Taking simply photographs of Icelandic whizz kid Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir and writing down a conversation somehow feels wrong. It‘s almost like you would try to explain a spectacular landscape by giving geographic coordinates. This talented illustrator and musician is a phenomenon and probably the funniest person in Reykjavík. She laughs, giggles and creates a really friendly and relaxed atmosphere whenever she enters a room that is hard to capture by any means. But let’s give it a try.
Located next to the harbour, Lóas little studio reflects her style as an artist perfectly. From the little sketches („Happy widows dancing on graves“) to the box full of prop-teeth, everything seems to say: don‘t take yourself too seriously.
Starting out as a Fine Art student in Reykjavík, Lóa always had a secret love for humorous illustrations, and pursued this passion behind closed doors before she moved to New York to study the craft of drawing at the Parsons New School of Design. Her second career as singer of the band FM Belfast started by accident and had to do with a well-located pub next to her boyfriends apartment. Coming home tipsy late at night, she was asked to join some improvised sessions that resulted in a performance at the infamous Iceland Airwaves Festival in 2006.
Are you originally from Reykjavík?
Yes. My mom comes from the West of Iceland and my dad is originally from Reykjavík. He does guided tours around Reykjavík and he knows a lot of the cities history.
Did you study illustration?
Yes, I went to Parsons in New York to do a BA in illustration. After the economic crisis in 2008 I had to come back to Iceland, but that was okay because the only reason we could go to New York in the first place was the inflation.
Yes, me and my boyfriend Árni who is also part of the band FM Belfast. But it sounds fancier than it actually was. We rented a simple apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn and stayed there for a while.
What were your first impressions in New York coming from Iceland?
My first impression was extreme humidity and it smelled completely different from my hometown. You can walk a few meters and the smell can go from heavenly to the most disgusting thing your nose has ever experienced. I really like how you can find food from everywhere around the world in the same city. But I don’t like that you would have to be rich to live there.
What are your favorite places in Reykjavík?
The swimming pools! There is a community pool in almost every neighborhood. Each of them is great in its own way. My favorite coffee house is Kaffismiðjan on Kárastígur. It’s in the middle of my neighborhood and the woman who owns it is a world champion barista. I also like the backyard of the house we live in; especially when the sun shines and someone comes to visit us.
When did you realize you want to pursue illustration professionally?
In the beginning, illustration was my ‘dark secret’. I went to art school here in Reykjavík studying Fine Arts but I felt out of place. Most people were working very conceptual; but not me. Today the art programs are more open towards illustration, but when I studied I felt misplaced in a Fine Art context. Most of my professors were influenced by the Dutch school of thought and had this straight edge conceptual approach. My cartoony style seemed very odd to them. At Parsons, the pressure was very high. They were constantly telling us „after school, you all will compete for jobs“. They made everyone become competitive and I thought that killed the fun factor and your ideas dry out if you are in that sort of environment.
Do you have a certain topic that stayed with you over time when you illustrate?
Yes, and it is very simple: girls! I’ve portrayed girls since I was very little. I started out with these very crowded pictures with tiny people in it. A little bit like „Where‘s Wally“…
How does it work for you as an illustrator, do you have a gallerist or an agency that promotes your work?
It depends. For the current group exhibition Phobophobia we had a gallerist. However, I’ve never approached anyone myself. Here in Iceland you don‘t really need one anyways. The community is so tiny that in my experience, you just have to be productive and participate a little bit in local events and people will know about your work. When somebody needs an illustrator, it‘s very likely you get a call the next day. If you want to work internationally, you probably need to be a little bit more proactive I guess. I actually started to illustrate professionally, because a girl who was working at the front desk of a publishing company, knew that I was illustrating and I got my first projects through her. It happened very naturally.
You also have a sewing club. What is that about?
One of my best friends and I created this sewing club to have a reason to meet up regularly and drink wine. She is a really good person to work with. Criticism is forbidden and everything we sew has red wine stains on it at the end of the night.
What does a regular day look like for you?
My days are very different. I’m usually not a morning person and I don’t like repetition so the days tend to vary. I’m illustrating for a magazine once a month and I have a few projects here and there. I try to go to my studio every weekday and work on something. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, because as you can see the house is very old and the metal air conditioning system is broken. So some days the house is literally shaking. That’s not very good for illustrating (unless you want to do shaky drawings).
When did you start doing music?
Around 2005. It was just a silly project.
Like the sewing club?
Yes, and it involved an equal amount of drinking. My favorite bar called Sirkus was really close to Árni’s place where he would make music. When I came back from a night out with my friends, I would stop by and he got me into music that way. I had some basic piano lessons when I was a kid, but never pursued it further. In 2005, Árni had this Christmas project with a local radio station, where he recorded one song everyday with different people and sometimes they didn‘t show up. So I ended up doing music with him pretending to be different characters. In general, I don‘t really plan ahead – things just happen and now I combine my passions and do the merchandise for our band with my drawings.
Do you remember your first gig with FM Belfast?
Yes! It was in the Faroe Islands in a small cave by the sea. It sounds very romantic but I just remember being stressed out and telling Árni (or rather shouting): “I’m never doing this again!” But I also have a very fond memory of it, since it was a very memorable show. My friend has actually animated my experience.
Nice. Me and my best friends always record a mixtape at the end of each year, like a musical diary, and I had Underwear by FM Belfast on one of them. This is how I got to know you.
Cool! A lot of exchange students from the Art Academy and the university here in Reykjavík have our songs as ‘theme songs’ for their stay here. Maybe that‘s why we are fairly popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
I read that the band is always changing…
Yes, for example we have three drummers. Every one of us has different side-projects and one of them lives in Denmark. When we tour Denmark, we pick him up like a circus. And we have a dancer in Belgium who sometimes joins in. So when we are touring in the BeNeLux states, he comes with us. There are three ‘core members’ and the others change.
Who writes the songs? Do you have a routine?
We try to come up with one but we are not sure if that would be helpful or it would destroy our spontaneity. Usually Árni creates the basic structure of the songs and we add to it. We record everything separately and merge it together in the end – like a puzzle.
Which of your creative activities is most important to you?
I feel like I know more what I am doing with illustration, because I have been doing it for a long time now. My music has more to do with luck and coincidence, which makes it feel like it’s not a job but more like a game.
Could you imagine living somewhere else?
I’ve lived in Reykjavík, Stockholm, Berlin and New York so I know what it is like to live in those places. But I really like how small Reykjavík is. My family and most of my friends live here so I’m not sure if I could go away forever.
Thank you Lóa for a nice afternoon and this interesting interview!
If you want to dive deeper into Miss Hjálmtýsdóttirs universe, we recommend you have a look at FM Belfasts website.
Photography: Jeaneen Lund
Text & Interview: Sarah Weinknecht