International Paper People

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Karen first got to know Norwegian artist Christian Skagen through the intricate line drawings he did with J. Herbin ink. Here, Christian answers more questions about his art, his home, and his amazing hand-made notebooks.

Introduce yourself! Where in Norway were you born, and where do you live now?

I live and was born in Vesterålen in northern Norway. Vesteraalen is a cluster of islands neighbouring the Lofoten Islands which is probably more known internationally.

It’s a quiet region of 30 000 inhabitants spread around 5 towns and several islands. I live in the town of Stokmarknes on Hadsel island together with my spouse paintress Ragnhild Adelheid Holten and the ferocious cat Loliver. Our daughter left this autumn for High School but she comes home most weekends.


What’s cool about where you live?

Stokmarknes is a really quiet town. What’s cool about it is that it’s far away from anywhere really. A strange thing to say I guess but I need the presence of nature and silence before the presence of culture. Art is not too important around here which I find sobering. Although Norway is known to be wealthy I feel that here up North everything takes a little more effort and I think that is healthy. You have everything here just like in a big city, you get Cappucinos and can go to the premiere of The Hobbit if you like but the market is small so you don ´t have the nuances of the big city. We have nature though. In abundance. I try to get closer to nature. It’s a learning experience, getting closer to nature. I don’t think it’s possible to live here without making an effort to get closer to nature.

What sparked your interest in art?

It was in high-school. I used to play the guitar in bands at the time but I struggled with being creative in a social setting. Then I discovered the art book section at the local library. It was an eye and mind opener. I very quickly understood that this was it. So I began at Einar Granum Artschool in Oslo which trained me in classical techniques. We would draw and paint nudes and still life. It was great for a while but I was so impatient to learn more. I’m kind of introverted so I soon started teaching myself stuff about art through libraries, museums and experimenting. My main passion was and is the tools. To me colours, brushes and paper felt immensely empowering. To employ the tools against the two dimensional field is such an intense experience for me. It is an explorative experience which seems boundless. Sometimes art feels like a void, there is so much that is undone and the possibilities are limitless.

In the early years I loved Edward Hopper and David Hockney, then I discovered Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin. They had their impact on me together with Joseph Beyus and the Norwegian painter and drawer Olav Christopher Jenssen. Now a days looking at other peoples art doesn’t have the impact it used to. I get more carried away by drawings done by 5 year olds. In fact, the best drawing I’ve ever seen was done by a kid I used to teach that had autism. He made a drawing he called TAXI, I still remember it clearly. He tried to explain it to me but his language was too inventive to be understood. Brilliant kid not entirely of this world alone.

We got to know you through your pen-and-ink drawings, but from your website I see you work with other media. What are you working on these days?

These days I’m obsessed with notes and note taking. I think that note taking is close to the heart of the artistic impulse. I ´m not that interested in larger formats except for my sculptural work. I work in series that evolve. I feel concepts are limiting and I ´m always looking to achieve any form of liberated action or liberating knowledge. With digital equipment I think size has become irrelevant. Resolution is important though and I love photography. I think photography is probably the reason I stopped doing figurative work in drawing and painting. I ´ll probably wind up doing nudes and foliage though. If I can.

I’m all over the place to tell you the truth with things I want to do. The result is a lot of unfinished stuff. Right now I’m making a stop-motion short film of how I make the pen and ink drawings. I took out two of my favorite inks that I got from Karen a while back (J.Herbin Bleu Azur and Rose Tendresse). My hands look weird though and I’m not sure how it’s going. We will see.


Who makes these lovely notebooks?

The papirarbeider (paperworker/paperwork) notebook is something I make myself. The excellent Midori Travellers Notebook was the inspiration. Although great I found the large one unsuitable for me in size and the passport version was too small. So I buy leather which I treat and emboss and I stitch together my own notebooks to put in. The size is true A6 for the notebook. I call the ones in the picture papirarbeider midi A6, I also make a mini which fits 9×14 standard notebooks and I ´m preparing a maxi (B6). The bottleneck is sewing the notebook by hand although I love it. I make 2 64 page notebooks for each using 120 gsm Fabriano paper. I vary the paper I use and have not found the optimal balance for both drawing and writing.

What do you like to do when you’re not drawing or painting?

I like building stuff. And we are still restoring our old house in Stokmarknes which will probably take the rest of my natural life to finish. Which is fine. I go more and more into nature. I had a notion that if I exposed myself more to nature it would impact my work. I don’t know if it has. I kinda feel that nature has somehow reasserted myself to the pen and ink drawings. It’s a wonderful thing to go spend time close to nature. It’s where we belong and I think nature will take us back, I just hope we manage to keep internet and television. I always take my notebooks with me but I don’t do much. All I have to do in nature is to make a fire, get some water and feed myself and anyone with me. That seems enough out there.


If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?

I moved around a lot with my family when I was a child. I have fond memories from both New Jersey (we lived in Hopatcong) and London (Wimbledon). I dream of being kind of a modern nomad for a spell with my notebooks. I’d like to travel in France, Spain and Italy. And I’d like to see New York again. Orange juice, hot dogs, pretzels, Rothko and Agnes Martin. And then there’s Japan, their paper, pens and ways of building houses are magnificent. Ragnhild wants to visit India but I don’t want to. We find it necessary to go somewhere at least once a year, more if we can. Now that our daughter is almost grown up and we have a roof we might realize some of those dreams.

I wouldn’t live anywhere else permanently though if I have the choice. There is so much potential in Vesteraalen and I hope more people come here.


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