“Hella Rock,” a public art project by Ólöf Nordal of Iceland on the Eastern Promenade in Portland, consists of four rock boulders: one of Maine granite, one a 5,000-year-old lava rock from Iceland, and two concrete replicas created by University of Southern Maine students. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The latest addition to Portland’s public art collection is easy to mistake as nothing but nature.

The Icelandic artist who conceived it calls it “low-key and kind of subtle. You experience it more in time. It’s not a big, spectacular piece.”

If not for a nearby sign identifying a grouping of boulders and flat slabs atop the Eastern Prom as “Hella Rock,” an installation by Ólöf Nordal, these rocks might pass for what they are – and are not. The temporary installation, overlooking the islands and harbor by the basketball court and community garden, consists of four rocks, arrayed in pairs set apart from each other. There is a 300 million-year-old sparkly granite boulder from Maine, a 5,000-year-old black lava rock from Iceland that Nordal shipped by boat to Portland, and two concrete casts that resemble each of the natural rocks, made last year by art students at the University of Southern Maine.

Stalled by the pandemic and installed late in 2020, the piece is on view at least until the fall. It’s part of the temporary art program administered by the Portland Public Art Committee, with a $40,000 budget paid for by USM, the Warren Memorial Foundation, Maine Economic Improvement Fund, and other sources. It’s the second recent temporary art installation on the Eastern Prom consisting of a grouping of rocks. Maine sculptor Jesse Salisbury installed “Gathering Stones” at Fish Point on the lower part of the prom in July last year, with much larger Maine boulders.

The $40,000 paid for many things. Nordal’s 2019 visit cost $6,700, paid for by USM, a federal grant and the Maine Economic Initiative Fund. Her residency in 2020, which was paid for by the Warren Memorial Foundation, Maine Economic Improvement Fund and other funders, cost $31,000, and the project planners are holding back $3,000 for removal of the art and remediation of the site next fall, or whenever “Hella Rock” is removed.

The residency money covered shipping costs, transportation, the cost of moving the rocks from Gorham to the site and placing them, signage, art materials for students to create the casts, as well the commercial cost of having the new stones cast in concrete. And while Nordal could not be in Gorham for more than a few days during her residency, her teaching and interaction with the students continued remotely.

That said, it’s still four rocks. And for a bunch of rocks, “Hella Rock” was an enormously complicated project to complete, thanks in no small part to the pandemic and restrictions on international travel, and the unusual nature of shipping an 800-pound lava rock. The project was going to be bigger, grander and different, but the pandemic forced everyone to adapt.

Nordal is based in Reykjavik and was a visiting artist at USM in 2019. She returned exactly a year ago to begin a residency and work directly with students to create a new piece for Portland, but had to return to Iceland ahead of the worsening global-health crisis. She gave a talk at USM the evening of March 12 and made arrangements to fly home soon thereafter. “I could see it was not the place for me to stay,” she said via Zoom. “Everything closed down and the students disappeared, so I left.”

Hella Rock, a public art project at the Eastern Prom. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Once at home, she communicated with Carolyn Eyler, the now-retired director of art exhibitions and programs at USM, and others remotely. She has seen “Hella Rock” only in photos and never visited its location on the Eastern Prom. But she approves. “It’s a wonderful spot and it fits the piece very well,” she said. “I thought the quiet location with a beautiful view was perfect.”

She thanked USM students for finishing her project. Sculpture professor Michael Shaughnessy and his students made close replicas of the real rocks, creating plastic foam and plaster models that were later cast in concrete. “They showed a lot of endurance,” she said.

The conceptual piece is meant to question our ability to judge what is real, and to reinforce the ecological, cultural and economic bonds among Maine, Iceland and other Arctic countries. It compares and contrasts the uniqueness of the lands through natural rocks, and cautions what is lost in translation when we try to replicate what we think we know.

“Hella” is the Icelandic word for rock, so the title mixes language and culture, reflecting the nature of the work itself. In her artist statement, Nordal wrote: “This piece questions, among other things, the remaking of nature and our ability to judge the truthfulness of natural nature based on one’s knowledge and experiences. Which and what is true, genuine or original? The work also questions cultural translation – what gets lost and gained in translation, often as a result of misunderstanding.”

A multi-dimensional artist who studied in Iceland and the United States, Nordal works with a variety of materials and in many media to create interactive art that references time and place. In 2013, she created her largest and perhaps most-recognized piece, called “þúfa,” a hand-created 26-foot-tall mound of a mountain made from turf and topped with a fish shack. It sits in Reykjavik harbor among fish-processing plants, and it has become top tourist draw. Visitors can follow a winding path to the top.

While nothing like each other, “þúfa” and “Hella Rock” both consist of natural elements and elements made by hand to look natural. They both play on the idea of what is real, and both are meant to blend in and enhance their environments.

Hella Rock, a public art project at the Eastern Prom, by Ólöf Nordal of Iceland consists of four rock boulders, one of Maine granite, one 5000 year-old lava rock from Iceland and two concrete replicas created by University of Southern Maine students. The temporary project was sponsored by The Warren Memorial Foundation and the Maine Economic Improvement Fund at the Cutler Institute. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Nordal noted that there is nothing remarkable about these natural rocks. “They are common stones. People would not normally notice them in their own land, where they originate.” But placed together, she hopes they create intrigue, because they are an unusual pair. The dark lava rock is flat and shaped like a sponge, with a rough, porous surface. It floated on top of flowing lava, and bubbles are apparent in the stone. At 800 pounds, it’s relatively light compared to the dense white granite boulder, which weighs 5,250 pounds and is shaped “almost like ball.”

“They are two opposite stones,” she said.

Nordal chose the lava rock from a quarry in Iceland, placed in the back of her truck and dropped it off at the docks in Reykjavik. The shipping company Eimskip carried it to Portland, where Eyler arranged to have it picked up and transported to Gorham. During her trip last March, Nordal found the granite on campus in Gorham. She was drawn to its shape and color and its sparkling crystals.

The hand-made casts create contrast between the new and old and what is real and not. Up close, there is no mistaking the casts as real – the seams are apparent and the cement looks unnatural. From a distance, they look natural enough. Photographer Justin Levesque appreciates the twist. “I think the notion of what is real and what is not real, especially lately, it’s a poignant conversation. What is virtual and what is real, you cannot really tell anymore,” he said.

Dinah Minot, executive director of Creative Portland, showed Nordal and Eyler various sites in Portland when the piece was still in the idea phase, before the pandemic. At the time, a large earthen piece was under consideration at Thompson’s Point or along the waterfront, along with stone pieces. Last August, they settled on “Hella Rock” at the Eastern Prom. Minot enjoyed spending time with Nordal, and found her inspirational. “I thought she was a cool, interesting woman, and I would trust anything she tried,” Minot said. “She had such incredible imagination and vision.”

“Hella Rock” is permitted through Oct. 24, 2021, according to city records, but that date could be extended by up to a year or more. Minot hopes that happens. She wants both “Hella Rock” and Salisbury’s “Gathering Stones” to become part of the city’s permanent public art collection, because both create quiet space for contemplation in one of the city’s nicest locations.

“I would love to see some of these temporary art exhibitions become permanent,” she said. “It makes for a fun outdoor art adventure on the Eastern Prom.”

Real rock or art? A pair of boulders and concrete replicas pose the question. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

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