I can still hear the morning traffic start on Zionskirchstraße. Right in the middle of Berlin – not far from the Wall. I would wake up on the 2nd floor in an old two-room apartment with a ceramic stove, a small kitchen and only cold water. In the winter, my bed sheet would still have the slightly burned smell from being placed on the hot stove before being put on the bed. The bathroom was half a floor down. I recall, when closing my eyes to fall asleep I was sometimes lucky enough to see thousands of wonderful coloured pearls rolling towards me.
I would get Leberwurstschnitten (bread with liver pate) wrapped in wax paper in the morning and then I’d go off to school. My mother taught in the same school complex but after undergoing an IQ test I was found suitable for a special language school and was moved. Changing school in the 3rd year was my rescue, some said. I got away from the working class neighbourhood but I also left behind my friends and classmates, the paving stones, the coal dust, the bakery on the corner with sugar cakes and the small store with liquorice candy for 10 pfennigs – all the things I cared for. I had a 40-minute bus drive to get to the new school with children all at the same level and ready to compete.
Soon after we moved again, this time into a new 8th floor apartment, with a heating system and an elevator that one got stuck in regularly. The high-rise block had 11 floors with five entrances, a sad playground and an old ruin from the war in front. From my window I would later see that the ruin was pulled down to build a parking lodge. Sometimes somebody in our block would jump out of the window or down the stairwell. We never knew why. Nobody got to know each other that well. Playing in the few remaining ruins or in the basement of the old buildings I always tried to find something that went beyond my imagination. Our new home was now close to my school. The new school was all about educating its students to become well-educated leaders. At almost the same time, my parents were offered a place for me in a sports and ballet school, but they refused as they thought it would be better for my career that I carry on at the language school. I never forgot this lost opportunity of being in a more creative place. I lived as an outsider in school. I was good at sport and literature but in other classes my thoughts usually drifted off to music I had heard or maybe paintings or writing I wanted to do. I never enjoyed studying and had a hard time getting through my homework. At night I would often paint or read with a flashlight or listen to the radio RIAS Berlin with music from behind the Wall.
My family were middle-class, regular people. Right before the Berlin Wall was built my mother convinced my father to stay in the eastern part of Berlin. I have been told my mother got pregnant and then they got married.
My grandmother on my mother’s side I remember only as a widow in a very clean, empty home with a shiny wooden floor that made small, polite noises when walked on. When I stayed with her, I had to sit nicely on the sofa and then I would get a pencil and paper to draw. She had lost her husband when I was very small and all I remember of him is our sitting on the same couch together listening to him invent stories. After his death my gran refused to see anyone except from her daughters. There are 2 more sisters on my mother’s side, a teacher and a doctor.
My grandfather on my father’s side loved to paint and he would patiently spend hours with me painting. I loved the old piano there and I wished it were mine, but they gave it away a few years later as my parents did not want it in the house, as space was limited. My grandmother was always singing at home. She dreamt about being a famous singer. Then, she said, World War II started and that put her dream to ashes. It left my grandfather with a bullet in the back of his head that he carried in his body until he died. I liked to stay with them, playing outside amongst chickens and cherry trees and reaching the sky with my toes on the gondola in the garden. As I grew older, I would hide under the roof reading old books written in old German about Africa and the colonies that my gran had hidden or I would go out with my younger cousin and the youngsters from the village.
An old lady in her 90’s, Frau Knospe, lived on the same road and she would still carry her own coal for the stove up to the second floor. I loved to visit her. She would make hot chocolate and then tell me about her time in the Rocky Mountains and we would turn pages in her old photo album with pictures of the Niagara Falls that she and her husband had visited a long time ago. I would listen quietly and draw her with a pencil, while dreaming about big adventures.
We regularly received visits from our family in West Germany and my father was always to be found in political discussions. He was an honest man with principles. He almost never compromised. His nicely shaped hand marks on my body could sometimes tell more about his principles. I would then not take part in the sports classes as I was ashamed to show the marks. Punishment was supposed to teach me to be a better person, it was meant in my best interest.
I started wearing imported jeans, got my hair cut as short as the guys and listened to: “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon, songs by Pink Floyd and heard all other kinds of music. I bought records on the black marked for horrendous amounts of money. I started going out at night, often sneaking out by pulling the toilet flush so as not to be heard, but soon got stopped by my mother who found me with shoes in my hand at the doorstep in the morning. I loved riding the empty tram at night. Sometimes I went dancing or listened to music at nightclubs looking like an 18 year old. I tried several disciplines in sports clubs but could never settle in organized groups for long. I cheated in the compulsory dance classes, began to smoke cigarettes, got reports from school that I signed on my own and did not cry anymore when discovered. I loved to read for hours and had several hundred books of world literature in my own library. I liked to be by myself but longed to be like others.
In the summer holidays I usually went to a children’s camp for several weeks. I was usually miserable in the company of girls and their telling of horror stories and their first secret love affairs. I survived fairly well as the troublemaker and as the boys’ buddy. I would escape the camp at night to visit the local baker’s son or get the other children, flashlights in hand, to secretly pick cherries at night.
By the age of 15 my parents had to give up on the idea of university for me and I failed the art school’s entrance exam with the announcement that I had already developed too strong a personal style to be considered a suitable student. Until then, I had mostly painted by myself and had only sometimes attended painting school and the “Otto Nagel House” for children where I learned to do linoleum cuts.
I had to find another education and with great support from my father, after he had given up on me as an engineer, I applied at many places to do stone carving and ceramics. By the end of the summer I was offered a place and chose ceramics. It seemed to be the closest I could get to a creative future. It must have been a difficult choice for my parents to leave me 160 km away from home in a rented room all by myself but my father showed great confidence in my ability to manage alone. The owner of my new home checked closely that I did not break his rules about having male visitors. Kamenz was a little provincial town. The biggest excitement for the local youngsters besides the local pub was to get invited to the restaurant at the military base. For the girls it was an even bigger catch to get some officer boyfriend unless he was one of the soldiers from Libya ‘secretly’ educated at the base. In the latter case, you were only a whore and would find yourself completely isolated in town.
Nobody really visited the Russian camp close by, only if you wanted to buy some ‘hot’ goods of any kind. The rumour mill kept us away. After work I usually went with friends from work to a little lake or to the local youth club to play chess or listen to the newest music at a local village party. Sometimes I visited friends at their home, way out in the countryside where the floor was still earth and the water had to be brought in. I loved the big breakfasts at some farms with fresh bacon and eggs at 6 o’clock in the morning when we would get back from some party. Often the mothers would even cook for us.
I managed all right and got safely through the following 3 years. I learnt to be a teenager from a big city in a small town. On the weekends I often chose to hitchhike home at first to save money but then out of curiosity.
In time I got more courageous and sometimes hitchhiked to Czechoslovakia or Poland on the weekends when my family had previously spent camping holidays. I met a lot of foreigners and started to wonder what life was like elsewhere. Since I had got used to being on my own from an early age, I learned to survive even in very unfamiliar environments and, finally, language school came to use. As much as I hated studying language I realised that I could easily learn a few words to get by in other countries. After hard physical work at the ceramic factory, the weekends became more and more the highlights in my life. I could leave the small, grey, dusty town and get on the road full of adventure and unexpected surprises.
Once I hitchhiked with jazz musician Albert Mangelsdorf who immediately invited me to accompany him to the free jazz festival and the following days to his concert in Dresden and a few other places. He was a patient, decent and kind man. He introduced me to this completely new kind of music and musicians of that time. I spent the most wonderful time between sounds I did not quiet understand but which moved me.
Hitchhiking on the road to and from Berlin and elsewhere I met rock musicians, a salesman, construction workers and many others.
I got to share their very private life stories and got invited to places I would never have otherwise seen. Once I even got invited to a wedding party in Poland and spent the whole weekend there.
Kind people would share their meals or even give me food supplies for my trip – you have to remember I was just 17 years old earning 150 Marks a months less the 60 Marks I paid to rent my room. Only a few times during those 3 years did I feel unsafe but I never felt in any real danger. I was a naive, curious and lucky girl – full of hopes and dreams.
As I grew older, I found I had the same pride and belief in mankind as my father did and I didn’t want to leave the sinking boat that the DDR seemed to be. I still believed that an honest effort could cause changes of every kind. I had plans for my own ceramic studio somewhere in Berlin when I had finished my education. I always wanted to go back to Berlin.
Here, on the road, I also met a young Danish man who was 3 years older than me and I didn’t know that he would turn my future around. I was 16 years old and it would take another 6 years before we finally lived together in Denmark. When I turned 18 we tried to get officially married in Germany, but they would not give me a permit. All that time my parents and family hoped it wouldn’t last. Some of my family didn’t want to have anything to do with me as their work was connected to government work. I was under state observation and my passport was taken away and a long series of difficulties began.
After I finished my education as ceramist I could not find work in state owned factories, all what was left were a few private ones. I got an assignment at a small private family business in Crinitz, a village close to Finsterwalde, half way to Berlin. The work here was boring and the only interesting place in town was an old ceramic factory run by a young woman, Christel Kiesel, and her brother who was a fantastic potter but partially insane. This place very soon showed itself to be one of the most exciting places around. In her home, I met all these very different people from young punks, musicians to serious working artists like Stötzer. It was here I found ceramics made with a heartbeat and, in spite of the struggle to keep the old traditions alive, they worked with a vision of work as well as of life. Her home offered me and others a space for artists to work, meet and discuss. I spent time with her and common friends almost every night and I really learned to appreciate the differences of people. Her patient and open mind created the platform where I got interested in discussions about all the different aspects of life far beyond work. Unfortunately I did not like this work so I had to move on to another place. Moving away from Christel was difficult. I even missed my friendly landlord who had introduced me to “Schlachtfest” and blood sausage and showed me how to keep and take care of animals and of a garden. For almost a year after I did not eat meat, but I did not turn out to be a vegetarian.
Once again I got lucky and found work as a housekeeper in Vipperow, the home of the local priest Meckel and his wife, who also did ceramics. I will never forget the tears in my father’s eyes when he left me there at a place so foreign from his view of life. I was, as I am today, an atheist. Besides the housework, learning to cook and keeping a household for a family with two children, I met a lot of visitors, like musicians from Ton Stein und Scherben and all kinds of artists and activists who would later become well known on the political scene. Conversation at the dinner table was always a discussion about protecting the environment or fighting for freedom of beliefs or movement. Some of these friends worked on environmental questions and would show me around explaining their ideas on how to keep the environment in good shape. Some of them looked like they lived in the woods, quite an unusual look at that time, with their long hair and beards.
I knew my new job was more to help me survive than a job what was meant to be long-term and shortly after, I moved in with the ceramist Manfred Müller and then into an abandoned apartment I had found in Berlin. I had found it by just looking around in the area where I used to live, asking neighbours about the empty apartments I noticed from the street.
I got a short-term job with the ceramist Beate Bendel close by. I moved again, this time to a sub-letted apartment in Boxhagener Straße that I had found through one of the people I had met hitchhiking. It was extremely difficult to find apartments in Berlin as a private market did not exist and everything was government controlled. Beate could not keep me very long and I got a job in a ceramic factory with three shifts in Berlin-Lichtenberg.
There was no other way anymore, I gave it one last try and wrote a letter to the government, describing the 5 years of my fight to leave the country and I clearly pointed out that if I were not granted permission to leave I would find a way by myself. I set the deadline for the 1st of April. The director of the factory knew about my trouble with the officials but chose to keep me anyway. In return I worked hard to increase production and worked almost non-stop before finally fleeing to West Germany illegally. I left the day before the deadline.
The only person I told was one of my closest friends in Berlin, Jutta. She helped me to move my most important things out to her father’s summerhouse. The rest I just left in the apartment.
It was strange sitting there in my apartment together with Jutta that last night. I was nervous and excited but also fearful and in doubt about my decision. I did not know if I could pass the border alive or end up for years in jail. But I had made up my mind. I cried when I left her behind knowing it would be years before we saw each other again.
I guess that was the day I lost my home country forever.
The first raids close to the embassy districts in Berlin had started at that time. But it would take over 4 years until the system fell and the Berlin wall left as a sign of history. Several embassies gave refuge to East Germans; only the Danish embassy would give them up to the police.
My new life started at a big supermarket in Switzerland. I will never forget the first long hug from my Danish boyfriend who had suffered as much as me all those years.
All was mint green that year.
On my way to Italy I travelled with another woman’s passport. It was only for a few days. I still remember the odour of my first Italian espresso in Torino at a shiny bar full of mirrors, mess and loud voices. It was a warm spring day back then in April and beautifully dressed women passed me by in their stilettos. When I left Liguria behind on the way back to Germany, I did not even imagine that many years later Italy would become my second home. The sky was overcast when we arrived in Hamburg.
I had to spend a month there in order to get my papers worked out. I moved in to a small apartment that friends had found for me and I tried to adapt to this new way of life.
The town was grey, and the only colour that gave life to the street was from the flashy light boxes, advertising all kinds of services,. I liked the city at night, when the coloured lights were bright and you could not see the sad greys and the underage Russian prostitutes busily walking the streets looking for customers. My new neighbour, a young man I talked with sometimes, was unhappily in love with one of those girls, but he just could not afford her.
The usual talk with people was mostly about money and how to save it, and about ”Schnäppchens”. I was happy when I had finished with my papers and could leave the town without passing through the refugee camp in southern Germany. When I picked up my passport and filled out my papers I refused to work as an informant or for other similar purposes, just as I had refused earlier in East Germany.
Two months later my boyfriend took me to his home in Denmark. We arrived at his parent’s house in the evening. His mother was silently making meatballs, his father and sister smiled and gave me a big hug while talking constantly. The next morning we moved in, with all our stuff, to our new home, a big old farmhouse in the countryside just a few kilometres from Errindlev. Henri was mostly home during the weekends, so I had plenty of time in the week to do my best to fix the old house, with its low ceilings, a stove and cold water.
In the beginning the language was difficult for me, but after half a year I managed. I had to earn money to help pay the mortgage, living expenses and save to prepare for my own ceramic studio in the old sty, attached to the house. I found work in Copenhagen for a few days with Salomonsens, an artist couple. He worked with sculptures and she with ceramic and enamel.
I needed more money and searched for other work. I found a more stable job at Eslau Keramik in Sengeløse just outside of Copenhagen. During the weekdays I rented a room in Copenhagen with a friend. I usually worked 10 hours a day in order to get Fridays off. After a few months I had to attend the union or lose my job. I had had enough of forced associations so I left the job. After returning home to the countryside, I had a meeting with the local bank director, a man in his seventies. He offered me a small loan to start my own ceramic studio.
To pay back my debts I worked as a sales assistant in a perfume shop on the ferry boat between Germany and Denmark. In addition I had another job, working for an old couple who made pottery close to my village. They were quiet helpful, but eventually I had difficulties with their constant talking about Scientology. I had never heard of this “church” before, but it seemed quiet suspicious to me because the couple had to work hard to pay regularly for expensive Scientology courses.
I slowly started developing my own pottery in my studio. My ceramic pieces were received well and I attended the Danish handcraft community. I went to Boston for the NCEA ceramic event, my first international symposium.
It was overwhelming to come from a small village in Denmark to Boston and then New York City. It felt like coming home, surfing the music life at night, hearing Woody Allan playing the saxophone and listening to jazz and the diversity of music in Greenwich village, downtown N.Y.C. During the day I spent time in Soho at galleries and artist studios of all kinds. The vibe in the city was overwhelming.
I stayed with Nancy, a woman friend of a guy I had met just the evening before my departure. Nancy and I became good friends and my intended short stay turned out to be nearly two months. I did not want to leave N.Y.C. but my home and boyfriend were waiting for me.
Back home I started a new series of works in ceramic and painting inspired by my trip. I made connections with galleries and companies who offered to show my work. Life was quiet again, with home duties and my development in ceramics and painting. From time to time during the weekends I went out dancing and met other people in a bigger town nearby. Henri and I had to admit that our time together was over. We had lived more like a brother and sister in the last few years, used up by the time spent together.
One weekend when I was out dancing, I attended a beauty contest for fun and met Finn, a young dentist. We fell unexpectedly in love and I moved in with him a week later. I did not want to be too dependent on him, and so I created my new studio in an old bakery that I had bought. With a lot of work and with the help of friends it turned into a nice studio and gallery for ceramics and paintings. It was a very old house, in bad shape, and it took a couple of years to rebuild.
In the meantime I worked as a schoolteacher during the day and in a pub at night. On weekends I still worked on the ferry boat in order to pay for my expenses. There was only little time left for artwork, but I manage to be creative in the few hours that were left. I was tired after a year of working like that. Although Finn, my boyfriend, wanted to have a more family oriented life, he did not hold me back in realising my goals, to develop my work and achieve financial independency. Ulla Frellsen, a Danish artist, lived close to my studio and I started to visit her regularly to discuss our “being” as people. We have done so ever since.
Around the time I met Finn I had applied for an exchange program to Portugal. A few months later I was accepted. Part of the program was private accommodation and I moved in as the guest of a rich jeweller’s family, with video-camera at the doorbell and my own cleaning lady.
I had difficulties getting used to their kind of life and tried not to burden the housekeeper. She was a young girl and visited her family occasionally on weekends. One time I went with her to a single room cottage with no heat and water inside, this was her home. She was paid very little money for her job, twelve hours a day, six days a week.
Even though the family was nice to me I was happy to leave their house, I could not feel comfortable with their lifestyle. The stay was only for six weeks and I spent all my time working with other artists at a graphic studio and gallery called AVURE. Consequently I saw only a little of Porto and its surroundings. In downtown Porto I created my first prints since the linoleum cuts I had made during my childhood. Jose Salgado and Carlo.C. were a great help and they introduced me to lithographic stone prints. I did two pieces on their hand press. I was quiet excited about the technique and hoped to do some more back in Denmark.
Once there, I stayed only for a couple of months before applying for an exchange in Italy. I was accepted again and looked forward to going back to Italy, remembering it so clearly. It was a six month stay starting with a one month course at a language school in Torino and then practice in an art studio. I studied Italian with Birthe Jensen, a ceramist, Kika Møller a paper artist, and Johanna Ludvigsen and Vibeke Lindhardt who are textile designers.
After one month of language school everybody chose different places for their practice except Birthe and me. Instead we stayed at the same mosaic and glass studio in Monza close to Milan. We moved into a hostel until we found a small apartment together. I was back in the big city which I loved. Clubs, films, great dinners and hanging out at night while during the day, although a bit tired, I worked on my mosaic pieces. Milano was fantastic with fashion, great food and I met foreigners from all over the world. In the beginning our teacher asked us to move in to a Catholic hostel, but we refused. I had found a place in the middle of Milan close to Piazza Loretto. Besides the work at the mosaic studio I painted backdrops a few times for the film and fashion studios. I offered modern mosaic designs to developers but they did not want to spend the money. I learnt a great deal about glass and stone mosaics at the Torneguzzo studio in Monza. Birthe always kept my feet on the ground as we worked and lived together.
When I got back to Denmark I was full of ideas for ceramic and glass mosaics.
I visited different architects’ studios, one of them in Nykøbing F. Here I met Gorm Larsen, a middle-aged man with a beard and a face that never seemed to smile. I introduced myself and my ideas about working with glass and ceramics. He was kind and listened patiently like so many of his colleagues had before. But this time finally somebody understood me and my work. He included my idea, for a mosaic decoration, in a big project for DOW, later Danisco, one of the biggest companies in Denmark. I created a mosaic in a beautiful entrance hall. From the outside could be seen the lightened hall with the mosaic. It was time consuming work, because every single stone was cut by hand. It took almost a year to finish. Doing this work our friendship started, and we continued to work together.
Life was intense in those days. I spent the whole day in my studio and came home late in the evening, only to continue either with work or visiting or inviting friends. It was hectic and my relationship started to suffer. I didn’t really recognize it at the time, as I thought it was just the usual struggle that all couples suffer from. I became pregnant and was very happy, but my boyfriend refused to have a child with me at that time. I was devastated, but he had signed the government paper, in case I could not support myself, he had to take over financial responsibility. I had doubts about surviving on my own with a child and I felt that I did not have another place to go. I cried the whole way to the abortion clinic at the hospital, it was my second one. I guess that was the beginning of the end between us, even though we stayed together for several years more. One day, when I came home from a trip to Italy, he left me. With my friend’s help I moved into my studio. It took me several years to overcome my loss.
I worked excessively now and was very happy with my work. When I finished the mosaic, I took up painting and ceramics again. Over the following years I had many exhibitions all over Denmark and Europe, but one particular gallery helped me grow at that time. It was called Gallery Syd. The gallery space was their living room in their home, an old village school, in Nørre Alslev on Falster. The family here had always collected artwork, especially work by COBRA.
They took me in as one of their artists, and showed my work at a solo show. I sold quite well, and that gave me the possibility to explore and develop my work. I needed only a few hours of teaching to make a living. I liked my work with children as we got along terrifically, my imperfect Danish and their imperfect German helped us grow together, in equal ways.
I showed my art work regularly in Germany. At one of my exhibitions in Hamburg I met the sculptor Inka Uzoma, and this was the beginning of a close friendship.
Gallery Syd had introduced me to many of their artists, Gunleif Grubbe, Gina Pellon,Jørgen Nash, Lis Zwick, Peter Nyborg, Gordon Fazakaly, Rubin, Nes Lerpa, Frank Paul, Knud Nielsen and Ansgar Elde. I visited some of these artists in their studios, including Gina Pellon in Paris. Ansgar Elde and I met and we liked each other at first sight. He invited me to Italy where he lived with his wife. He was quiet, reserved, and looked like a tramp. I was curious and so took him up on his invitation just a few months later.
His home became my new home. Besides being my best friend, he was like the godfather and mentor figure that I had missed for so long. His wife and her family became my family. It was an easy kind of love that we shared, sitting at the morning table without always needing to talk, just feeling comfortable. They had a small three room apartment in the middle of Savona. Its big terrace had a view over the roofs of the town to the sea. When we walked through town, ladies with blond hair in big fur capes would stop and say hello, full of respect. In other places we visited, people would treat him as one of their own. Some restaurants would not however welcome us in, as we looked poor in our old clothes.
He was a man of few words, but when he started to talk he had something to say, and he was always kind. Even when criticising, he would never intend to hurt with his judgments. Sometimes at home, his wife Toni would lie on the bed, their big grey cat on her lap. We would watch old films and tears would quietly roll down Angar’s cheek. Behind his quite reserved façade, he was very sensitive and emotional.
Ansgar and his wife Toni had met late in life, but they had a great love for each other. Sometimes they would sing together, for no reason. He would write things to remember on the tiles of the kitchen wall, or he would paint all the kitchen closets in colours to surprise Toni. She always understood the intention and would be grateful and happy.
This time it was not only the food or wine, neither the fantastic weather nor lifestyle that made me fall in love with Italy. It was because of these people who had welcomed me so naturally and made their home mine. I had never felt so safe and happy in my life before.
I started to come every year to Italy, for at least three to four months at a time. I lived with them and worked in ceramic and glass studios nearby, or I painted in Ansgar’s studio in the valley of Santuario. On my first visit I was introduced to Toni’s brother, Alfredo Meconi, who had a printing studio for etchings. I went regularly to his studio and began working with graphics again. Alfredo was energetic, and always up for new experiences. He introduced me to several artists like Aldo Rossi, Sabatelli, Luzatti and many others he worked with. I felt sad to leave Italy.
I met Jan Poulsen, a music journalist. He introduced me to one of his visitors, his friend Russ Tolman, an American musician. A short time after, Russ and I got to be more than just friends. We had a lot in common besides our interests in art and music. I found out later on that we both came from dysfunctional families and suffered from bulimia. He was the first man I had met who dared to cry of fear and he shared that with me. It was quite unusual for me to meet a such a vulnerable man, who did not need to appear strong. He even admitted that he had occasionally seen a psychologist. Talking about these kinds of issues was still a taboo even there in Denmark. In the beginning I felt uneasy, and it took me a few years to understand the gift he gave to me, by sharing the most delicate and fearful memories of his life.
He was also the reason why I finally started to deal with my own bulimia. Before our relationship I did not really know that it was a common disorder and there where many, both women and men around the globe, suffering in shame. Since he lived in Los Angeles, I got the chance to live and travel with him for sometime in the US. I met quiet a few of his musician friends like Bad Religion, Steve Wynn and others. I had turned my ceramic studio back in Denmark into my home.
I had partially given up doing ceramics in Denmark because I produced most of my artwork while travelling; often I worked at better equipped studios in Italy. Being in the US, I got the chance to visit old friends like the glass artist Marvin Lipofsky from San Francisco and others. I visited people I had met in Arizona, Texas and Seattle. It made a deep impression on me to see the differences of everyday life in the different states of the US, and I met so many people who had heard only vaguely about other places around the globe. Even in their home county, they never went further than 30 miles away from their homes.
I visited Native Americans in their camps who sold fireworks for a living.
I visited people who lived in their container homes, and also of course those people living next door to us in Hollywood where we lived at that time. I was astonished by the fact that every bigger city had a Little Italy and a Chinatown. When visiting people, nobody seemed to cook at home, the kitchens were always clean and often they did not own anything other than a microwave. This was not because of a lack of money, but because of a different kind of lifestyle.
The America I found was a complicated mixture between races, backgrounds and lifestyles. I did not find The American, I found many different ones, just as different as people from diverse countries in Europe. Maybe that trip made me realize even more how interested I was in the human core. It raised the question again ”Was there a We at all?”. In order to understand more I decided to travel more. Russ my boyfriend had plenty to do on his own, so we called each other on the phone or sent each other tapes about our lives. I was lucky that I could make just enough money back in Europe to go on with my travels.
I arrived back in Denmark and left my new work with some of the galleries I worked with. I took up the invitation to stay with the Fundacione Valparaiso, in Mojacar, Spain. It is a dry subtropical area and I shared the residence with two other artists, a German painter and the Danish writer, Inge Eriksen. The room was not exactly for painters but I managed to work quiet well anyway.
In the morning I jogged down to the sea and passed the pepper trees with their intense odour and the mantel trees with their fresh, bitter and poisonous fruits. I recall that the evenings at the village bar which started with someone playing guitar in a nearly empty room, often ended with people screaming and singing and dancing the Flamenco. Back then it was just a small sleepy village.
Many of the gypsies often came here. They lived close by in some of the caves, cut into the walls of old earth. I was taken by their fast rhythms, and it felt natural for me to dance freely rather than to any particular steps. At the Fundacion Valparaiso where I stayed, I had a weird time, because it turned out that the couple looking after the place were quite dysfunctional. They tried to include the guests in their verbal fights. This was confirmed later on in the guestbook by other visiting artists. Aside this problem, I enjoyed the dry landscape and the fantastic weather. I came with my own van, as I usually do when travelling in Europe, as this enables me to move around as I wish and to bring a lot of things with me. I can even sleep in the van if need be. By the end of my stay, Russ came over and we travelled a bit in Spain, where he also played concerts. We also went to Morocco before finally going back to Denmark.
Before going away I had organized several travelling exhibitions with galleries and art clubs. I was also offered a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Maribo, Denmark. At the Tistrup Artshow I had previously met the writer Per Højholt, and after some correspondence and discussions, we decided to create an edition together. I chose four of his poems, and created four prints. The challenge was that the prints should not be illustrations of his work, but could be arranged in any combination. We were both pleased with the results.
Travelling requires meeting many people and dealing with them in everyday life. I could not resist comparing the places and people I had met. My interest in cultural differences and their core was growing, and my desire was to visit indigenous people in their homeland. Charlotte, who was half Greenlander, had often mentioned that she believed that I should visit Greenland. We had talked about Shamanism, superstition and the difference between nationalities. We wondered about the strong connection between us and the familiarity of our ways of thinking. Because of that, she suggested that I should go to Greenland.
Lars Rasmussen, the grandson of Knud Rasmussen a well known expedition leader in Greenland, had already mentioned in 1985 that a lot of the light settings in my work had reminded him of Greenland. In his summer house we had spread my pictures all over the floor and, laughing, agreed that our next meeting would be in Greenland. I had to go there and find out what they were talking about.
Actually, I was more attracted to warm places. The idea of walking in layers of clothes, fighting my way through a snowstorm, as I recalled from the Jack London stories I had read as a child, did not appeal. Although I forgot about the ice, the cold and what I should do with all that snow, I couldn’t escape the thought of going to Greenland.
I had just returned home from Andalusia in Spain with so many experiences. The burnt sienna; the smell of fresh pepper; the water shortage; meeting gypsies who were playing their guitars and dancing in the bars at night; farmers; the fishermen with their proud uplifted faces underneath their worn hats and their dreams of the future; the military police with their machine guns; the old woman with her heavy white plastic bags who thanked me for giving her a lift with peeled cactus fruit. I was attracted to this weird mixture of pride, openness, happiness and grief, passion and temperament: the flamenco of life. Back home, I started to miss this passionate temperament.
Buried underneath letters, bills and junk mail was a thick envelope with a ticket to Greenland. That convinced me and I was finally on my way to the ice, to the cold and eternity. I had received a free air ticket to travel the following year to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. The first month when I was there, I didn’t know anyone. I spent hours looking out of the window, watching the weather, the light and the colours change from the same spot. I went for walks, just to see the snow and ice turn gold and break down into millions of diamonds. The snow was so pure and white that you couldn’t even see the traces of your footsteps. It was like grass bouncing back after stepping on it. Everyday, I walked seven kilometres down to the harbour to talk to the people and to look around. Very often, the fishermen would invite me onto their boats for coffee and conversations. It was really easy to talk to them. They would always smile and say hello. They had learnt that when they smiled, one would open up to them. They wondered why Europeans all looked so sad, so they tried to make them feel happier.
Most visitors to Greenland change the native Inuits’ relationship with nature and time. Just like vampires, they soak up the best elements of the Inuit culture and the traditions
without giving anything in return.
I wanted to go back to learn more about the country, the people and their culture. Living in Greenland made me wonder why I was always in a hurry in Europe. How could five minutes be so important? One time I went walking up a hill and I sat down to take in my surroundings. After a while, I heard a pulsating noise and suddenly discovered I was crying. I realised it was the sound of my heart beating but it seemed as if it came from outside my body. I felt very small. Nature placed things in perspective for me. It can be good not to have control over time.
During this time I started to think about what I actually did back home in Europe. People either love or hate Greenland. It is difficult to lie even to oneself, as the extreme living conditions give so much time to examine oneself. When I travelled around Greenland with my exhibition, very funny things happened. People would approach my big bronze statues which were placed in the main square, and carefully point their fingers at them from a safe distance. A lot of these people had never seen bronze before. Later, whenever there was a little sunshine, the children would lie down on them. They may not have known anything about art, but they would tell you whether they liked it or not.
My stay in Greenland had left life marks in my soul and sometimes I really missed its sense of space and time. I went back to Greenland several times. Never before had I been as impressed by a place as I had by Greenland.
I returned to Denmark and started once again on an intensive period of work. I also ended my relationship with Russ. I could not see us living together until the end of our days. By that time I dreamt about being a pilot and started having flying lessons. During this time I met Ib, an engineer with wooden clocks, who dressed like a truck driver. He slowly won my heart. At that time he worked and studied. We shared some wonderful years together and I wish it could have lasted forever. He is a kind and loving man and I appreciate him, even today, for being so much a part of my life. It was simply not the right time to meet him and I was not ready for it and so we broke up.
Unfortunately I still struggled with my personal past, but through several years of regular supervision by a psychologist, I overcame bulimia and developed healthier ways to handle myself and my past. I began to heal.
I concentrated on myself, my work with graphics and several commissioned works. I had many solo shows in different countries and I participated in several art fairs abroad. I finished several decorations for large international companies. These commissions gave me a lot of experience with large installations that demanded individuality, quality and professional skills. I became very experienced at developing, planning and finishing large projects that demanded high standards on time. I travelled again to northern Spain, the USA, Canada, Mexico and Brazil to gain further inspiration for new work and to prepare for exhibitions.
In Greenland I became involved in developing plans for their handcrafts and education projects. On this occasion I visited Greenland with another exhibition at a military base. Here I met Ralph, a sergeant in the navy. Our close relationship gave me access to closely observe the military lifestyle, beliefs and behaviour. It also gave me the opportunity to talk and discuss with members of the military at all levels. Just by luck, I did not board a military airplane that crashed that summer.
I went back to Denmark and suffered from extreme back pain. It turned out to be a damaged disc. I was devastated but lucky that it was operated on a few months later. My recovery took almost a year. It was tough for me to accept the need to be constantly nursed by Ralph. He was unbelievably patient and devoted, but we both knew after living together for about a year that we could not fulfil each other’s needs. We broke up but remained friends.
As usual I went back to Savona and Albisola, in Italy. When Ansgar and his family came to pick me up at the airport I arrived in a wheelchair. Ansgar turned completely white and tears rolled down his cheeks. When I got up on my feet his tears turned to a relieved smile. It was a policy of the company that I had to be transported in the wheelchair in order to receive help at the airport. At that time I could already walk again. It was nice to come home to my Italian family and slowly start to work again.
After recovery I went back to Denmark and started remodelling my studio in Kettinge. I also established my own printing place. When not creating, I worked on the selection of pieces for a big solo show in Seattle at the Nordic Heritage Museum. This show also included a photo exhibition about Greenland. The preparation took up all of my time. My friend Carsten and I also prepared the material for my first book, which presented more than 100 pieces of my work. The book titled “Heike Arndt” was released at the opening of my show in Seattle, USA in 1998. I spend three months in Seattle, living with friends and then later with the director of the museum, Marianne Forssblad. She is one of the most energetic women I have ever met and we worked extremely well together and became good friends.
The show was very well received and I was asked to give several lectures about my work and my travels. One of these lectures I gave in the private home of Pete and Mell Schoening and almost their whole family was present. Pete Schoening was a world-class climber, known for the belay. His daughter Kristian had heard one of my lectures and arranged this private event in their home. Her family and particularly Pete Schoening had a great interest in Greenland and wanted to know more about my time there. We became great friends but unfortunately we never managed to arrange the trip to Greenland that he had dreamt about before he died of cancer. At that time I did not know much about climbing. I had only known one climber in Torino, I had only watched him climbing in-door and I could not relate to it.
At my show in Seattle, I met Chris, a young American student, who became a good friend. He decided to come back to Europe with me and we continued onto Italy together. It turned out that he was not only gorgeous and could seduce Italian women but he was also interested in climbing. Sitting at Alfredo`s home, having dinner in the garden, the conversation turned to climbing. A short time later I could see myself, in climbing gear, trying to get up the only palm tree in the garden. It turned out that Alfredo had been climbing quite a lot and still had his gear. The next day we went off to the mountains, which despite my ignorance of them, were almost in our back garden. I suffer from vertigo (fear of heights) and it was one of those few grey springtime days and we were standing in front of Monte Cucco. He started to climb and I followed. It was my first climb, looking 50 metres down and I grabbed onto the holds in the stone not wanting to let go. Half way up I became paralysed. It also started to rain and the limestone became slippery. I thought I was going to die. At that time I did not really believe the rope would keep me safe.
That was the beginning of my gaining control over my fear of heights and getting pleasure from climbing. Later on, I discovered that this area was one of the most important places for climbing in Europe. At least three times a week I tried to find someone to climb with. I started with friends like Romano, a sixty year old climber who patiently taught me most of my skills, and later with others whom I met through climbing. Finally, I had left dancing and found a sport I really enjoyed. Climbing attracted a completely different group of people from those I had known before.
I had given up flying because it was too complicated and expensive. My new physical activities combined with creating artwork was a perfect combination for me. I would run every morning to Albisola to work with graphics at Alfredo’s, or with ceramic at Mazzottis’s, or I would run seven kilometres to Ansgar’s studio in the valley. After a full day of work, and when the weather was good, we would go climbing. I loved to climb in order to learn to control my fear but also to improve my balance and mobility. The combination of physical, mental strength and a gained trust in me helped clear my head, allowing me to focus singularly on my movements. After such a day I was full of energy and ready to create. My fear of heights never left me completely.
When I returned to Denmark I searched for a place to climb and found the climbing club in Copenhagen. I started searching for a climbing partner, which was not easy. I attended courses and later took a trip to Bornholm where I met Lars, an engineer and a devoted climber. We started climbing together and later on became a couple. He lived in Copenhagen, and I had looked for a small apartment, but instead I found a small place to set up my own gallery. I had to renovate the space completely and I also established a printing area in the showroom. I had to admit that Lolland and the countryside did not exactly fulfil my needs for meeting other clients and people in general. The gallery gave me the opportunity to switch between the countryside and the city. Lars was interested in sports and introduced me to Telemark skiing which I enjoyed just as much as climbing. He often travelled with his work, and I would visit him and stay for some time to gain inspiration and work. We visited the US, Brazil and most of Europe together. I faced the huge pressure of rebuilding both studios, in Copenhagen and Kettinge, and at the same time working on different projects in ceramic, graphic and other media.
Our last trip together was to Ethiopia. This trip was meant to be the beginning of a new era with new working partners which was called the help organisation Folkekirkens Nødhjælp. I had planned to work with their social development including art and handcraft, but I had to admit that I could not make this project work without draining myself completely of energy for a long time. After spending six weeks travelling, observing and talking with a lot of people all over the country, I could see that contributing as an artist would need my devotion to this project for several years. I did know that living and working in a place like that, where basic living conditions were not met, would be extremely difficult and time consuming. I worked for a long time on my report detailing my perspective about child abuse and how local achievements could be enforced. However I had other projects concerning my own work that I also wished to pursue.
My trip to Ethiopia gave me a great insight into the complexity of social structures. It also convinced me through comparison with the places I had visited that humans have the same basic needs and this is where we can meet. On my return to Denmark I received the message that Ansgar was suffering badly from cancer and that my last chance to see him alive would be in Paris, where friends had organized his last exhibition. I participated in a wonderful opening of his show and spent a lot of time with him during the following days.
A week later, Toni called and said that I had to come back to Savona because he was dying. Because of bad weather all flights were unfortunately cancelled and I never made the funeral. Shortly after I arrived, Alfredo and I said our goodbyes. As Ansgar’s smoke went into the sky, I found myself sad but smiling as I had received only the most from him and have never lost him. He is still with me wherever I go.
Back in Denmark, Lars and I split up. Afterwards it took me a couple of years to recover from the lost hope of finally finding a balance between my personal life and my work life. In all these crises a few friends like Jane, Inka and Tietsche, Thomas and Lise, Gorm and Lise and my Italian family had been the stable support that I could always count on. I had made the choice to have no connection with my family except for the rare contact with my grandparents, my aunt Ruth and her husband Ronald.
My studios in Denmark were now all renovated and ready for working. I worked on different exhibitions all over Europe. In the spring I went back to Italy, and I stayed with Toni who was suffering immensely from the loss of Ansgar. We both tried to cope with his death in different ways but it was obvious that he had left a big empty space behind him. When emptying out Ansgar’s studio, I wondered whether maybe my time in Italy was over. I chose to continue working with the latest ceramic plates that I had started the year before. During this process, I regained the desire to stay in Italy, not only as my second home, but also as a working place. On one of my climbing tours to Finale Borgo, an old ancient town close to Savonna, I found an empty space inside the beautiful fortress town. In just one day I decided to re-establish myself there with a studio. I was still sad but also full of hope for my new studio. Back in Denmark I opened my annual, one day exhibition at my gallery in Kettinge. Approximately five hundred people came that day to see the show. This was also the weekend that most of my friends from all over the world visited me. Before this weekend I had seen a doctor due to having pain in my chest.
A week later the test results arrived, I had cancer in a developed stage and I could not have children. In order not to take any risk I had to be operated on right away. I had just signed the contract for my new studio in Italy in order to start a new period of my life there so I was devastated by the news of my cancer. I thought I would have to give up the idea of moving to Italy completely but I went there anyway and initiated the preparation of my studio.
I flew directly from Italy to have my operation in Copenhagen. The operation gave my life more focus. I was so grateful to have good friends and especially my ex-boyfriends and their wives, who supported me through this time. I knew that we had always kept our love and devotion for each other but actually witnessing it, face to face, gave me a lot of energy. When I recovered from the operation a few months later, I went back to finish re-designing my studio in Italy. My friends from Milan and elsewhere came over and helped me to get the studio in order. Now, that I had passed the age of forty, I had given up on the idea of marriage.
Kika, an Italian friend of mine, wanted to introduce me to a friend of hers, an Argentinean polo trainer. I refused, but accidentally we met after some months and became friends at first and then lovers. We got married and are now husband and wife. Our marriage has never been easy as it was almost impossible for Alejandro to move to Denmark. Our relationship survived two years of waiting until he could start his life in Denmark. While waiting for his work permit we visited his
family and homeland, Argentina. The beautiful countryside was still very much marked by crimes of the past. We were offered an isolated hacienda to stay in on the Valdes Peninsula. Here I experienced the same wild beauty of nature that I had seen in Greenland. We travelled seven thousand kilometres through the country and walked across desert landscapes following the paths of the long gone Incas.
Returning to the city, I had several meetings for future exhibitions in Buenos Aires but also in Bahia Bianca, close to Alejandro’s hometown. It took us 3 years for him to settle in Denmark and for us to overcome the depression caused by the insecurity of not having permission to stay. He also had to overcome the fear that as a South American in Europe you are almost automatically used (and abused) as cheap labour. Remembering those times in East Germany, I sometimes find myself once again within a similar society, more led by fear and mistrust rather than by acknowledging that we are all humans with a common base we have to search for. Europe and the Western world have built The Wall around us and almost nobody can surpass it.
With my husband I find myself in a trustful, challenging relationship that I expect to be lifelong. We share the past experiences of a lost country, as we knew it, but also our optimistic view of life besides our love for each other and for nature. We are both used to survive in difficult circumstances. All that makes me believe that our relationship will last.
Before meeting him I had plans to go to China but I put them off until 2005. Since 2005 I have spent most of my time going back and forth between China and Denmark doing research. In Beijing I started up a temporary studio, which was a task in itself due to my lack of language and existing contacts. Now I have lived there for more than one year, in between the hutongs and the growing city, in an artist compound, observing my surroundings. I think China is the most difficult place that I have ever been to because of its state of transition. The combination of inherited tradition combined with traces of the Cultural Revolution and growing capitalism seem to have produced psychopathic tracks. In Beijing I have prepared the exhibition that I have always wanted to create – mirroring humans in different circumstances in life and hopefully reminding the viewer of one’s own life and emotions involved.
Since I left East Germany I have met people all over the world in their homelands and under their conditions. Meeting people in their own surroundings gives me a greater understanding of mine and their behaviour, as well as what we have in common and how we may reach one another. I’m happy to have all of my past with me when travelling, even memories of my childhood passed onto me through fellow shame. It gives me the foundation to relate to others. However, I still feel the painful lack of a common language. I am still surprised how difficult it is to realise the power of individual choices and use it.
Living in between all these different worlds is a perfect place for me, as it is natural for me to describe and investigate the common base of human individuals through my work. There are new battles lining up to be memorised.
Today, through the Internet, I found an empty space in Berlin, a few hundred metres from Zionskirchstraße, there where it all began.