Aero Island, Denmark and Folkehojskole

It is early, perhaps 7am but the sun has been up for hours, or at least the gray sky has been light since 4am here on this 30 kilometer long island off the coast of Fyn, the middle kingdom of Denmark. Here we are in the Baltic Sea which is warmer than the air on colder drizzly windy days and clearer than Lake Tahoe. There are songbirds on the chimneys of the heavily thatched roof of my arts-focused folkehojskole, at one time a typical Danish countryside farm built in 1779 and they sing their hearts out all day, beautiful varied melodies like Esteve’s primary colored paintings, like all the jazz we are hearing every day and night here at this “folk high school” I am attending for some weeks of the summer 2004.

In the field just beyond where we have breakfast of jam and yoghurt, cheese and rodebrot (a thin dense, nourishing dark bread made with sunflower seeds and other whole grains) there are always roan horses grazing and the hill beyond has an ancient windmill, the “Vestermolle,” also thatched and looking like every Van Gogh you’ve ever seen. Just down the hill is an earthwork, a huge mound a Viking king had raised by hand in the year 900 or so.

This island I am living on for the summer, Aero, is an island lost in time, its lifestyle and values embedded in the 18th-19th centuries. Homes are all old, hand built, small and cozy; everyone walks or rides a basic bicycle around the island; and everyone has a garden, a craft he or she lives by, and a friendly heart Outside most homes is a small box, a chair, or a table on which are fresh foodstuffs and crafts for sale–. “ny kartoflen–10 kroner” (new potatoes, (about $2 US), juicy purple onions, lavender, homemade cookies, hand knitted sox and baby clothes in brilliant wildflower colors–orange, buttercup yellow, Mediterranean sea blue or would it be Los Angeles pool Hockneyesque blue?, Red, blue green, each sock or bonnet knitted with a different pattern, with stripes and flowers, each one unique, and for sale for a pittance–sox for two dollars, a baby dress for seven. Each cache has a jar for any money that you might owe, as here trust and honesty are givens. The office here at the skole for example is always open, with cash box, computers and telephone there with no one looking after them as no one misuses privilege. At a railway station on my way here two weeks ago I absentmindedly, travelling on two hours’sleep, left my suitcase in the kiosk store, and went to wait for a half an hour for my train. When it arrived I realized I’d abandoned my antique Sansonite (which is a marvel that I’ve lugged around for twenty years and still manages to stay intact and functional) in the little store in the station, a store by the way like most here in Denmark that serves fresh sandwiches, bakery bread and pastries. When I returned it was still there waiting expectantly. Indeed people leave their babies in perambulators (of the most advanced high tech and luxuriant kind) in front of restaurants while they dine inside and of course the babies are still there when the meal is done.

What brings me to Aero is Folkehojskole—a Danish post-secondary, non-graded school system, state-supported, and intended to give adults respite from work, a week or two or ten off in the country studying something they want to explore from world political peace movements to soccer, drawing to classical music composition. At our skole–Kunsthojskolen pa Aero (–the day begins with breakfast outside in the green yard next to the horses; then we have “sammling”– the gathering– wherein we sing songs not from a hymnal exactly but from a songbook of joyous tunes about the new morning, the grass, the beauty of the earth and life, a songbook that every hojskole here in Denmark uses, and that unites the people of this country in positive joyful peaceful living.

The idea of the folkehojskole was developed by a preacher and hymn composer named Grundtvig in the mid 1800s. Initially a folkehojskole was a school to let farmworkers (and other poor people who hadn’t the opportunity to go to school) come back to school at any age and be lightened by music, art, sport, ponderings of philosophy or study of other countries’ cultures. Grundvig is revered almost as a mystical visionary and his ideas about building a nation of happy and peaceful people revolutionized Denmark and really shows in every aspect of the Danish life. I was told in fact that you really cannot fight if you are Danish because fighting words do not exist in Danish so one cannot really be vicious to others. Case in point, here in Aero I have been living with thirty people for the last ten days and haven’t heard a cross word yet. We are all participant in a communal experience of great sweetness–we eat together, paint together, drink wine together (it’s quite hilarious really to see our little herd of middle aged people, each with his or her own bottle of usually Chilean red wine, me included strolling about the lawn and fields), and sit outside as often as the weather will allow and talk and talk and talk. I am as included as anyone else and most of the time they kindly speak English, though sometimes they are comfortable enough with me around to chatter on in Danish and I really don’t mind; it’s a little like birdsong in the end.

As the focus of this folkehojskole is the arts, and the course is “Art and Jazz”, we start the “study” day with a slide lecture on art–Sigmar Polke, Mondrian, Esteve from France, Saatchi artists, a Venezuelan installation artist from the last Venice Bienal, Bearden, a light installation in the Tate modern–or a film about contemporary art.

Then we go to our studio, an old farmhouse where huge buckets of acrylic paints and a huge roll of brown paper are available. And coffee, tea–herbal and English Breakfast–are brought to us fresh each morning and afternoon. Then the painting begins, done always to jazz, from Ellington to Brubeck, Jarrett to Miles. For three special days we had a duo from Copenhagen– Maas on sax and Erik on drums–play for us live in the studio, sometimes in the main room, sometimes wandering among us as we painted, Erik drumming on any surface he could find, Maas blowing the sax like a demon. They even came with us out one night to a sand quarry where we had our “night experience” Imagine a long long dusk, mounds of concrete blocks and rusted machinery, a crane, a huge shovel, mountains of sand and a lake, birds singing and the scent of lavender and us, all thirty of us, with six by eight foot sheets of paper and paint. By the time we set up, the light was fast disappearing which of course was the director, Nils, idea to free us all up. And so we painted until we couldn’t see what we were doing, painted with sand falling into the paint, painted by walking into our surfaces to make marks. It was great fun and then we were rewarded by cake and coffee–yes even out there in the quarry. Other nights we have heard live jazz at the Festival in the main town of Aeroskobing–great traditional cool jazz, sometimes cacaphonous obscure jazz by an Argentinian group–in an intimate old half timbered building, candlelit and cozy as every place here seems to be. When we come home at midnight or so the whole tribe raids the refrigerator and kitchen like kids at camp, bandits finding kuchen and kaffe and then talking another hour longer before retiring to our feather beds, mine in the garrett under the thatch of the main house.

Lunch is my favorite meal here as a smorgasbord of treats welcomes us from a long hard morning of making art–two kinds of herring, wurst, ham, salame, camembert, gorgonzola and white cheeses, eggs, four kinds of fresh baked breads, greens, sometimes a pate or a spinach quiche, a veggie burger kind of loaf, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and carrots, dill dressing in creme fraiche and mustard viniagrette–always a feast and we take our food outside in the sunshine when it isn’t raining, even going out when its gray, the Danish folk so grateful for light and summer that they are outside as often as possible. In fact I am amazed at how often they become lobster red and sunburned, never a fear of skin cancer; actually many of them smoke a lot as well and seem to not care about lung cancer either. They are a happy, somewhat generous of body lot, who are unpretentious, casual of dress. It’s been funny for me to see a whole populace with the same skin and body type as mine–stout Germanic/Nordic with broad shoulders, pink prone to burning flesh–I have a friend here, Marlene, who is in the textile industry and she told me that each country actually measures its own population and makes clothes to fit that group. Here the clothing fits me better than it does in the states. If I could only learn Danish, but it is the most impossible of languages–words spelled one way never sounds like they look as they do in Spanish; and there are many sounds distinctly and uniquely Danish; hence the name Aage for instance is pronounced “oh yay,” and Aero is “ay rhuuuuch,” go figure. I am constantly misunderstood when I ask for places–people tell me they don’t exist. Of course they do; I just can’t say the words, try though I may.

Living with the Danish people for a month showed me a quality of community I’ve rarely experienced in the States. Here people invested as much energy in personal communication as they did in their art and though I was an outsider, I was never left out. Indeed when my birthday coincided with our farewell dinner, I was feted with tributes and a necklace of mementoes—a gull feather, a stone from the beach, a piece of rubble from the quarry, a velvet pouch of treasures Kirsten gathered for me to have a remember this new-found family by….and then, in the morning, my actual birthday, I was led out to the farmyard to see that the formal Danish flag was being flown. Knowing that this only happens on proscribed special days like Christmas and the Queen’s Birthday, I asked if my birthday was an official Danish holiday as well. “No,” Birgit replied, “the girls in the kitchen decided that we should fly the flag for you today!” In fact, the whole village of Soby, where our skole is located all replaced their daily vimpel (the long slender flag than flies from a white and red flagpole in every yard on Aero) with the big Danish flag in honor of my birthday. I was moved to tears as I walked down to the port to see my friends off for home.

Two weeks of painting and conversing, washing dishes together and listening to jazz, and we were family, not to mention that the entire group had as well produced a prodigious amount of art, had made exciting artistic break-throughs and were thoroughly reinvigorated in spirit. We had a final Gallery Opening and then a farewell dinner, full of tears and toasts, as if we’d known each other forever and were each departing for Antarctica. And indeed in the morning everyone departed except me (I was to stay for the next intensive, one on landscape that began with a trip on a classic square-rigger sailing ship). My fellow painters, now all friends, left on a red and yellow hulled steamer bound for the mainland of Denmark, a scene reminiscent of the departure of the Queen Mary—everyone on deck, waving hankerchiefs and blowing kisses until the ship vanished into the blue horizon of the glistening Baltic Sea.

Summer 2004






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