Chapel Hill News

Brush Strokes Sunday, September 2, 2001

Artist finds balance between art and environment

File photo by Grant Halverson

Work by Chapel Hill artist Kristin Gudjonsdottir, who uses 99 percent reused materials, will be on display at the Durham Department of Solid Waste Management Sept. 10-21.



A gallery owner once told me about a group of artists who showed up to install their work but declined to hang it, taken aback by the painted walls of the gallery. Unlike the oft-seen cream background, each surface was covered with a color, some not very shy.

This got me thinking about the relationship between art and the environment in which it is shown, and how much artists think about the venue for their art. Then I discovered that Chapel Hill artist Kristin Gudjonsdottir, whose work had recently bedazzled me, was going to be showing in a venue that was, well, a bit odd. This provided the perfect opportunity to explore the relationship I had been pondering.

First, a little history of the venue. The Durham Department of Solid Waste Management is at 1833 Camden Ave. This newly renovated 26,000-square-foot building is on the former site of Durham's Solid Waste incinerator operations, which was closed four decades ago because of concerns over air emissions. It was rebuilt using much of the original building materials and this year received Silver Honors by the U.S. Green Building Councils Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. It now accommodates 114 employees.

According to T. Baridi Nkokheli in the Waste Reduction Division, the department wanted to display art that has an environmental/recycling theme.

"We want to do anything that enhances and reinforces the spirit of recycling," Nkokheli said.

He and his colleagues couldn't have picked a better artist as their nod to the arts, for all of Gudjonsdottir's work is made out of 99 percent reused materials.

Gudjonsdottir had a choice of exhibiting her work outdoors or indoors for the show, which runs Sept. 10-21.

"I chose to show my work indoors in a very sunny spot as you walk in on your right," she said. "My latest work is seldom weatherproof, but shows best in natural light."

Gudjonsdottir did not make any specific work for this show. It is, rather, the other way around.

"I am always on the lookout for places to show my work that will speak the most about the reuse aspect of my work," she said. "By showing in these places, I am hoping to open people's eyes about reusing through art. There is so much waste out there and most of the things that we throw out could so easily have been made into something useful again if we just made a little push in that direction."

It is difficult to describe Gudjonsdottir's work in a nutshell, but at first glance I thought I had come upon some ancient weapons of warfare or of art that had landed here as meteorites do. Her pieces, which incorporate glass, stone, and metal and other elemental aspects, seem to speak a foreign language.

An influence on Gudjonsdottir is her homeland of Iceland. She grew up in Reykjavik. Her ancestors were farmers and fishermen. They lived in the land, and their song of daily life can be heard in many of her pieces.

"The country itself echoes: the sea, the ice, the mountains, the raw barren nature of my home country," she said. "Then there is my connection to my ancestors through their tools. They lived a very hard life and reused everything because they had to be able to survive. "

A show she held in Iceland three years ago was comprised entirely of pieces made from stones gathered from the beaches of Iceland.

Gudjonsdottir believes that the venue her work is shown in is very important, but she knows those feelings for most artists are a luxury.

"It is hard to be picky, and in many places there are restrictions to where and how you show your art," she said. "It really makes a big difference where you show your art. You get a totally different audience in a gallery or a museum than in a waste management building."

Different settings can change the way people look at an artist's work, but Gudjonsdottir believes people's views toward art are changing a little.

"When I was growing up, art was only in museums, galleries and big corporations," she said. "There are so many places now that want artists to have shows at their place. Maybe we are finally finding out that it is so much more interesting for all of us to be in an environment with 'useless' pretty things called art in it."

Gudjonsdottir said that the best place she ever showed was at the Richmond Art Center.

"My solo show was in a long room with big, continuous windows on one side," she said. "I therefore got lots of natural light."

The worst was a group glass show. "My work was put on a badly painted and beat-up pedestal with Plexiglas over the work to make sure no one touched it in the middle of a small room. And to top it all, the piece got very bad lighting so the work just sat there unattractive. "

Gudjonsdottir said making art is her art therapy. She added that it also makes her grow and challenges her every moment.

"I am always on a quest for new ways to reuse materials and mix them together," she said. "My next thing will be forging mild steel parts to go with my clay and glass work. What I would really like to master is plastics.

"All these containers we throw out every day, most of them are going to be sitting, buried in the ground for centuries or until someone finds a great way to dig them up and reuse them."

And of course, show them in the right light.

Gudjonsdottir's work will be part of this year's Orange County Open Studio Tour, which is the first two weekends in November, and her work will be at the Horace Williams House Oct. 28 to Nov. 28. Her Web site is at


Too see parts of the interview that didn't get used because of space.