From Lagom #4

Carving among Icebergs

We visit carver Kim Kristensen’s studio nestled high on the hills of Greenland’s west coast, and discover his passion for carving and carrying on Greenlandic tradition.

Words Talia Carlisle

Photographs Thomas Seear-Budd

A shiver snuck up my spine as sparkling ice territory conquered by Greenland’s almighty ice sheet.

Crystals appeared in the windows of our small plane swooping over the vast white ice-scape below. My familiar green, grassy home of New Zealand was far removed from my mind, and trees no longer existed in this Arctic and now unfamiliar. 

Nervousness faded into excitement as I watched spiky tendrils of glaciers spurn from the sheet and wind down over the rocky terrain far below.

Our arrival in Ilulissat was a surreal experience for me and my partner Thomas, having dreamed of this day for six months. While riding out Wellington’s windy winter confined to the indoors, we spent our days dreaming about icebergs and even colder temperatures of –9 to 1° C. It might seem crazy to venture from the sunny land of the long white cloud to the land of white ice — a world so strange to us and unvisited by most New Zealanders. Realising that Greenland is under the ever-present threat of climate change, we wanted to experience the frozen country’s beauty while we could, and find out more about the Greenlandic people. So we headed through the rocky red tundra to meet the residents of Ilulissat.

Having spent a few days exploring Greenland’s west coast, we stumbled upon a humble workshop near Ilulissat’s colourful town centre. Pastel-coloured wooden buildings like this fill west Greenland’s rocky terrain and, while unassuming from the outside, many contain surprising and creative enterprises within. 

Discovering Kim Kristensen’s workshop was a surprise I had come to expect during my two-week stay in West Greenland. Arriving in his workshop was like walking into a snowstorm, with the whirr of machinery and powdered white dust of bone chippings assaulting the senses as well as the otherwise clean floor. The surrounding noise contrasted strongly with the gentle detailing in his bone carvings, which sat in glass cases around the room. I passed these and arrived face-to-face with a man in dust-covered blue overalls, complemented by a cheeky grin and a contagious passion for life.

Seeing my curiosity, Kim welcomed me into his sanctuary and introduced me to his display of tupilak, a Greenlandic form of carvings originally designed to keep away evil spirits. The word ‘tupilak’ means an ancestor’s soul or spirit. In the past, a tupilak’s spirit would be called upon to help fight a foe by way of a shaman. A figure would be secretly created using bones or other parts of an animal, and would then be consecrated by singing a spell over it. The tupilak was often sent out to sea so it could find the enemy and kill them. However, if the tupilak’s victim had greater powers than its creator, they could repel its attack and send the tupilak to kill its originator instead.

Carving began as a creative outlet for Kim, who is also a fireman and fisherman in the small Greenlandic town. There are not many fires in this icy refuge — sometimes just one a month — so Kim’s carving quickly escalated, and his talents became noticed by his friends and family. “I put my heart into my work,” he says. “My friends and family said to me, ‘Kim, build a workshop,’ so I thought I would try it.”

In recent years, Kim’s workshop has produced hundreds of tupilak figures carved mostly in tooth, bone, or stone sourced from the adjacent harbour or nearby landscape. Using locally-sourced materials is an important part of the process for Kim. “I make many necklaces of whale tails from whale jaws three or four metres long,” he told me. “I also use reindeer, narwhal, musk ox horns and teeth, walrus, and polar bear teeth.”

Since starting his workshop five years ago, the self-taught carver has developed his skills and range of products, as well as his creative and physical process, in making his designs. The introduction of new technologies not available to his predecessors has propelled his work forward. “A hundred years ago, people were making them with knives and stones — not with machines like today,” he says.

Using both traditional and modern techniques, Kim is proud to carry on the tradition of tupilak carving — an artform he has refined over time. When he first started carving, it took him three days to make a ring. “Now it takes 15 minutes,” he tells me. Nevertheless Kim puts his heart into every product he makes. When admiring his finished designs, Kim’s face beams with a proud grin, whether it’s a ring, key ring, necklace, bracelet, or miniature sled. In recent years tupilak have become better recognised as works of art, which began when Europeans started exploring West Greenland and discovered the figures. Today tourists from cruise liners keep Kim busy as he transforms tales of Greenlandic history into carved sentiments that visitors can take away with them. Increased numbers of tourists demand long hours of Kim, who works from 8am until 6pm every day to cater for the visitors from Europe and people from Ilulissat. Kim revels in telling his customers about the pieces and where they come from, satisfied that they will provide a means of keeping Greenland’s history alive. 

Lagom #4 cover

This story first appeared in the print edition of our second issue, which is still available to buy from our online shop.

Buy Lagom #4