Norwegian artist Katrin Berge creates imaginary figures and absurd situations to weave an intriguing tale that is deeply symbolic and surreal. She works mostly in black and white color scheme to give her illustrations a dated appeal and it also serves as a haunting design. Her faceless or metamorphosed human figures inspire awe and malevolence and mutated elements of natural world show the fury and ruthlessness of metaphysical forces. Katrin heavily draws inspiration from myths and folklores of Icelandic regions where ancient tales spoke of timeless elements as love, friendship, enmity, honor, and revenge though her art can be interpreted at other levels also as per the viewer’s perception and reaction. Katrin Berge is telling us a lot about herself and her art in the detailed interview below:
I was born and raised in a small place in the countryside on the west coast of Norway, near the old Jugend city Ålesund. I grew up in lush natural surroundings, always curious of the animals and environment around me. I didn’t go to kindergarten, and I always repeat this fact, but I think it might matter a great deal on how I evolved and which interests I developed. Since I spent my seven first years in this world around my family house and had few friends until I started school, I got to spend a great amount of time outside and was connected to nature from a young age. I am very grateful for that today.
Now I live and work as an illustrator and artist in the beautiful city Bergen on the west coast of Norway, about seven hours drive from my childhood home. I’ve lived in Bergen since 2004 when I started my education at Bergen Academy of Art and Design. I completed a master’s degree in illustration in the spring of 2010 and have worked as a freelance illustrator since then.
The things I really like to do the most is to make art, listen to music, read books, go for walks in the mountains and forests and look at birds and insects, and be around animals. Of course I also like to be around people, but in limited amounts. The nice thing with animals is that you have company but you don’t have to talk all the time – haha – I’m trying to be funny, don’t know if it is… I love to have meaningful conversations with good friends though, or people who share my ideas about the world. I live together with my boyfriend and musician Alexander von Mehren who recently released his debut record “Aéropop” and has been played on radio all around the world. I’m really proud of him, we are both very dedicated to our passions and supportive to one another. We love animals and we used to have rats. Now we don’t have any unfortunately, because we live somewhere where animals aren’t allowed. We should move! And I also had a ferret for eight years before I met Alexander. Ferrets are some of the funniest and most loving animals you can keep if you treat them well. They’re almost like having a very small dog. One day I will get a new ferret and some rats, and a kind cat.
It’s easy to answer that because my dear aunt, Lillian, has been a painter and artist all her life, and she was one of our closest neighbors when I grew up – and still is back home. She influenced me very much, maybe not intentionally at first, but when I started drawing seriously as a teenager she always encouraged me and gave me the confidence to continue. My parents also supported me and gave me lots of encouragement since they saw that drawing and being creative came so naturally to me. Thus making art and drawing was something that made me happy, confident and occupied with something meaningful.
After I moved to Bergen and started studying for my bachelor’s degree, I became more and more aware of how art really can express and communicate something. So alongside being curious of the art I was exposed to around me in Bergen and after a while on the internet, I began to explore and develop my own expression and style more thoroughly than before. In addition to my already well-developed classical drawing technique, I was eager to explore the depths of drawing as a medium symbolic, atmospheric and compositional. And when I got my own computer in 2005 I started to discover art all around the world, which could feel a bit overwhelming, but very inspiring, and it opened up my mind even more to art.
I spend a lot of time thinking, often about sad things, like all the animals and humans in this world who don’t live the life they deserve, and how wrong and cruel the world can be. When I was a really small kid, before I started school at the age of seven, my mother found me crying in her bedroom because I had just learned about the concept of death. And later on war and cruelty, things that are still difficult to understand. So since a very young age I’ve been used to worrying and thinking about stuff, and had to work with myself to not let it go too far. By drawing and creating images I have a way of getting some relief from my thoughts and worries, I guess that’s why I can’t live without making art – it makes me happy, as happy as I can get. And I know it’s like this for a lot of artists, more or less.
To make the best art that I can, I depend on a lot of time alone. And if I’m in a really creative period that demands a lot of thinking and evaluating my work, I can go for days without being social and meeting people. And since I have a few really close friends I don’t want them to think that I don’t care about them, because I really do. But I really value my time alone to make art, so that is one of the effects my art have on my personal life. I have to say no to parties and social events to be able to work, and the pressure to be social can be tough, especially as a student, because it’s so easy to feel like the “boring outsider” in the student environment, and you struggle to keep up with everything you should participate on. And, of course, no one is forcing you, but you still feel the pressure. Many times when I was a student I really struggled with deciding if I should go to a party or just stay home and draw. Sometimes I had a good time if I went, and sometimes I made excuses to go home and make art. As my good friend Kim always says to me: “Being an artist means being boring a lot of the time”.
I rarely count the hours when I work on a piece, so it’s difficult to say how much time I spend on a single drawing. It can take a few days or sometimes several months. Patience pays off; I try not to lose my ability to be patient with a complex drawing. Sometimes I want to see the result as fast as possible, and every time I get that feeling, I have to tell myself to be patient and not to hurry. Not to forget the reward of patience, even if I know it will take many weeks to finish.
What are the creative challenges you often face?
It’s the challenge of having enough time to make art. I feel that working as a freelance artist eats up a lot of time and energy because there are more things to be concerned about now compared to when I was a student, all though I had many concerns as a student too. I have a part-time job so that I can pay my rent, I make digital reproductions of my drawings and sell these as signed and numbered prints and have a Norwegian webshop. I tried Etsy once, but not much happened then, and I didn’t have the energy or time to maintain the page.
I try to do as many illustration jobs as possible, even though they are quite sporadic in appearance. And sometimes I’m asked to do illustration jobs that aren’t paid well, so I have to decide if it’s worth using my time on it. So in periods it can be a struggle to earn enough money to pay rent, pay off student loans, pay the bills and have food. But after all, this is something I choose myself. I want to work freelance because I don’t see myself working for an agency. For the last couple of years I’ve been busy with the book project, and I had a few jobs for the newspaper here in Bergen. And now I want to work with a solo exhibition this next year, so I’m not very actively seeking illustration jobs either, because my head is occupied already. But I guess when I finish this next big project I have to start finding more paid work within arts and illustration.
What do you think about your style and how did it evolve?
It’s a bit difficult to say how I developed this style, it has been a long journey since I first started to draw as a 16-year-old. My connection and interest in nature and animals have been two of the most important reasons and inspirations for my style, but also my fascination for old 20th century photos of people, mostly children that can look hauntingly rigid in their expressions and at the same time conceal so much mystery. I love the way they dress and pose for the camera, an innovative technology at that time that might have made them a little perplexed and confused. That may be the reason why they look a little spooky, and I try to translate some of that into my art.
I use pencil on paper, that’s it. But I pick the drawing paper I use quite carefully and always choose acid free paper, preferably paper with a little yellow tone and as smooth as possible with little or no texture. I like to use mechanical pencils and I love the ones from Faber-Castell and KOH-I-NOOR HARDTMUTH. In Berlin they have a small shop called Schöne Schreibwaren which I love to visit and shop for new drawing tools. I like these art equipment shops better than clothing and beauty shops. I get a kick out of shopping pencils and erasers!
Tell us about your achievements and clients, if any:
I think one of my biggest achievements regarding my work is my master’s project during my time as a student at Bergen Academy of Art and Design, about superstition in Iceland. It took me over two years to finish it, and I had a lot of fun working with it and was also really happy with the result. And now recently I worked with the picture book “Dyrebar” which is a collaboration with the Norwegian author Mette Karlsvik and was released by the publisher Magikon in March this year. I made 15 pages of illustrations for this book, and a Chinese publisher recently confirmed that they will publish the book in China in the near future. It’s exciting when a project travels abroad to such a big country as China. I can’t wait to receive the book with Chinese words! The title “Dyrebar” means something of high value, something that is precious to us, and it tells a story about a ten-year-old girl who travels alone to a remote island, a dream world, where she meets a deer that she wants to own. But the message of the story is that a wild animal cannot be owned, and the girl experiences a life lesson.
What are your views on contemporary art?
In my view it reflects and comments the society and its troubles today, it’s kind of the artist’s way to contribute to politics and a more critical way of thinking about society. Contemporary art is a way to see the society and our world in many different ways, and in new ways, and because art and an image can cause a great deal of emotions and communicate in ways words cannot, it’s extremely important for society to include and appreciate art, because it’s such a powerful tool to make people question society, and hopefully develop in the right direction.
My plan is to keep working with art and staying as focused and dedicated to it as possible. As I mentioned before, I’d like to work with my first solo exhibition. I have a theme I want to work with and exploit, that I am very compassionate about. That is animal welfare and how society use animals for its own benefits. We slaughter so many animals just to satisfy the meat industry and people’s everyday diet. The meat industry causes massive global warming, and you’ve been taught from an early age that eating all this meat is normal, but it’s not. The meat industry has rapidly increased since the last few decades, and so many animals suffer because our society craves more and more meat, cheap meat. Another thing is how humans impose on animals causing species to extinct from our planet. Sometimes I think we are going backwards instead of forwards in terms of development. I love the famous quote from Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Tell us about your favorite artists / books / website etc.:
Some of my favourite artists are the late Norwegian folklore and fairytale artists Theodor Kittelsen and Louis Moe, the late British artist and illustrator Arthur Rackham, the late American artist and writer Edward Gorey, the Norwegian artists Tom Kosmo and Erling Valtyrson, and the Taiwanese-American artist James Jean. One of my favourite authors is Neil Gaiman, and I recently read his book “Ocean by the end of the lane” – a surreal and yet so real story about childhood and memories, beautiful and disturbing at the same time.