Stephan Stephansson was born in Iceland in 1853 where his formal education lasted one month. His family immigrated to Wisconsin, USA, where in 1878 he married his cousin Helga Jonsdottir. Repeated crop failures, debt and drought brought the couple further west until they settled near a place called Markerville in Alberta, Canada. Here, in a harsh pioneering environment, the Stephanssons farmed and raised seven children.
Stephan’s passion was poetry. He wrote in Icelandic: abrupt, visual, heartfelt. Six books were published during his lifetime with many translations to come. He died in 1927. He’s known as “Iceland’s poet of the Rocky Mountains.”
Stephansson House is now a Heritage Park, preserved close to 1920 standards. Young women in period dress show you around. You can get a pretty good idea of the labour in building and maintaining a farm in a wilderness and how a young Icelander might figure it out. The Stephanssons started with a rough log cabin. Eventually, as the family expanded, they built it into a respectable home. Stephan didn’t have a clue about dairy farming, but he figured it out. With the exception of his cultural legacy of Icelandic sagas, he knew little about poetry, but he figured it out. With his work on the local school board, acting as Justice of the Peace, and sod-busting experimental grain growing, he wrote much of his poetry late at night when all were asleep. Helga often found him slumped over at his desk in time for the milking of cows.
The house on top of the grassy knoll is now wrapped in lilacs and hollyhocks and painted in its original colours–rosy-pink walls with pea-green trim. The wood-fire oven makes lots of quirky gingerbread. Stephan was a pioneer of free thinking and joyous living. He brought life and love to his work, his family, his community. Coming from a homespun philosopher, the volume and straightforward honesty of his poetry are surprising. His art was the way for him to understand the mysteries of life. You have the feeling that he figured it out.
PS: “I, mostly my own doctor
A lawyer and builder smart
A teacher, prince and pastor
A horse, a plow, a cart.” (Stephan G. Stephansson)
Esoterica: Plein air painting gives us the improvisational spirit, something that an artist may not get in a comfortable studio. By planting your feet on the ground, you feel the power of “earth energy” and a new-found honesty. Plein air strokes take on pioneer wisdom. While challenging, even daunting, the new complexity tests your ability to think things out.
This letter was originally published as “Figuring it out” on June 10, 2003.
oil painting 60 x 48 inches
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