Heartist Film Beautifully Tributes Faroese Artist, Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir

In April 2023, Scandinavia House hosted a festival titled “Fog Swept Islands: Faroe Islands Culture Days,” celebrating the art, culture, and landscapes of this North Atlantic archipelago. The Faroe Islands are a group of islands located between Iceland and Norway and are a self-governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, with a burgeoning art and film scene. Part of the festival included a screening of the film Heartist, a feature documentary film about beloved contemporary artist, Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir.

Directed by Marianna Mørkøre and Beinta á Torkilsheyggi and initially released in March 2023, this film follows the daily routine and career milestones of Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir, a painter known for sweeping landscapes and inserting the fantastical into the everyday. Gunnarsdóttir grew up in the village of Eiði, population 700, located on the north-west point of Eysturoy, the second largest of the Faroe Islands. The documentary delves into Gunnarsdóttir’s childhood involving sudden loss of her father and how being raised by her mother influenced her work.

One of the first shots of the film focuses on the overhead view of Gunnarsdóttir’s breakfast: thick yogurt with an assortment of nuts, seeds, and berries. This breakfast serves as a common motif of the film to show the consistency of her life amidst the changes as time passes. Along with these micro shots, the film also zooms out to incorporate shots of a grand scale including a bird’s eye view of waves crashing against the shore. The episodic nature and stark jump cuts felt reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film. Gunnarsdóttir’s aphorisms about life and the way she would speak bluntly about her art sparked laughter from the audience, not unlike a wise character from an Anderson film.

The audience never knows if what they are about to witness will be mundane or a once in a lifetime experience. In one scene, Gunnarsdóttir receives a commission to paint a portrait of the Queen of Denmark. She shares this news with her car repair man. The man’s response translated into English reads, “Her Majesty? How come?” To which Gunnarsdóttir responds, “I don’t know, they just asked me.”

The audience feels invited to see Gunnarsdóttir’s work from the perspective of the canvas. From the perspective of the art. 

Gunnarsdóttir’s humility shines through the piece as the audience watches an artist at work. For an added layer of behind the scenes intel, there is one segment where Gunnarsdóttir paints on what appears to be transparent plexiglass. She paints broad strokes of green, emulating a mountain in the background. The audience feels invited to see Gunnarsdóttir’s work from the perspective of the canvas. From the perspective of the art. 

Gunnarsdóttir’s style relies heavily on symbols, both religious and representing nature. She uses bold colors on grand scale canvases with rich blues, greens, yellows, and reds. Hidden birds make appearances in many of her paintings, but it’s the reverence for the landscape of the Faroe Islands that play a leading role. In the film, Gunnarsdóttir admits that the influence of the Faroe Islands seems subliminal because she is not always aware of its impact on her.

Click image to enlarge.

As I gazed at the monochromatic shots of saturated colors on the screen, I could not help but wonder if they had been edited to enhance the whimsy. The bright orange and pinks of the interiors contrasted with the blues and greens of the Faroe Islands’ landscape. Each snapshot felt like a painting all its own and my eyes feasted on the tableaus with apparent maximalism. Gunnarsdóttir’s house revealed the inner workings of her mind in a cluttered but intentional way.

One thing that I could not help but notice was how Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir was always moving. Whether accompanying her dogs up hills, going on solo walks, biking, swimming (in pools and open water), or painting, it appeared that her level of activity kept her in motion. This made the stillness, when she would sit and look directly into the camera, all the more captivating. With all of the events of her life that she carried, she showed that she could move with them rather than move from them.

Directly following the screening of Heartist, a talk-back occurred which included co-director Beinta á Torkilsheyggi, producer Jón Hammer, and Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir herself. Clad in a yellow and sky blue crocheted dress with bright pink sweatpants underneath, Gunnarsdóttir exuded the fantasy shown in the film. During the talk-back, I felt astonished when the creative team confirmed that the images had not been color corrected like I had previously believed. This added to the fantastical nature of Sigrun’s world. 

Initially, the film was supposed to be a short commissioned by the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands, but it became clear that Gunnarsdóttir’s life story required a feature length. Early in the talk back, co-director Beinta á Torkilsheyggi, revealed herself as Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir’s daughter-in-law. As a director, she felt inspired to tell her mother-in-law’s story in all of its rich details. She wanted to create a film based on the ethos that the artist lives by: to appreciate the small things in life. The intimacy of the film was most likely established based on the trust between Gunnarsdóttir and Torkilsheyggi as relatives. 

Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir  lives up to the name of the film, an artist who creates from her heart. Her diminutive stature could potentially lead to people underestimating her, but she quickly proves them wrong with her wit and artistic talent. The film of her life won “Best International Documentary Award” at the Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival last year and I hope that it continues to receive accolades for this heartwarming and sincere film.

© Taylor Beckman (5/14/2024) – Special for FF2 Media ®


Watch the teaser trailer for Heartist.

Check out Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir’s website to see her art.

Visit Scandinavia House in NYC see more Faroe Island Art.


Featured/middle photo: A moment from Heartist.

Bottom photo: Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir at a talkback at Scandinavia House.

Photos by Edwina Hay (@arenotphotos). Thanks to Lori Fredrickson of the American-Scandinavian Foundation/Scandinavia House for the images.

Tags: Beinta á Torkilsheyggi, Faroe Island, Heartist, Jón Hammer, Marianna Mørkøre, New York City, Scandinavia House, Sigrun Gunnarsdóttir, Taylor Beckman

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Taylor Beckman (she/her/hers) is a sister, daughter, friend, avid baker, and adorer of Regency-era British television shows. After graduating from Muhlenberg College with degrees in both Psychology and Theatre (acting and directing concentrations), she flew to Europe where she performed as a theatre artist, teaching English in Belgium and France. Once she returned to the States, Taylor pursued a career in acting until the pandemic happened and she changed the trajectory of her life. Taylor is now a student at NYU getting her Masters in Drama Therapy where she hopes to combine her love for theater with the inherent therapeutic qualities that stories possess. When she isn't writing theatrical reviews or profile pieces for FF2, Taylor can be found drinking mint tea and reading a Charlotte Brontë novel. Thank you to Jan and the FF2 Media team for the opportunity to critically engage with people and the art form of performance.
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