Anneli Skaar used high-resolution scans of U.S. currency to create dystopia images of climate change. Courtesy of Anneli Skar

With ancestral roots in Norway, the Camden artist Anneli Skaar grew up well aware of the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and statesman and the first person to cross Greenland, a feat that he accomplished on cross-country skis in 1888. A few years later, he and a small team of explorers nearly made it to the North Pole, coming closer than anyone at the time and earning hero status at home and international fame.

Skaar knew his face from a Norwegian Kroner banknote, which featured him in his role as a statesman.

Anneli Skaar Sal Taylor Kydd Photography

For her latest art project, Skaar explores and illuminates Nansen’s role as a statesman and humanitarian by reinventing the refugee passport that he created precisely a century ago for post-World War I Europe. The war left millions of people without countries, so Nansen created what became known across the globe as Nansen’s Passport for stateless people that allowed refugees to cross borders legally. He was appointed to the League of Nations as the High Commissioner for Refugees and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

The passport that he created served as a model for passports in use across the world today. None existed until he created it, and it quickly became the global standard. In her contemporary reimagining of one of the world’s most famous and important books, Skaar uses high-resolution scans of U.S. currency and quotations from Nansen’s Nobel acceptance speech to create illustrations and context for each of the 32 pages of her leather-bound modern rendering.

She calls her project “Nansen’s Pastport,” because she is both looking back at 100 years of multilateralism and looking ahead to an uncertain future. With sea levels rising and other impacts from climate change forecast to alter borders and displace populations of entire countries, Skaar sees today’s climate crisis as akin to the refugee crisis that followed World War I a century ago. That both occurred in the climate of a pandemic adds to a sense of symmetry and urgency, she said.

“Climate change doesn’t have any borders,” Skaar said. “We’re all climate-change refugees. I am taking Nansen’s ideas and putting them in a modern context. It’s about empathy and reaching across borders. It’s about being a humanitarian.”

To represent fire, Anneli Skaar used the beard of Ulysses S. Grant. For smoke, she used the hair of George Washington, all taken high-resolution scans of U.S. currency. Courtesy of Anneli Skaar

Working with the Camden-based Two Ponds Press, Skaar has created in fine-art book form a contemporary version of Nansen’s passport for today’s climate-change refugees. It looks and feels like a standard passport, except that instead of creating quintessential American landscapes to illustrate her pages, she created dystopian images of flooded cities, burning buildings and toxic oceans, all using imagery taken from U.S. currency. She scanned high-resolution images of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills, on both sides, and culled her imagery from those scans by making collages.

“I have to tell you,” she said, “Benjamin Franklin’s hair is a great source of ocean waves.” She used Ulysses S. Grant’s beard as fire and George Washington’s hair as smoke. To represent migrants, she borrowed from an image of the signers of the Declaration of Independence that appears on the back of the $2 bill. A border wall is made up of bricks from the U.S. Capitol.

The Farnsworth Art Museum, where Skaar works as creative director, will host a Zoom discussion with the artist at 2 p.m. Wednesday, and the Page Gallery in Camden will display the book for a month beginning Thursday. At the gallery, people will be able to both look and handle the book, Skaar said.

The library of the United Nations in Geneva recently accepted “Nansen’s Pastport” into its collection.

“Nansen’s Pastport” has received wide attention. It was recently placed in the library of the United Nations in Geneva, as well as the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress and the libraries of universities across the country, from Stanford to Columbia and Bowdoin. It was shown briefly at the Fine Press Book Fair in New York in March and will be part of a climate change exhibition in San Francisco next year if the exhibition is mounted.

Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, special collections education and outreach librarian at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives at Bowdoin, said “Nansen’s Pastport” is smart and complex, linking climate change and immigration in an artist’s book that perfectly melds message and forms. “It’s truly remarkable. It is one of those books, you discover something new each time to read it or hold it,” she said. “It is stimulating both physically and intellectually. There are so many layers to it.”

The Boston Athenaeum also purchased a copy. The athenaeum has an extensive collection of contemporary artists’ books and several by Two Ponds Press. John Buchtel, curator of rare books and special collections for the athenaeum, appreciates the confluence of fine craftsmanship, Skaar’s message about contemporary concerns of climate change and immigration, and historical references.

“When those come together, that really excites me. Anneli’s book is a wonderful example of that. It’s exquisitely crafted, and she has thought through the concept so carefully and thoughtfully and engagingly,” he said.

Buchtel also looks for books that evoke a sense of wonder, while also prompting people to think. “Anneli has some big questions for her audience. What does it take to elicit passion for migrants, for people affected by climate change? And what led Nansen to treat people with compassion, and what might lead us to do so today, regardless of our political perspective?”

There are only 60 copies, with 20 deluxe editions that contain an additional copper-plate print of a map and a bronze-cast replica of Nansen’s Nobel Prize, all within a 13-by-19-inch folio. They sell for $4,000 each, and most have sold. The other 40 are regular editions with a cloth-covered clam shell box. Those sell for $3,000.

An accordion display of “Nansen’s Pastport.” A copy of Anneli Skaar’s book will be on display at Page Gallery in Camden beginning Sept. 17. Sal Taylor Kydd Photography

Ken Shure, co-founder of Two Ponds Press, characterized Skaar’s work as “brilliant. We are 100 percent behind this project because it’s relevant and is really just the sort of project Two Ponds is looking for. We don’t go out and solicit work, but when we see things that we feel are critical, we will take on the possibility of producing them.”

Two Ponds works with artists and writers across the world to make limited-edition art books. The press is rooted in the traditions of classic printing, and also explores new technologies. The team of artisans who collaborated on “Nansen’s Pastport” include Arthur Larson at Horton Tank Graphics, Sal Taylor Kydd, who handled the cyanotype printing, Chris Gamage of Bog Bronze, who did the bronze casting, and binder Amy Borezo of Shelter Bookworks. Etchings were printed at Wingate Studios.

Skaar holds an American passport. She is a U.S. citizen, born in the San Francisco Bay area to Norwegian immigrants. Her parents are now retired in Olso. She grew up speaking Norwegian, and the family moved to Norway while she was in elementary school, then back to California. She lived with her grandmother in Norway during the summer and went to college in Norway, graduating with a degree in illustration and graphic design from the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo.

She lived and worked in Oslo for 12 years before moving back to the United States in 1999 and to Maine in 2005.

For her art, Skaar has traveled to the Arctic several times since 2015, and began making art about borders and migrants when she visited the southern border of the United States in 2018. “Nansen’s Pastport” ties much of her previous work together, while also honoring the legacy of someone she has respected since childhood.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.