Iconic Norwegian Sculptor and Painter: Kjell Nupen

Standing
in the doorway to the sea-side studio, the place looks colourful and
spacious; there is a quiet, creative ambiance humming away that
I’m hesitant to disturb. I get the sense that I’ve walked into a
hive of activity. Laid out on tables are large sections of coloured
glass, which I’m told are for the project in Bergen, a church window
to be remodeled.

Nupen
cuts an imposing figure; his deep voice reaches me from across the
workshop, where he’s talking on the phone. While I’m waiting I’m
offered a coffee, a sign of true Norwegian hospitality. There is so
much to look at, the walls are covered with paintings that draw your
eye one after the other. There is a large bronze statue of a
molded cluster of trees out the front, also waiting to be sent to
Bergen.

Nupen
soon comes in and we take a seat in the open back office, next to a
huge printing press. “The team” is what he likes about the big
projects, because he enjoys the company. While painting can be an
“ensom prosess” (lonely process), the Kristiansand born
artist considers it his first medium. Kjell Nupen is tall, with long
dark hair and a serious face, luckily for me, it’s quick to break
into a smile. It takes him about a minute to realise my Norwegian is
awful and he’ll have to speak English, which he does with incredible
accuracy and depth, for someone who can also speak German and
French. 

The
landscape in Kristiansand is unique; the rocky archipelagos are
delightful in the summer against the blue water, even the snow
covered forests have a melancholy beauty in the dark winter. I
ask if these surroundings play a part in his art, and he talks about
how, as a component of mythology, the landscape is often a part of
Nordic traditions, ”I work a lot with Nordic
mythology,” but he insists it’s more complicated than that,
“you can’t say this painting is from that place, it’s also an
idea.” As a Norwegian, Nupen is also intrigued by the concept of
belonging, “where you’re coming from, where you’re going to, all
my life I’ve wondered about the concept of home.”

Edvard
Munch influences all Norwegian artists of Nupen’s generation, and
it’s in this sense that he has influenced Kjell. Many artists
live, ’in the shadow’ of Munch, because he is at the core of their
belief systems. “We look through the frames of what has come
before, art is a linear production, each step is on the shoulders of
those who came before,” he says. He continues, describing his
place in Norwegian art, “there are two main schools of art in
Norway, the first is German, the second is the French, which is more
coloristic, I’m probably more towards the second.”

Kjell
has recently finished a glass window in a Dutch church, built in the
1500’s, “when I was working in the top part, I thought, you
know, the last person to touch here, it might have been four hundred
years ago.” The history of the old church was no doubt part of
the allure, but he also enjoys exhibiting abroad. Norway doesn’t have
the same type of metropolitan culture present in the capitals of the
world, a reason behind the international success of Norwegian art,
according to Nupen, it’s because “it’s solid and true.”
Norwegian art has an honesty about it, a unique style, tied into its
myths and stories. Nupen’s art is a representation of that culture,
“this is my way to tell the story.”

I
ask Nupen if being so well known has had an effect on his art, “no,”
though he is positive about the opportunities that success has given
him. The ability to work with the top people in their fields, across
multiple countries, is now a reality, something that wasn’t as
achievable 30 years ago. I ask how he stays true to his style after
all this time; his answer is simple “work very much.” Kjell
remains focused on looking forward, rather than back, “the last
piece is not as interesting as the next one.”

The
techniques in Nupen’s art are centuries old, handed down from
generation to generation. Despite this, he’s still interested in what
technology has to offer. In its infancy he worked with screen
offset printing and was doing video installations in the late
70’s when that was new. For the larger projects, some stuff is
composed on computer, “I try to know enough to ask the right
questions.”

While
Nupen considers himself a painter “everything comes back to the
painting,” he nevertheless enjoys exploring new ideas, “everyone
likes the highway but I like the little side roads.” Kjell makes
the point that the medium doesn’t matter, so much as the idea and the
feeling conveyed. Still, for Nupen it’s “when the hand meets the
canvass, that’s the most interesting.”

We
talk about Banksy, the British street artist, whom he has met once.
Nupen shows me a photo in a book, you can see him standing next to an
early Banksy, off to the left you can see he has put some of his own
work on a nearby billboard. Recently, a Danish artist caused some
controversy by painting in the snow at Hovden (a nearby mountain)
with grapefruit juice, “I said on twitter that I would pay the
fine,” he says with a cheeky smile. 

Nupen
has been working in some art form or other since he was sixteen,
that’s over forty years of artwork. He is humble when he talks about
his career, saying he has been “privileged” to work with
some of the most prominent artists in Europe. One of the works he is
proud of is Nupen Park. A series of waterfront fountains, complete
with paved pathways and lush green grass. “I like to work with
things that give back to the public.”  A large portion of
his work is open to the public, like his statues and church works;
they’re things that everyone can see. There is also the ’Nupen
Foundation,’ which is a scholarship for young artists. 


There is a style to
Nupen’s art that lives in everything he does. From the paintings, to
the fountains and the church windows, even the ceramic tiles on the
outside of the studio, they all have a ’Nupen’ quality. Just like the
name Nupen is synonymous with Kristiansand, within Kristiansand,
Nupen is synonymous with art. Not only are his paintings in the
public landscape, they’re in apartment staircases, company foyers and
people’s houses. Nupen’s style has become part of Kristiansand. 

He
acknowledges that it’s a great feeling to go incognito and watch
people enjoying his art, but “It’s a much more interesting
feeling to return to the workshop and see what’s next.”

The Nordic Page April Issue by Sean Melrose-Aukema

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