Take another look at that volcano, because what it's made of will blow your mind

Vancouver's Eszter Burghardt creates worlds out of wool, and this "yarn" begins with a visit to Iceland.

Vancouver's Eszter Burghardt creates worlds out of wool, and this 'yarn' begins with a visit to Iceland

Detail of "Wooly Magma" by Eszter Burghardt. The Vancouver artist made this erupting volcano using wool and a bike light. (Courtesy of the artist)

There's no mistaking the landscapes in Eszter Burghardt's photos.

The black sand beaches, the mossy hills, the gurgling geysers: sure as everyone you know has Instagrammed the same damned photo of Gullfoss, that's Iceland.

But if something seems a little off — a little fuzzy, even — it's because these scenes are made entirely out of wool.

Every iceberg, every volcano: they're all just tufts of fleece — Icelandic sheep's wool, at that — dyed and arranged by the Vancouver-based artist.

That's what I went for — to be inspired by the landscapes. But instead of painting it, I began using wool.- Eszter Burghardt, artist

In real life, the scenes in her photographs are no bigger than your hand — but under a macro lens, they double for some of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet.

They're inspiring to Burghardt, especially. After visiting Iceland, she discovered a whole new way of making art, and this "yarn" begins with the creation of a photo series called Wooly Sagas.

Eszter Burghardt. Wooly Ice. (Courtesy of the artist)
The artist in her element. Eszter Burghardt in Iceland. (Courtesy of the artist)

"For forever, my dream was to go to Iceland," says Burghardt, and in 2009, she landed an artist residency in Reykjavik.

The original plan, she says, was to paint. She was a landscape painter at the time, and the idea of visiting a country of lagoons and lava fields totally seized her imagination.

"You go on a hike and there's steam coming out of the ground, there's giant bubbling mud pots," she says. "The landscape's like an animal. It's breathing. It's pretty cool."

"That's what I went for — to be inspired by the landscapes," she says.

"But instead of painting it, I began using wool."

Icelandic sheep's wool is waterproof, lightweight, warm. It was also, she observed, absolutely everywhere.

"You'd go to the grocery store to get milk or whatever and there'd be an aisle of wool," she says. "I just travelled all around the country, and wherever I went there were sheep."

But wool — as warm and cozy as it can be — was way out of her comfort zone.

"At that point I didn't know how to knit or anything," she says. "I just knew I had to have it, somehow."

"When I came back to the studio, the painting wasn't going anywhere. The wool was pretty much screaming at me like, 'Use me! Use me-e-e-e!'"

With some trial and error — and a few YouTube tutorials on felting — Burghardt answered the call, and she hasn't stopped playing with wool since.

The Wooly Saga series, which she began in 2009, was where it began. The scenes, she says, are meant to recreate her travels. Burghardt returned to Iceland for three years in a row, including a visit during the infamous Eyjafjallajokull eruption, and she only ever uses Icelandic sheep's wool in her work — another thread connecting the art to her experience.

Beyond the fleecy fjords of the Wooly Sagas, Burghardt has an all-new series of sculptures coming to Calgary's Herringer Kiss Gallery in March. An offshoot of another past photography series, Tales for Tuktu, it's a collection of woolen animals — creatures native to Canada and Hungary, where the artist spent her childhood.

Wool sculptures by Eszter Burghardt. (Courtesy of the artist)

"For me, [wool] is just an awesome, warm medium to make sculpture with. Feeling it, smelling it — and it definitely smells in my studio when I bring in fresh, unwashed wool," she says with a laugh.

"I see it the same as clay or wood. It's so versatile," she says, "and it ties me to the landscape like clay or wood."

"It reminds me of the landscape that I'm inspired by. It just draws me back to the land."

Check out photos from her Wooly Sagas series.

Eszter Burghardt. Wooly Smolder. (Courtesy of the artist)
Eszter Burghardt. A Wooly Saga of Creek. (Courtesy of the artist)
Eszter Burghardt. Wooly Magma. (Courtesy of the artist)
Eszter Burghardt. Wooly Fissure. (Courtesy of the artist)
Eszter Burghardt. A Wooly Saga With Snow. (Courtesy of the artist)

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.


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