Close to home, Hilde Svalheim

Her house is built just below the master’s old pigsty, and surrounding her, in very similar houses drawn up by the architect couple Selmer on Munch's former estate, are fellow colleagues such as Camilla Martens (Goksøyr&Martens), Sebastian Helling, Sabina Jacobson, Morten Andenæs, Håkon Gullvåg and many more.

Recently, Hilde moved studio, from her former warehouse in Grünerløkka, and into the old atelier of the wooden house she shares with her husband and fellow painter Halvard Haugerud. Now, this atelier, with its five meter tall ceilings and large north-facing windows, which for years doubled as a musical room for her daughter Hedvig who is currently studying opera in Copenhagen, can now be used as it was intended again. Speaking of the move, Hilde says that she has come back home in more than one sense. The painter, has for now, put her brushes aside for a while.

Ever since I was a child, I haven’t really drawn much. Which is strange, considering I used to draw all the time. By this, I mean with crayons or oil pastels..I have of course been sketching and drawing with pencils all this time. But really drawing, in a child’s way of seeing, is with colours, crayons, that little bit louder.. I’ve always had this funny idea, that a painter is always at risk of seeming pretentious, whereas drawing doesn’t come with that kind of baggage.  While drawing I get completely caught up in the moment, by the fold in an item of clothing for example, and I don’t even stop to think at all.

It is this intuition she speaks of as a kind of homecoming. Drawing is a primitive action, and has always been a natural activity for humans to do to recreate a narrative.
Hilde is, to put it mildly, occupied with family, that nexus which defines us, whether we have a family or not, and yet it’s not just her own family of course.

I draw and paint images of people. My main concern are the images themselves- at times it’s as if the images decide which direction to take in the process, and I merely facilitate. The found photographs I use as a starting point rarely represent the finished image.

 Making use of family photographs sourced from her own or others’ family albums, from newspapers, magazines and the like, she extracts images that do not necessarily mark special occasions like a Christmas party or a baby taking its first steps, but often groups of people on the move, family portraits of anonymous families from some bygone era or refugees captured while waiting around in a camp. With a kind of familiar unfamiliarity, their poses and their gaze, creates a kind of common ground for us all, whether we can see ourselves in the frame or not. With care, Hilde keeps a respectful distance, re-presenting these twice removed scenes with careful caresses. Asked of the political aspect of working with imagery of refugees for example, Hilde is careful to note that there is nothing explicitly political in her work, rather it’s more about creating a bridge, a way of understanding, of taking family as a starting point that most of us can relate to, because we are all from there, from a family, be it lost or found.

It’s not so much about the plight of refugees, asylum seekers or a European crisis either, as it is about ‘how’ we carry our children, about what connects us, or fails to. It is about this sense of ‘we’ that the family itself has a potential to provide us with.

-Thinking about my childhood, I never think of me as an ‘I’, but rather a ‘we.

Hilde grew up with a psychoanalyst father, while her mother was a psychiatric nurse. Having a running commentary at home, about what could really be going on inside other people’s minds, made her particularly aware. Aware of what makes us who we are, how we might get broken, and what we have in common- with those on the inside of the ‘crazy-house’ as well as those on the outside. This too, she thought of as a kind of ‘we’.

-I was just reading En Dåre Fri, by Beate Grimsrud, and she manages to translate the inner life of a woman so well. I have often found it difficult to use language as a way of describing, or understanding my emotions and how I feel. So even though this woman is living with a schizophrenia diagnosis, which may seem very distant to many of us, the author manages to describe her inner life so well that it almost becomes alive..

Thinking about this, I wonder if Hilde’s ability to draw certain movements, a glance, the way a dress drapes as someone turns away, or the ambivalence in a facial expression, is borne out a real sense of urgency, of using the ‘language’ she has at her disposal in order to express that which another person might evoke through words?

-It’s fairly absurd when you think about it, I have spent most of my time the last 30 years, standing on my own in a big room, painting pictures.

Time passing by, brushstroke by brushstroke.  One inevitably has to ask, why. Why paint, why make pictures?

I guess a part of me paints in order to fix something that is broken. There is a kind of redemption in the process of painting or drawing. Still, I have to tell myself to let go sometimes, to not censor myself as I’m so prone to doing. I find this easier when using crayons. It has given me the freedom to make more mistakes, to be more playful, riskier. There is an immediacy to it. I can in a sense be as goofy as I was when I was a kid, and sometimes quiet the critical voice on my shoulder.

 Just a few weeks back, before we were to visit Hilde and her husband on their farm (Halvards childhood home now used as a retreat/studio space and home to their two arab horses!), I was fortunate to see some of the work Hilde has spoken about, in crayon, in its infancy, drawings that left me breathless. I hope that as the series evolves, and additions fill in the blank spaces of the pale grey walls, the bigger picture will emerge and be shown publicly, engendering an even stronger sense of the ‘we’ that Hilde so respectfully evokes, letting others take part in it. Svalheim is a generous artist, by facing her fears in her paintings and drawings. This is of great importance.

WORDS: Elisabeth Aarhus
PHOTOS: The Chromarty,Halvard Haugerud