An Interview with Rebecca Pempek ’20

the Bullshit of Innocence (detail)

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Photo courtesy of Rebecca Pempek


By: Lucas Weals ’20

Arts and Culture Editor

Rebecca Pempek ‘20 spent her summer at two artists’ residencies in Iceland. In June she stayed in Hrísey, in the Northern Fjords, as part of the Gramli Skóli program; in July she traveled to Stöðvarfjörður for a one-month stint at the Fish Factory Creative Center. I sat down with her this week to talk about her experience as an artist abroad: how the landscape and culture of Iceland found expression in her art; how her isolation from U.S. politics changed her perspective; and more. The following interview is condensed for space and clarity. — Lucas Weals, editor

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LW: What was it about Iceland in particular that attracted you? Why did you seek artists’ residencies there?

RP: I went to Iceland in May of 2017 for five days and I didn’t feel like that was enough time to really explore the island; I definitely felt like I needed to go back. The landscape is really beautiful, and something about that drew me to it.

LW: You don’t paint “landscapes” per se, but I also know that the Icelandic landscape deeply inflected these works. Could you talk more about the relationship between your art and the surrounding environment?

RP: I made a body of work that was essentially for the applications to the residencies, like: “This is what I want to do and so this is what I’m doing.” I talked to Vivian Beer, the sculptor, and I talked to [Professor] Cort [Savage], and they all said, “Once you get to the residency it’s completely different; you can’t go in with really strict ideas about what’s going to happen.” So I was definitely open to anything. I went in with the intention of taking the landscape as inspiration and collaging landscapes to make something new out of them. This was all based in the folklore of Iceland and the growing effects of climate change — because the folklore is so tied to the landscapes, I wanted to explore how these stories might change along with the climate and the land. I read some folklore last year to get myself ready, but then I felt like that body of work had its time — I spent my energy on that, and by the time I got to Iceland again I found different things to focus on. But I still felt like the landscape influenced me.

LW: How did the work you produced at each residency differ? Did you consider this a summer of contiguous, unified work, or did the change in location change things about your aims and your process?

RP: In Hrísey I did a lot of reading: it was so isolated, on this island with only a hundred people, that you really had to occupy yourself. Within the first week I had explored the whole island. I read Time’s Arrow [by Martin Amis], and I immediately started thinking about tales that the islanders I was meeting could tell me — the stories that were held on the island. We went to a shark museum, but it was really just an archive of pictures from the island’s past: there were all these people and all these children in the pictures, and it felt so lively, but then there was a collapse in the fishing industry (because the herring disappeared around the island). So I began to look at the impact of those older people and what’s remembered of them. My friend Ingomar, who told me most of these stories, was saying that people moved away in search of jobs, but they’re slowly coming back, or their families are coming back. I was looking at the impact that these people’s stories had on the island. Aside from just making art, I did a lot of exploring the terrain. I was especially fascinated by the birds — Hrísey is a bird sanctuary — and so I go to do research on local birds. That’s something I may explore in later work. In the second residency at the Fish Factory, my work was less influenced by the landscape, because I didn’t really have that isolation of being on the island. I went on a few hikes but it all felt the same. I did a bit of work that took sonic inspiration. Someone at the previous residency had asked if I was synesthetic, and so I did a lot of work exploring how I attached sound and color. What came from that was a lot of research into children’s book illustrators, like Maurice Zednek — I watched a lot of documentaries and took what he had to say about fantasy and reality, which was so interesting to me. I was creating this fantastical realm that was outside of the “real” landscape but was something within me. When I create things I create and then I think about it — I work intuitively — so I understand that a lot of the pieces I was making were influenced by outside factors that I didn’t think about in the moment.

LW: So you get to come back to your work later and read it. I know you keep a journal; do you ever look back and try to pair the work with whatever you were dreaming or thinking at that time?

RP: I think it goes even deeper to thinking about experiences I had as a child, which is why I was really interested in the children’s book illustrations. I was thinking about the concerns I had then and those I have now, and about how those concerns are often the same. Maurice Zednek talks about one of his first experiences as a child being reading a newspaper about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and how he was always afraid of being kidnapped. I remember watching Peter Pan as a child and always thinking whenever a plane flew over that I was going to get bombed. I literally hid under tables whenever I heard a plane.

LW: It’s funny how so many of the “children’s” works from that time — Peter Pan, the Dr. Seuss books, even The Chronicles of Narnia — all imply that the fantasy structure of the work is just the children’s way of escaping from the trauma of war. The haunting image that remained for you from Peter Pan wasn’t Captain Hook or the crocodile: it was the reason you had to get to the fantasy world in the first place.

RP: Exactly. Last semester I did a project called “Residing in Turbulence,” which is basically the state of the world right now: this weird turbulence that people are somehow comfortable in, but I’m very much not — that’s why I make art. That’s still the body of work that I’m really interested in making. At the end of that residency [Fish Factory] I got to do the mural . . . well, I ran out of paper. So I got to paint this wall. It was very much a fantastical exploration of all of that; for me, the way I see it, this fantastical world of color — which is an escape — that’s where I was.

LW: I’m skeptical of essentializing a place, or assuming that it has some innate “spirit.” But at the same time, you’re in Iceland in the summer, when the sun never goes down, there’s all these details like that. And I also follow you on Twitter, and the whole time you were tweeting about a cat you met, things like that. So there’s a blending of the extraordinarily mundane with the strangeness of eternal day. Do you see a kind of humor in the fact that you were living out the divide between the “fantasy” world inside you and the “real” world outside that you just described? Did it feel un- or surreal?

RP: It really did. The artists’ residency experience is so different from any other kind of abroad experience, which is what I wanted: to do something that felt real to me, that’s what I want to do with my life. I got to meet other artists, but they were fifty, or forty, or thirty years old — I was the youngest one there. They obviously have more experience than me, and I understood that: it could be isolating, because people aren’t really going there to “make friends.” I found friendship with the village cats.

LW: There’s a great interview in the most recent New Yorker with the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, where he says, “My basic view of the world is that right next to the world we live in, the one we’re all familiar with, is a world we know nothing about, an unfamiliar world that exists concurrently with our own.” It reminds me a lot of what you said about the world you want to capture in your paintings. Do you feel that sometimes too?

RP: It’s so bizarre thinking about it now. It was beautiful and the experiences were amazing, but I don’t know. Especially in a country that’s so different from our own — different in the sense that no one locks their doors, you don’t have to worry about people harassing you as much — and watching the whole crisis with ICE and border detentions from that far-off place. That was happening at the same time and I felt so removed but it was still hard to see: so distant but still concerning, and you feel even more that you can’t do anything. Which connects to climate change too — being somewhere that’s so affected by the changing environment, and knowing you’re from a place that does so much damage. I wanted to paint that turbulence, and that’s something I’m still so focused on.


Lucas Weals ‘19 is an English major from Bethesda, MD. He can be reached for comment at


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