At age 18, Icelander Gudbjorg Kristin Ingvarsdottir arrived on Bainbridge as an exchange student, seeking an opportunity to see the world. Little did she know she would find her life’s work.
As a Bainbridge High School senior in 1987, Gudbjorg began her year in standard courses such as math and U.S. history. When her host mother, Wendy O’Connor, suggested she experiment with art classes the next term, Gudbjorg immersed herself in the wide range of offerings.
“I grew up in a really small town in the west of Iceland,” Gudbjorg said, “and I had never taken any art classes. I thought it was something really interesting to try out.”
While she loved all her coursework, she had a natural affinity for jewelry making.
“It was the first year I was teaching that jewelry class,” said BHS teacher Sissell Feroy. “It sort of lucked out that way. She was just an outstanding, wonderful foreign exchange student. She was such a delightful kid to have in class.”
Gudbjorg had a natural attraction to the metals and design, and couldn’t stop thinking about the class when she returned to Iceland.
“I found a new side of myself,” she said. “I found something there. I thought it was just great. I had a great teacher. I was able to do something that wasn’t typical schoolwork.”
With her newfound creativity fueling her passion for jewelry making, Gudbjorg committed herself to her craft.
“I thought, this is what I want to do,” she said. “This is my future work. I was able to come into contract with a goldsmith in Iceland, and for four years I studied as a goldsmith both in Iceland and in Denmark. In the end, my husband I moved to Denmark and I took jewelry design.”
When Gudbjorg and her husband, Karl Johann Johannsson, returned to Iceland, she founded the design firm Aurum, and opened a shop in Reykjavik.
Eleven years later, Gudbjorg’s business is thriving. Aurum, which is located on a main street in Reykjavik, expanded to include a gift shop in the spring. Gudbjorg’s collections, which are composed of affordable, everyday pieces, draw inspiration from reindeer, spider webs and everything in between.
Even though her style has evolved throughout her career, she draws the lion’s share of her ideas from Iceland’s natural beauty.
“When I was in school I worked with all kinds of materials like iron and glass, and I was really inspired from my hometown,” she said. “I came from a small hometown with these high mountains falling onto you. It was a lot of blacks and silver colors in my work, and more heavy.”
When she became pregnant with her first daughter, Asgerdur Dilja, her style shifted.
“After school, when I finished jewelry designing in Denmark, I got more feminine,” Gudbjorg said. “I changed a lot. I made some more lighter and more feminine works. Then she came.”
Gudbjorg favors silver, which is soft and easy to work with, she said.
“I start to see something that I am interested in and usually I go straight to silver,” she said. “I like silver because it’s soft. You can try a lot with silver – it’s not like gold. When I have the idea I usually start with metal and try the form out for some time. The process can take from one month up to six months. Sometimes I put it away; I pick it up later.”
Gudbjorg’s collections are now lighter, and often incorporate different metals, gems, pearls and black lava from her native country.
Gudbjorg is currently working on pieces inspired by “hair traditions,” such as braids, but gathering ideas from her surroundings often blurs the line between work and play.
“Like my husband says, when I’m in the design process, it’s hard to get through,” she said. “I’m just there for some weeks. That’s why I choose to travel, to get away.”
Gudbjorg travels extensively for her work, and has returned to Bainbridge twice since she was an exchange student: in 1995 and this August.
“Lots of my inspiration comes from Iceland, but I also like to get ideas when I’m abroad,” she said. “So hopefully after this trip there will come something from Bainbridge. I think it’s really good to get away, then you get more peace, more ideas.”
While in Iceland, Gudbjorg, her husband and daughters Asgerdur, 12, and Karlotta Kara, 7, escape to their remote summer home, which lacks electricity.
“It can be difficult in our world because we have so many overloaded things,” she said. “It’s also a challenge to do things that are timeless, that work out for years – I think it’s really important. Not just without thinking. My first collection is selling really well today after 11 years; I think that’s really important – not throwing away things.”
Her collections, which are all given the names of Icelandic women, have garnered her numerous awards such the DV Cultural Award of Reykjavik in 2001 and the Icelandic Visual Arts Award for Design in 2008.
“You have to find your own way,” she said. “I think it’s important that you step out. When I came home in ‘99 nobody had seen this work I was doing. It took some time for them to see and start to know what I was doing. Today I’m doing really well because people like it.”