Hanne Ugelstad

John Karas



Q. Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in a town called Larvik, on the south-east coast of Norway. I grew up dancing ballet, playing piano, singing in choirs, and was either reading or drawing something whenever I could. I’ve loved art for as long as I can remember.

I received a Degree in Social Pedagogy and Social Work, and wrote my final paper on my use of photography as part of therapeutic practice. I worked for years as a therapist at a residential home with teenagers placed outside their home by child protective services. I also did some work teaching and counselling students at Oslo Met University College.

Later, some random and serendipitous circumstances saw me at a workshop hosted by Subvertising Norway. It’s a form of art-based activism, where one of the methods is to replace advertisements in outdoor adshells with your own piece of art, or by simply removing the ad, leaving the adshells empty. It’s a way to challenge who has the power to communicate messages and create meaning in public space. As a society, we criminalise graffiti and marginalise people who dare use a surface they don’t own as a canvas for expression, but we’re okay with huge corporations advertising their products so they can make more money, without even asking us for permission to use our shared public spaces to do so? I quit my job because there’s only so much personal accountability can, realising that at some point society needs to own up to the structures that maintain and create inequality; and here was this fun, creative, non-violent and ephemeral intervention in public space, questioning the validity of the idea that you need to have money (or other forms of socio-economic or cultural capital) to legalise your right to express yourself in our society. I made my first painting in nearly 20 years that day. 

I was given a huge sheet of blank paper. I had no idea what to I wanted to paint, when someone walked by and noticed the plastic painter’s palette that I had placed in the middle of it, and said: you should paint that. And so, I did. And next to it, I just wrote ‘Create your own reality’. A few hours later, the guy that had invited me to the workshop sent me a photo of my very simple painting installed inside one of those backlit adshells, and it was just one of these moments, you know, where suddenly something new reveals itself. I was just done looking for someone else to qualify and validate my creative expressions, because the act of expressing myself through art, and claiming the space I needed, was the point of it all. It didn’t need to look good, it just needed to be done. 

Q. How do you describe your art?

I would describe my art as communication. My professional and educational background is all about communication, and the willingness to constantly expand my understanding of what this is. My previous job gave me the chance to work with a lot of extremely complicated relationships, to help create a new way to communicate within these relationships. A lot of issues arises when painful emotions are communicated in a form that disrupts our concepts of normalcy. A kid expressing their pain and trauma through destroying things, substance abuse, violence towards themselves or others, is very often told to express this pain in a way that’s more socially accepted. And I don’t disagree with helping people to learn more constructive forms of communicating and expressing themselves, I just have an issue with labelling, marginalising and punishing people who don’t or can’t comply with our social norms, without at least acknowledging their very serious attempt at expressing themselves, even if it gets in the way of our plans. A lot of people are made to feel like their pain is an inconvenience.

I would describe my art as wanting to defy expectations. I share what I make and my process of learning through social media, in the hopes that someone might think ‘well, if SHE can do it, so can I’.  Whether other people like or dislike the images is beside the point for me (but it’s nice if someone likes them of course). Personally, it’s about wanting to empower myself and others to express ourselves and who we are, by being willing to reveal our own vulnerability and incompetence. I’d also describe my art as privilege. I have the possibility to do this, because I have the economic means and a social security net to do so. There are many people around the world risking everything for their right to speak, and for their right to simply exist. I think we owe it to each other to work towards a more open-minded and equal world, and you start with yourself. I have food, I have a safe home. I’m not risking much other than my pride and my “reputation”, and who cares about that. Seriously.


Q. What are the main inspirations for your paintings?

Humans, our emotions, our relationships, our interactions. We are all unique individuals, yet we are so alike. Just think about the fact that when a child is born, that child can learn any language on this earth at any time in history, because you are not born with the genes for a specific language, you are born with the capacity to communicate. We communicate via symbols, letters, numbers, words, images; we communicate with our bodies, our whole being. You are born with your humanity, but you are also made human, through your interaction with other humans and this planet, nature, animals, and so on. We need each other. 

Q. How are you managing to stay creative during self-isolation?

Some days I don’t, and that’s ok. I have a broad definition of creativity. I saw a lot of great creativity in the minds and actions of kids involved with what a lot of people would call deviant behaviour. Creativity exists wherever there’s life, without going into a discussion about what level of consciousness is necessary to perform creativity, because it’s not necessary to define a limit for that. I’m an explorer in this, I just try my best not to judge any of my ideas too harshly, and try whatever comes up. I’m not too scared of starting from scratch or throwing something out if it doesn’t work, and at the same time I’m very pragmatic. If it works, great, I’ll keep it; if it doesn’t, okay, let’s stop doing that then, and start over. I have a lot of freedom - no deadlines, no demands - it’s just me experimenting. 

These are extreme conditions that we are collectively experiencing. I think we need to be a little gentle with ourselves these days. This might not be when we come up with brilliant ideas, because our minds are busy dealing with stuff that we might not even register. And that’s totally fine. 

Countries and cultures are handling this pandemic in very different ways. How do you feel Norwegians are responding to “the new normal”?

I think our first response was very typically Norwegian, in that we quietly braced ourselves for what might potentially happen. The change for me occurred when the government decided to close all schools and day-care for children. I went to the grocery store that day, and the panic was visible. I was a little disappointed in us that day, but I get it, I know what fear does to us.

People often act in a way that presents itself as very selfish, and people respond to selfishness by wanting to punish that behaviour, by shaming them for their selfishness. But by doing so, we push them even further into their perception that no one else is looking out for them but themselves, and the cycle of anger, resentment, shame, avoidance, and selfishness continues. At the same time, this collective elevated level of stress and fear makes us all be a little less receptive to processing new information, meaning that we are in a bad situation to learn stuff. Our response to the new normal is only as good as our knowledge of the old normal, I guess.

Q. What do you miss most?

I live a pretty quiet and slow-paced life by myself, so what most people are experiencing now does not really represent a change for me personally, it’s rather the rest of the world adjusting to my pace, and my way of living. But, I do miss being able to travel right now. And hugging. 

Q. What do you think society will learn from this experience?

I think there’s not too many things in this world more resilient than culture, and “our way of doing things”. I think this is an exceptional possibility to observe ourselves, our society, under pressure. For me, I have been expecting a huge crisis for a long time. The climate crisis is far from resolved and can’t be solved, in my opinion, if we continue down the path of consumerism and capitalism. There’s just no amount of greenwashing that will change an inherently exploitative system into something that will protect life on planet Earth. The increase in inequality troubled me deeply long before this pandemic; the social issues are only magnified now. When the schools closed, I just cried, because I knew that a lot of children lost their only safe space. For a lot of people, their home is the most dangerous place to be. I am not at all advocating against the closing due to medical concerns, I totally get it. But the issues we are facing have been worsened by years of depleting our most important social institutions for the sake of profit. 

I believe and hope with all my being, that this suspended position from our “normal” life a lot of us are experiencing now, may open more minds to the fact that things don’t have to be the way they have been. We can change things. And we are the ones who can change them. The previous generations have brought us to this moment in time, with all our resources, our knowledge, our infrastructure, and the means of distributing everything anyone would need all around the world. We don’t have to produce any more money to make this happen, we just need to agree that every human alive on this earth has the same right to be alive as anyone else. I believe that the window of opportunity is closing fast. If we don’t act, we will be faced with a serious problem of running out of resources if we don’t start redistributing them right now, and choose a sustainable story for us to justify our actions according to. And I am convinced that the knowledge, wisdom and experience of our worlds indigenous people should lead the way in this endeavour. 

Q. What art will you be working on next?

I am working on some larger paintings these days, and I’m also trying to learn how to make tapestry. I do a lot of knitting and crochet, and it just makes sense for me to try to learn another way to work with these materials, and implement my own sense of form and symbols into what I make with them. I want to make art that’s supposed to be touched, not just looked at.



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