.

Along with being a part of curriculum in Norway, “The Urban Legend” is also taught in schools in South Africa, Kenya, Eritrea and Brazil, in subjects including Norwegian, English and media and communications.

The goal of “The Urban Legend” is to inspire youth to educate themselves and, in doing so, change the world in the process, Yohannes said.

“I want my superhero ‘The Urban Legend’ to really stand for something,” Yohannes said. “To not only inspire a whole generation but to also empower them and make them believe they can be somebody and that if you want to change something in this world, you need to change yourself first.”

The world of “The Urban Legend” is looking to grow internationally and Yohannes is also in talks with a major Hollywood studio to discuss the potential of turning the beloved comic into a movie.

LOVE AND DOGS

(Originally published in the High Plains Reader on July 12, 2017.)

 

Justin Chirico and his wife, Sarah Chirico-Wyss, live in Glåmos, a village just north of Rørøs, Norway. They have 10 Alaskan huskies and a black labrador named Belmont who is training to be a rescue dog and a bed bug sniffing dog.

Sarah races the dogs competitively, while Justin prefers to take the dogs out for fun and doesn’t have any interest in mushing. Together they train the animals that they consider part of their family.

He said that interacting daily with the dogs has helped to build a connection with them, and each of the dogs has their own personality that makes them diverse and individual.

“There’s a love there,” Justin said. “There’s a friendship.”

Finding His Place

However, Justin is new to life in rural Norway. Justin is a New York painter who found his artistic voice and the loves of his life in the Norwegian countryside.

He grew up around creative people and always liked painting, but the thought of making a living as an artist didn’t really hit him until early in his college career at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania.

Justin felt being a student wasn’t helping him develop into who he wanted to be. He was increasingly losing interest in general studies courses and spent most of his time alone in the art studio.

After a good amount of thinking, he recognized that a large city would be the way to go if he wanted to become an artist, and in 2002 he made the important decision to relocate to New York City.

Justin thought the move would end up being what he called a six-month experiment, but he stayed in NYC until 2014.

In 2008, he was ready to leave the city. He was invited by an artist to help work on a project in Greenland. While he noted that he was there to make another artist’s vision happen, the trip impacted him by allowing him to meet and interact with the Greenlandic community, something that he valued immensely.

He didn’t want to return to NYC, but he did until he traveled abroad again in 2014. Justin went to Norway to show his art with a Norwegian as part of a traveling art show from the capital of Oslo to Røros.

While in Røros, he met Sarah Wyss, a Swiss woman living in Norway. He fell in love with the wilderness and with Sarah, and he would return to Røros numerous times during the next year.

With Justin living in the U.S. and Sarah remaining in Norway, the two discussed relocating to live together. Each time Justin returned home from Norway, he said there was a sadness when he was away from the nature of the country.

Despite that sadness, Justin had never considered leaving the U.S., and was hesitant to leave NYC because of the comfort he experienced there.

Eventually Sarah moved into a home outside of Røros with space for her dogs. Justin visited and in 2015, returned to the U.S., packed and moved to rural Norway, a strong contrast to the busy streets he had walked for years.

His family wasn’t thrilled with his choice to leave the U.S. His parents were concerned both with distance and how he would make money in Norway. But they supported him and wanted him to do whatever made him happy.

His choice to leave rattled some artist friends though, and he lost some friends who couldn’t believe an artist was leaving a energetic place like NYC for somewhere so isolated. When he left, he essentially chose to throw away some of the theory and intellect close friends and mentors had shared with him, he said.

Some people he worked with even saw him as a traitor, but he said he needed to leave. In New York, he was assisting other artists, and he compared the choice to leave to a member of a band walking away to pursue a solo career.

“It’s very hard to take chances and walk off the path, [to] follow something off into a dark, uncharted way,” Justin said.

He said that it was tough for him to make the transition, but that he trusted his love of Sarah and his love of the wilderness enough to take the leap.

“It’s fuel for a creative mind to dare to reinvent yourself and know that wherever you go, you take your brush with you,” he said.

Compared to New York, the pace of life in Norway is something Justin prefers. Back in the city, he said he could be woken up in the early morning hours by friends banging on his window to see if he wanted to go for a coffee, or people climbing on his fire escape. Now, he wakes up to the sound of his dogs.

Life and Art in Norway

Justin said that his move to Norway didn’t necessarily impact his subject matter. His artwork is a combination of dreams, memories and his imagination fusing together to create the stories that are his paintings.

The largest impact the move had on his art is the approach he takes to creating. He often uses items like sticks and other objects that wash up on the shore of the lake near his home, to paint. He started painting on driftwood he finds, as well as dried animal skins.

He has also drawn inspiration from interacting with the Sami people, an indigenous group who herd reindeer.

He had started breaking away into his own realm back in New York in 2010 when he established Chirico Studios, but didn’t fully focus on the endeavor until he got to Norway.

Justin sees more of an appreciation for art in Norway than he did back home. He said that he has noticed Norwegians care more about art that they like rather than the name of the artist who produced it. This applies to everything from music to books, he said, and provides a more supportive environment for independent artists.

On the contrary, he believes that art in the U.S. has, in many cases, become too competitive and commercialized. It’s being viewed as “art as moneymaker, not art as intellectual, spiritual enrichment,” he said.

A focus on other artists got in the way while he was in New York, and he said he didn’t have the confidence he now has because he was paying attention to what they were doing instead of spending time reinventing his own art and exploring.

While he went to the city with the intention of becoming an artist, his time was often spent helping other artists, including Per Fronth, William Quigley and Shalom Tomas Neuman.

Justin worked in the studios of artists and was painting his own works on the side. To survive, he often had to juggle several jobs, making it hard for him to make time for his art. Sometimes, he assisted for free.

He said that the days of assisting artists were long, and could be spent cleaning paintbrushes, mixing paint, posing models, taking reference photos or sweeping the studio.

Justin valued being around more experienced artists and gained inspiration from them, so he continued to embrace opportunities to help when he could.

He said he felt he “needed to try and hold onto the bizarre opportunity to be, and stay for as long as possible, in the company of these innovative minds.”

He added that when the work was done, he typically would paint alongside the artists he was helping, though he wasn’t getting a chance to follow his calling.

“In New York, you’re always under a machine,” Justin said.

In Norway, he’s free to explore as an artist, create and make a living.

When Justin came to Norway, he had established art world connections back in the U.S. that allowed him to move away from the big city and yet still be able to sell his art, both in the states, Norway and internationally.

He maintains a minimal presence on the internet. Aside from a website, he doesn’t use social media and sells much of his art through those connections formed before moving. Numerous public and private collectors support his work, including the alumni association and fine arts building at Lock Haven University, the school he left behind for New York.

The culture, the people and the landscape of the north have all been powerful to his thought process and have impacted his inner experience.

He said he may be able to get the same wilderness experience from somewhere rural in the U.S., but he prefers to connect with the natives.

Rather than cleaning up after other artists, his days now involve tending to the dogs and the property, fishing and finally, painting.

He used to fish with poles as a kid but was introduced to net fishing by the farmers who live around him within his first few weeks of living in Norway. Typically, he and Sarah are able to catch enough fish for them to feed the dogs and have a fish dinner of their own two to three days a week. He waits to start fishing until the winter ice on the lake across the street from their home has broken up and melted.

He tries to paint for a few hours each morning, but he said that his best inspiration comes at night, and he can sometimes be working until the early morning hours with Belmont lying at his feet.

Justin attempts to fit in his morning painting daily, even if it’s not when his best work is getting done, because he feels that as an artist, it’s necessary to always continue to create.

The biggest distractions to his art tend to come in the winter. All of his neighbors are farmers so if a large snow causes them problems, he goes to help them rather than painting.

Moving On

He and Sarah have discussed potentially moving to the U.S., but he said the politics of the country put a stop on those plans. While moving back isn’t completely out of the question, it’s not currently on their radar.

Right now, Justin is happy and content where he is. While he lost the awe he once had for New York, he’s yet to lose the admiration he has for the wilderness and beauty of Norway that continue to fuel his creative spirit.

Oslo’s Hidden Gem: Hausmania

 

“I really enjoy being a functional human being in the society, still living like this. This way of life is actually working out and I am actually happy with it.”

Ida Frisch and her boyfriend, Martin Osvold, are temporarily crashing in an art studio in Hausmania, located in the center of Oslo, Norway. Hausmania was an abandoned building occupied by squatters until 1999. Now it is a cultural center for artists and musicians in the city of about 650,000 souls.

Ida grew up in a hippie family where she got used to people moving in and out of the house as well as her life. She started her career as a puppeteer in September 2016. Her professor encouraged her to study abroad in Prague for a semester where she was introduced to the art of puppetry. This intrigued her so much that she randomly decided to carve a niche for herself in this art form.

Martin on the other hand is a professional pirate of the good kind. He is an actor and his assignments as a pirate include organizing treasure hunts and magic shows for kids. He says that people believe in the romanticized version of pirates, in which they are generally associated with treasures, but it’s all a myth. He started this career as a gag and then just got rolling with it.

“The kids are being taught that the world is not magic anymore and I find that quite horrifying. I just want to make some magic,” Martin said.

Some artists and musicians come to develop their creativity. Others, well, they might stay a little longer.

“There Is a Director who has the right to use the room so we contacted him and he said send me a glass of dry white wine every day and that would be it for the rent,” Ida said.

Ida and Martin were homeless when they first met in one of Ida’s children’s puppeteer show called Home. She believes it was symbolic, as they now co-exist in a tiny room at Hausmania.

According to Nicolai Gulowsen, a cultural worker and activist, Hausmania is run by the artists and everyone currently renting there has a vote. “It’s like a direct democracy style we are operating,” he said. “It’s like running a small village in a way, with its local politics. We have the same issues you have in city council but on a smaller scale. Everybody has to take some responsibility about the house and the future of the house. It’s a very good school to learn about society.”

Gulowsen said the difference between neighboring squats and Hausmania is mainly the relationship with the owner where the squat is part of a “housing action,” which has a main goal to create social housing, communal housing as a free place. Also, because there is a big need for social housing due to the sale of social housing from the city to private owners.

“The politicians say that they want to protect Hausmania, but they signed papers to sell all the rest except Hausmania,” Gulowsen said. “We would be surrounded by new buildings. Those things can work to our benefit, but it can easily kind of whitewash everything. We will be like a little spot in between that nobody is enjoying.”

Gulowsen said while the squats are kind of illegal, they are accepted since they have been working for so long.

According to Gulowsen, Number 40 squat, a neighboring building to Hausmania, has always wanted to get a rent deal with the community to acknowledge their responsibility and ownership. “There were negotiations and stuff but it failed,” he said. “While Hausmania got a contract in 2008 so we are not here illegally.”

Gulowsen is scared for the future of Hausmania and its tenants. The land and building once had very little value, but now with the city growing, Hausmania’s value has increased dramatically. “Our contract is expiring in five years,” he said. “Many of us feel a little bit choked by the development around us.”

As for Ida and Martin, they enjoy their unique lives at Hausmania. “It’s an active choice to live here,” she said. “It’s so good because it’s so different from the way that everyone else lives. I really enjoy not having my own bathroom and we have to walk through the building to take shower and walk outside to get water.”

“We don’t call it our home as such,” Martin said. “We have given it a name, ‘the cabin’ or ‘ship’s cabin.’ We know it’s temporary and just because we know it’s temporary we really appreciate all the hours we have here,” Martin said.

Martin calls Hausmania a ‘hidden gem.’ “It feels like I get very creative while I am here, because it does not feel like I am in the thick of the soup of Oslo. It feels like I am somewhere else,” he said.

 

HPR EXCLUSIVE: A Q&A WITH AURORA

(Originally published in the High Plains Reader on August 2, 2017.)

http://hpr1.com/index.php/feature/hpr-abroad/hpr-exclusive-a-qa-with-aurora/

Norwegian native Aurora has achieved international recognition in her genre and has followings in the United States and Canada. Aurora is relatively new to the music scene, putting out her first studio album in 2016. This interview took place at OverOslo, the annual music festival on a hill overlooking the Oslo harbor.

Her first album: “All my Demons Greeting me as a Friend” (2016)

High Plains Reader: You’re from a pretty small place in Norway, what was that like growing up?

Aurora: I quite liked it. You really get to know the people in your town, and your neighbors, and the guy working at the one shop we had near by — which is 40 minutes if you had to walk. It’s a long walk just to buy some eggs, but it’s really nice. I think it is always going to be a goal for where I live, that I need to be able to walk around my garden naked without anyone noticing. Then you can be completely free. And I like that about my childhood house. It was a place where you could do anything you want, and it was very free.

HPR: How do you think being from Norway has affected your music, both lyrically and the sounds behind the lyrics?

Aurora: I’m very inspired by nature and the forest and especially the wild kind of nature that you can find here. And it’s kind of brutal in a way sometimes. Very steep hills, falling rock, and it’s ice cold and the trees are very dark, and they stand through the winter. It’s quite a brutal nature, if that makes sense. It’s dramatic, which I really like, and most often it can be mysterious and foggy, which is inspiring. It feels like it’s just nothing. It’s grey and it’s empty and it doesn’t affect you to be in any mood, it just lets you be, which I really like. I’m very inspired. Especially by the sound that wraps the soul of a song, the “bodies” around the songs are very inspired by this kind of nature. I think it has affected me a lot.

HPR: Has travelling to places that are different and that are loud and busy changed your music at all?

Aurora: It changes the way I write when I’m in a big city with noise. It’s different sound waves there, with the way sound moves. There’s a different kind of space, and there is no space sometimes. You can feel trapped. Because here, you can always see some kind of mountain far away. You can feel a sense of freedom because you know that you can leave here and walk over there and you can see that it’s an exit, an emergency exit, which calms me down. But in cities there are buildings and it can be hard to see that.

HPR: It can be kind of claustrophobic.

Aurora: Right, and it affects the music. But it’s exciting, and it smells different. It smells like people and not natural smells and food and it’s nice, too. I write quicker songs when I’m on tour, when everything is moving all the time. It demands something of you all the time, a city. You need to be aware of your surroundings, which is the biggest difference from being here.

HPR: Is it different for you performing somewhere in Canada or the U.S. in comparison to here?

Aurora: The best thing about my fans or my listeners is that I get reminded of how people are just people and we need the same things and we feel the same things and most of us experience the same things. I see people from the age of 11 to the age of 80 at my shows which I really like. It’s good to see how different they all look but how similar they all react to each song, which is beautiful. It’s so uniting, which is a really important thing, to see how united we are and can be, especially through music. But at the same time, it is different from place to place. I can’t really explain it. It’s something with the sound, or the volume, or the way people are dancing. It’s very special.

HPR: Is there a reason that you choose to sing in English as opposed to Norwegian?

Aurora: Well, it feels nice pushing the songs a bit further away from my heart. I feel like it is a wall between me and AURORA. Like this Aurora and the AURORA that lets the world know her. I need to have a slight difference between those two so I can keep me, the other Aurora, a bit hidden and grounded. It helps to do that by singing in English, because I sound different when I sing and speak in English, and my voice acts differently, so I feel like it’s a bit more safe. I feel like if people don’t like it then it doesn’t hurt because it’s not completely me.

And of course, English is a really poetic language. It feels nice not keeping it for myself and only people that can speak Norwegian. Music is so needed. You can’t put it in a cage or in a box. It’s a free thing, like the wind, and it deserves to be understood by all of us, at least insofar as I can try to make most people understand. I think it is important that it is for everyone.

HPR: Everyone needs music for something different, and you never know who needs your songs.

Aurora: Yeah, it’s important to have a song that can be a friend when you need it. Sometimes people can’t understand, and sometimes people don’t want to bother people with our issues and our thoughts. It’s nice then to have a song which can help you with an escape, and explain what you are going through without you having to think much about it yourself. It’s nice to just have a friend in a song or in a book. That is what I really like. Becoming friends with a song when I need it, and then to kind of say goodbye, and go to another album, a new artist and to always keep moving. You need different friends all the time in music and books.

HPR: Before I came here, I was told that Norwegian people are quite reserved. Do you find that that is true, or maybe more of a stereotype?

Aurora: It’s kind of a stereotype, and it’s kind of true as well. I guess that’s what happens when it rains so much, and when it’s cold, and when we don’t get a lot of sun. Maybe it’s just the way that mother nature acts around us and the way it has been for a thousand years in this country. But I think we are open, too. We don’t sprinkle things to be prettier and better than they are. It’s a very honest people, which I really like.

HPR: Is it scary putting yourself out there the way you do, with your music being so vulnerable and intimate?

Aurora: Well, I don’t know, I’m not afraid of being intimate and vulnerable with the world. I feel quite comfortable with it and it’s a beautiful thing with humans when I see people around me being vulnerable and intimate with the world. It’s such a sign of trust, if you like. It is a very beautiful thing.

HPR: Do you have anything coming up in the future?

Aurora: Yes. Not soon, but in less than like a year from now. And I will try my best to release like a single or an EP, if I can, before that. I can’t wait to release more music. It’s so weird to have moved on and become not different but maybe better at what you are doing. I’m so excited to share my new music.

I’ve realized what I need even more, and maybe what songs I need now. It’s so frustrating to keep them to myself, because I’ve already written many of them.