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Meeting William Heinesen was ‘an experience of a lifetime’ — paintings by Ellindur Egilstrøð on display at Williamsstova

Artist Ellindur Egilstrøð. Image credits: Erik W. Bachmand.

At the dawn of the new exhibition hall Williamsstova at Myndlist in Tórshavn, dedicated to famous Faroese author-poet-composer William Heinesen (1900-1991), featuring a range of talented artists, we shed light on a touching and sentimental story involving Heinesen and the renowned Faroese painter Ellindur Egilstrøð.

From July 22nd to 27th, Egilstrøð has a solo exhibition at Williamsstova. The likes of several other artists can be found and celebrated alongside Egilstrøð at the exhibition hall, located at Niels Finsensgøta 16: S. J. Mikines, Ingálvur av Reyni, Frimod Joensen, Steffan Danielsen, Torbjørn Olsen, Jóannis Kristiansen, Hansina Iversen, and more. 

Heinesen centered his works dedicatedly to Tórshavn, naming his home town “the navel of the world.” 

Fascinated by life’s mystery and the intricate interplay of darkness and light, themes from Heinesen’s charming works can be seen oozing into Egilstrøð’s paintings, which always involve the flirtation of opposites; soft and harsh, light and dark, dreamy summer and unforgiving cold. The natural, inviting drama of the paintings can be easily explained when one learns that he and Heinesen met in real life many years ago and that they shared in a memorable, soulful interaction that involved the ponderous philosophy that infuses both of the men’s works. 

Now, to recount the sentimental memoir of Egilstrøð’s meeting with the famous creative. In January 1980, he was nineteen years old and he and his supervisor thought it fit to focus the thesis for his high school project on Heinesen. An arrangement for an interview with the artist was thereafter arranged.

At that time, Heinesen was 80 years old, and when the young Ellindur called his telephone, the artist’s wife, Lisa answered. “I was told I should call back Tuesday at 6:30 pm. 6:30 is the main news broadcast on the Faroese radio and I was brought up to obey the rule that one does not call and disturb anyone at that time,” Egilstrøð recalls. As there was no TV at that time, the radio news broadcast was considered somewhat sacred; “like holy times where you did nothing but follow the news. It was a mortal sin to call anyone while the news was on.”

After waiting tentatively for the sacred broadcast to cease, Egilstrøð made his call, and Heinesen’s wife answered again. He remembers Heinesen’s classic piano playing adorning the background of the call. “Lisa made me aware that the agreement was that I should call at 18:30 and that I had broken said agreement.” Egilstrøð noted that the artist did not appear best pleased with his breach of contract, but he soon recovered and enquired as to whether the young man was “the son of the visual artist, Egilstrøð?” “Yes, it is me,” he confirmed, and they agreed on a time to meet after he had finished school. 

Egilstrøð made every effort to ensure that he was dressed well for the interview, and he and his supervisor mused over the perfect set of questions that were born of the study of a hefty stack of books written about Heinesen’s writing. He was handsomely prepared to study the artist in-depth and readily equipped with a plethora of interview questions.

All smiles and a cigar

When the day came, he made every effort to not repeat his mistake. “I drive up to the house, my watch shows 14:25, I have music from my cassette tape recorder in the car driving, I listen to this song and suddenly it’s 14:28, I turn off the music, take my bag of books and notes and approach the front door. When I knock, it is 14:30, neither 14:29 nor 14:31, but 14:30, and I set my clock the day before so that it is neither backwards nor forwards.” 

He approached the house with all of the attentive apprehension afforded to youth and was received warmly by Lisa at the door. ”We sit down at the table. Lisa pours coffee and sits down at the end of the table. There are three kinds of cakes and three pieces of each. A piece of each for each of us.” 

Heinesen led the conversation heavily and enquired over Egilstrøð’s family as they drank and ate. “For example, he asked about the visual artist, Niels Kruse; who was my grandmother’s brother.” 

Heinesen consequentially enlightened the young Egilstrøð to many facts about his family that he was not previously aware of; “the conversation went well and William told me, among other things, that he and two other artists had tried to get my father to move to Tórshavn many years ago so that he could be part of the artist community in Tórshavn. They had a house ready where the family could live and my dad could paint. My father declined the offer and William could not fully understand it.”

Egilstrøð recounts the moment that the three ceased their coffee drinking and chatter, and Heinesen offered him a cigar, after revealing a cigar box. As Egilstrøð was not a smoker, he declined, and Heinesen was considerate enough to blow the acrid smoke to the side; “so that the smoke did not come across the table.” 

Egilstrøð fondly remembers how the conversation would sometimes lapse to total silence, yet the silence was not uncomfortable, nor did anyone fight to fill it. There was no sense of any requirement or urgency to talk just for the sake of talking. “Our company was enough and we did not have to say much.”

“Suddenly William speaks up as he smokes his cigar, ‘it is said that people who do not smoke quarrel a lot.’ ‘That may well be the case,’ I smile and the silence ensues again while William smokes his cigar.”

After finishing their coffee and cake, Egilstrøð and Heinesen set down in the living room ready to ensue with that list of arduously gathered questions. “I prepared well, with books and questions planned out so I could refer to them if need be. It was clear that William was not enthusiastic about the number of books I had with me, not because he did not want to answer the questions, but he did not think that the many theoretical analyses of his authorship had any value.” 

It seemed that like so many authors, Heinesen was not a fan of the dissection of his loving work, as much as he was a fan of people reading it freely with an open heart, mind and open pair of eyes. 

Beyond words

What happened next succinctly summarizes Heinesen’s calm command over natural ways of being; he quietly took the books, folded them, and set them aside from the young Egilstrøð. “It was completely without drama, but a slightly strange experience. I am very convinced that he did it for my own good.” Now, without the assistance of his books and notes, the impending interview was left bare, unplanned and very much to its own devices as they sat quaintly in the cosy living room. 

The conversation flowed very well without prompt, and Heinesen proceeded to recount the various characters that resided in his books, some of which were authentic people that he mentioned by name. Egilstrøð recalled some of the names, but others had passed a long time ago. “He told me, for example, about the book Noatun, and that the inspiration for the book is from the extinct village Víkar on Vágoy, an abandoned settlement in the Faroe Islands, once used to house an overgrowing populous. The lighthouse in the book is a symbol of hope.” 

The darkness set in quickly, casting the pair in dusk, as darkness takes a hold of the sky in the infancy of the evening. “We could hardly see each other, but these quiet moments in the twilight were extremely cosy and rewarding. These long pauses, where we did not say anything but were only ‘being’; I still remember very clearly.”

The interview was indeed different to what the young Egilstrøð expected, and his supervisor was surprised to hear of the information that the impromptu and unplanned conversation had granted him, for he had accessed a wealth of knowledge that other people knew very little about. “If you come up with a template, theory and prepared questions, then you only get out of the conversation that you are looking for, rather than being present in the conversation and letting time work in the conversation, with many small breaks, which gives what has been said time to digest and make room for something to come; bringing something new and innovative forward.”

Egilstrøð’s interaction with the fascinating Heinesen granted him something rather metaphysical — a lesson that in the quiet moments, in the dark spaces between people surrounded by cake and cigar smoke, communication without words can take place, and can say more than words themselves. As the dark, rich evening came to a close, he retired from Heinesen’s house; “It was time to go, to say thank you for today and to say goodbye. It became an experience of a lifetime.”

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