The woman behind the arts - Elisabet Gunnarsdottir

Steve Bartlett
Published on May 9, 2011
Elisabet Gunnarsdottir is the director of the Fogo Island Arts Corporation.

Zita Cobb lauds the attitude and effort of the Fogo Island Arts Corporation's director.

"The way her head is wired is right on," says Cobb, co-founder of the Shorefast Foundation.

Elisabet Gunnarsdottir's wiring is, in part, the result of experiences in her native Iceland and in Norway.

A trained architect, she ran Iceland's first architectural and de-sign studio for years.

Based in a rural community, she did town planning, graphic de-sign and restoration work. The work taught her a huge lesson.

"I learned you never, ever copy the old. You do what you can to restore it and give it new life, and then contemporary architecture should never be a copy of the old and this we followed here (in Fogo Island), too.

"If you copy the old, it's a copy."

Gunnarsdottir also found herself running a contemporary art studio.

It was ambitious, she says, and soon built a reputation in Scandinavian countries.

Then her husband died. She had two sons and wanted to be a positive role model for them.

Back in Iceland for 15 years, she said she felt it was a good time to make a change.

Gunnarsdottir applied for a job at an arts centre in Norway, and to her surprise, she got it.

"I was so enthusiastic about creating something and making something important for the local community," she says.

"It was not an ego trip for me to gain a name or something."

It appears the centre gained a reputation though.

A few years ago, Todd Saunders, a Gander-born architect living in Norway, wanted Cobb to see the facility's artist residency program.

Cobb says she quickly realized she wanted to bring Gunnarsdottir to Fogo Island.

She convinced her to relocate.

Gunnarsdottir now runs the arts corporation, which plays a major role in Shorefast's plan to reinvigorate Fogo Island.

She says she didn't realize it until her arrival, but this is the kind of work she's been doing her entire career.

And it's rewarding, because she said she believes protecting and fostering diverse cultures is vitally important.

"This is why I'm thrilled by the possibility of working here," Gunnarsdottir says. Twitter: bartlett_steve