Jools Heyes talks to painter, Karolina Larusdottir on LIFE, ART AND THE COMFORT OF ANGELS

First published in The Cambridge Insider, Dec 1997/Jan 1998

I make no apologies, I am an admirer of Karolina Larusdottir’s works, and I am looking forward to meeting her. But on the day I‘ve arranged to interview this respected painter and printmaker, something is amiss.

When she invites me into the sitting room of her comfortable Cambridge town house she is clearly worried. “The strangest thing has happened,” she says. Her daughter Samantha, 27, has gone missing. She has not turned up for a pre-arranged meeting two-and-a-half hours ago, and this is totally out of character. “Where can she be? What on earth could have happened?” Apologising for her agitation, she decides to continue with the interview as far as she can, and goes to put the kettle on.

Karolina paints solid women in colourful dresses and dark-suited men, acting out frozen dramas with an unearthly calm. Neighbours commune, with closed faces. Groups of women gather disinterestedly in fields and try on shoes. Men move rainbows around, as if they are hypnotised, or carrying coffins. Large people bend over little figures who take tea in privet hedges. And angels appear in the most ordinary places. Karolina is sipping her coffee. Where does she get these ideas from?

“Oh, they just come,” she says as she offers me cake.  She is preoccupied with the whereabouts of her missing daughter, Samantha, but is also concerned for me, and the interview: “Did you have to travel far?” We are sitting on white sofas, in the fading light of a winter afternoon. The room is warm and comfortable, and somehow magical. And as her silvering hair glows against the floating backdrop of muslin curtains, I feel as if I am in the presence of a benign fairy godmother; willing – even wanting – to be quizzed, but not giving any secrets away. We discuss the pleasures and frustrations of the calling of the mother-artist, which we share. She apologises and breaks to phone the police.

Although her true subject is people, Karolina is also a master of the bleak yet beautiful landscape. This is not borne out of nostalgia for Iceland, where she grew up. “People often think I paint landscapes the way I do because I long to return. This is not true. When I was there, there was only Reykjavik. The population was so small. Everyone knew each other’s business. There were endless coffee parties. For a child it was safe, but also oppressive, quite claustrophobic.” Strands of a fascinating past begin to emerge. Her grandfather was a circus strong man, who used his fortune to open the first grand hotel in Reykjavik. Memories of life in this hotel form the basis of some of the most haunting images, in which stolid, uniformed domestics impassively act out their surreal existence.

Angels play a large part in this scheme of things. “I love the idea of angels. Someone who sits with you in the kitchen, someone who is around – and an ‘angel’ – whether you realise it or not. Someone to share your thoughts, something good in your life.” The artist’s angels exude an earthy charm. They may have wings and look dependable but they also like chocolate and are, one suspects, quite capable of a brand of mischief all their own. It is the humans, by contrast, who appear other-worldly; lost in private reveries.

Karolina married her first husband after studying at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford (following close on the heels of the painter RB Kitaj). She soon had two children and found that her domestic situation took all of her energies. So she put away her paints and etching acids until the youngest child was at school. “I worried that I had forgotten all my training… At first I didn’t even dare to  paint, I felt so out of it. I began to draw. Then I enrolled in an evening etching class, and this was my re-entry into the world. When my confidence returned I just went for it! Although, when I started painting again I thought, ‘no-one paints like this’, and for a while that held me back.”

But not for long. Now an honoured exhibitor at the Royal Academy and member of numerous prestigious arts societies, she has within the last decade had sell-out shows. “You know,” she says, “this is the first time my walls have not been covered with my own work.” Only one of her own paintings now enhances the sitting-room wall. I quiz her on the significance of the central priest-like figure, but she but she denies that her works are ‘religious’. “Oh her is just some man in black and white”, she responds quickly. “I love black and white. It’s so strong.” I am not sure whether to believe this, but the picture looks so good, I just let it go.

She invites me up to her tiny attic studio and apologises. “Please forgive the mess, I love it here but it is really too small.” She explains that since her recent move from nearby Fowlmere to the city she has sacrificed her etching presses and a spacious studio and gone into “a sort of hibernation”. She moved to be closer to the heart of things. “Life in a village was OK, but not really for me. Now I can just hop on a train and get to London”. Always an outsider, for the last ten years Karolina has known increasing success. She clearly values the new sense of belonging she has found. “The Royal Watercolour Society has been a particular support”.

We discuss the composition of her work – strong, yet often simple. The idea always comes first, then the composition. Vibrant colours are a hallmark, somehow making up for the lack of expression in figures and faces. I suggest this is where the emotion lies and she agrees, “the colours just have to feel right”.  I ask to see her most recent work. She digs nervously among the unfinished canvases.  “It always helps to see them in the frame”.  Would I like to look out of the window? There is a lovely view across the green… It’s been a difficult year.

We make our way downstairs. Karolina’s second husband, Fred, a retired psychologist, is milling around. She asks him what she should do about Samantha. He is caring but unconcerned. “She’ll just have gone shopping”, he muses. Karolina goes to make another call.

I am handed a catalogue of the collections of paintings entitled Dream About Gullfoss (1996). These works depict the single boat, “a world within a world”, which in Karolina’s youth, sailed back and forth between Iceland and the mainland. At first I did not warm to these images; their ordinariness and their lack of comfort, perhaps. But on reflection I believe they hold a key to all the works. To while away the time on board ship passengers engage in simple activities such as dining, dancing or playing cards. Everything appears solid and controlled, but behind the figures we are occasionally given a glimpse of the tilt of the sea; metaphor of instability. The outward appearance of inner calm seems to mask a resignation to absurdity, even terror. At any moment things could slip and go under. But what does the artist think? She turns it on its head: “I think a lot,” she says. “Sometimes, when you are struggling with an idea, just to pick up the Hoover is such an escape.” Karolina is now on the phone to the hospital to check if her daughter has been involved in a road accident, so I review my notes. I consider the need for comfort in the present situation, even if it is one of imagined calamity. I read my list of comforting elements in the works: rainbows, allusions to music and harmony, the bluest of blue skies or seas, the life-soaked reds and greens, the dependable women… and angels.

On her return I ask her how she has coped with criticism of her work. “Very badly, but I’m getting better. It’s risky being a figurative painter, you’re treading a delicate line between illustration and fine art. If I was in any doubt about my work it would be really bad. But art is a path you have to follow. OK, so not everybody likes what I do, and that’s their privilege, but I know what I do is right for me. And in the end you have to be true to what is inside you.”

Karolina’s anxiety has reached a peak. She admits that the only storm which can really get to her is fear for her children. I know how she feels. It is time for me to leave. She bids me a polite goodbye, and goes out to her car to drive around and search for her daughter.

Samantha turned up soon afterwards, safe and well. Having mistaken the arrangements, she had tired of waiting for her mother and gone shopping – no doubt with one of Karolina’s more errant angels in tow.