If you were to seek out Elisabeth Kristensen on any given winter day, you’d likely find her kneeling down in the snow, her red, down jacket standing out starkly against her surroundings while she chisels away at a massy block of ice that weighs more than a car. The Norwegian artist, who specializes in ice sculpting and snow carving, is at home in the cold, and for her, that climate is a vital part of her identity.
“Ice and snow and winter are a part of Norwegian culture. We have 300 words in our vocabulary to talk about these things,” she says, almost as impressed as anyone would be upon learning this for the first time.
One of Elisabeth’s first experiences working with the wintery material came at the age of 29 when she had the opportunity to join a sculpting competition in Greenland as a volunteer assistant.
“Thank god artists are egocentric assholes,” she says while describing the rather serendipitous turn of events which helped set her on her current path. “The team I was supposed to shovel for, they disagreed on their design, and in the end they abandoned their project, and me and another volunteer were allowed to finish it. And people liked it, and we got invited back.”
From there, she says, “the snowball started rolling.”
While she currently resides in Kristiansand, one of Norway’s southernmost cities, her childhood played host to a markedly different lifestyle than the one it does now.
“People here [in the South] think it’s horrible when it snows. Where I come from, it’s there all the time. How can you have a good life if you hate something that’s around you eight months of the year?” she wonders, reflecting on her upbringing. “For me, with my Sami background, it’s very connected to the traditional way of living. It’s an outdoor, nomadic way of living, following the herds and being outdoor all the time.”
The Sami are an indigenous people whose lifestyles revolve around reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, and farming. Elisabeth was born and raised in the area around Kautokeino in the North of the country in the 1970’s, and from a young age, she and her family led a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
“My heart never left it. But I had to leave it to go to high school. When I was young, we went to school four days a week, then you’d go to herd three days a week. It’s very different than growing up in the rest of Norway. We had two schools, one in the tundra, one on the coast. Because that’s where the herd went.”
The Sami population stretches across the Scandinavian North, including parts of Sweden and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Though censuses have not been regularly taken over the years, they are estimated at roughly 80,000 strong. And while the culture is experiencing a kind of renaissance in recent years, the indigenous population has always clashed with the Norwegian government regarding land-ownership rights. For decades, these cultural and legal conflicts took their toll on a people who did their best to keep their culture and their way of life alive.
A Thread in the Ice
“We [Norwegians] have a bad history when it comes to Sami people. It’s a fragile thing. It’s very connected to who I am and where I come from. I want to go back, but I’m married to a guy from the South, so working with this material is way of staying in touch with my identity.”
Keeping close to that identity has proven more difficult for some than for others. Luckily, by the time Elisabeth entered primary school, the social and legal dynamic between Norway and the Sami had already begun to change, albeit slowly.
“When I started the first grade, it was the first year that Sami was allowed to be spoken in Norwegian schools. [Before this] our government had this idea that they didn’t exactly want to kill all the Sami people, but how about if we made them Norwegians? In order to be allowed to own land, or a boat, or a house, you had to give up your way of life and sign a contract that says you take a Norwegian name. And my great-grandparents did this. They were not allowed to speak the Sami language in public or in school, you could only do it in secret in your home. My father didn’t learn the language at all, and by the time I started high school, speaking it was finally allowed.”
“We are still here.”
Through a combination of grassroots movements and legislative expediency, the political landscape has begun to change in recent decades. The Sami won an important legal battle in 2011, in which the Norwegian Supreme Court granted them common law rights to specifically demarcated regions of the land. They now also take a share of the profits that come from the oil which is extracted from waters traditionally used by the tribe. Perhaps not surprisingly, this shift has exacerbated long-standing discrimination in the country, as well as raised new issues that both communities are yet grappling with.
“There is a lot of shame connected to being a Sami, because you’re supposed to be a ‘Norwegian.’ You give away your name and your identity to be allowed to own a house and make a living for yourself. And there is still prejudice. In the South it’s just lack of knowledge I guess, but in the North it’s closer to racism, I think. The government eventually decided to turn around on these policies, and now they’re giving a lot of extra rights to the Sami people, and in doing so, they are taking away rights that the Norwegians have had for generations. And of course that creates a lot of conflict.”
Despite the tension, she seems optimistic about the future of the culture in the country.
“The younger generations, the people in their early twenties, they don’t have this shame that I grew up with. And they are very inspiring to me, because they use language freely and we can now write in Sami, we could never do that when I grew up. And they wear signs that they are from this culture, and it’s inspiring and liberating that they are allowed to do that now. I wear Sami clothing in the South, I write in Sami online, I try to create awareness of the fact that we are still here.”
A Love of the Cold
Elisabeth has a contagious affinity for ice and snow. One might mistake her enthusiasm for leaning too far into ‘new-age’ territory were it not for her clear-headed, scientific approach to working with such material.
“Science plays into it a lot. Ice is heavy stuff, so when you build up a sculpture that’s five meters tall, we’re talking about ten tons of ice. You have to know what kind of weather does what to the ice. When I was in Holland, for example, the weather was very warm, and the ice becomes chewy and really strong, and it’s tough to work with. The perfect temperature is about minus ten degrees. It’s cold enough that you can stick two piece of ice together, even horizontally. If you have two surfaces you can fuse them together in seconds and it’s a strong bond. But it’s warm enough that the ice doesn’t get brittle and fragile.”
“You have to listen to the ice,” she says of the relationship between artist and material.
“I see a lot of carvers who don’t listen to the material. In art school they teach you, “You are in control!” But of course you’re not, it’s the other way around. So, I listen.”
Perhaps more than other artists, she has to respond to the fluctuating states that the material may take, and nature provides her with an almost poetic variety.
“The way [the ice] freezes in the fall affects the way it’s going to behave after harvest and when I start to work with it. If it’s windy weather with frost and not much snow, it will be very clear ice. If it’s still and cold, you will have bubbles in the ice. If you have a stream, you’ll have these little lace-like layers of white that run through it.”
However, while her vision and calm ardor always inform what she does, she is under no illusions when it comes to the practicality and oftentimes drab pragmatics of getting her work out there in the public sphere.
“It all depends on the kind of project. In competitions, they give you a theme to work with, usually. But for the more conceptual art projects, they generally give you the dimensions of the space you’re working in, and you go from there. It’s not very romantic – they give me an amount of money and an amount of ice and ask me what I can do.”
None of which is to say that she doesn’t consistently find a way to leave her indelible mark on a sculpture, however. She recalls how she was once commissioned to do a piece in a church which would be featured in wedding ceremonies:
“I wanted to do something neutral and not very religious, and I thought I could do something spiritual, which is different to me. So, I looked into science, and then started reading poetry about how humans were created, and found a poem that says we are all created from stardust and black holes and everything, and I made a black hole out of ice. I made this giant, organic star-shaped form and I put a little person in the hole, and in that hole is a new universe. A whole new universe inside every little black hole. [That idea] is amazing to me.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t all conceptual high art, she admits.
“In competitions [people] want to see something that’s easy to understand. They need a word to latch onto, that it’s a fish or a face or whatever. There’s a lot of cliches that surround ice sculpting. People always see swans and fountains, and there isn’t a lot of people who work conceptually with this kind of material.”
At the end of the day, however, she believes her work has the power to be something much more.
“I don’t want people to get this cliché feeling, I want them to think something else. I like to work through this material because the material is water. It is very simple – this is what we are. We’re 80 percent water, the world is water. We all need it, the rich, the poor, every animal and plant, every little disgusting insect needs water to live. This binds us together. And then in this really short moment in time, it freezes, and I have the power. I can decided what to do with this little piece of life that we all have. And I want people to feel drawn to that.”