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Relocation 1960s style

Many of us struggle with starting a life in a new country but consider the challenges faced decades ago

Photographs: Heather Gartside

Text: Heather Gartside

Heather Spears is a celebrated Canadian writer, artist, and poet, who has lived in Denmark since the early 1960s. Her home for many years was on the rugged and isolated island of Bornholm. She, her husband, and 2 babies had arrived in London from Montreal in the isvinter of ’62. From there, her husband sailed onwards to seek work as a potter “somewhere in Scandinavia.” Eventually, Heather received a telegram that he had booked her passage, and set sail one November morning from London docks with her babies in a cargo ship filled with empty Tuborg beer bottles. As I interviewed her, she recalled the sheer horror of that crossing in a violent storm which, thankfully, forced the ship to take the Kiel canal instead of the exposed journey around the ’Iron Coast’ of northern Jutland.

Speechless Once on Bornholm, the family settled in a tiny apartment in Svaneke. Heather laughed as she told me it was the old fattighus (the workhouse). The red and yellow ochres of the village houses were the only warmth that Heather recalled in that bitterly cold first winter when ice blocked the ferries, and snow covered the island for 7 months. Her husband worked, and she looked after the children but found herself unable to communicate with the locals, who spoke a distinct Danish/Swedish dialect and a smattering of German. To help her to combat the cultural grief that she felt, Heather told herself that their time on the island was ”just until next year,” surely a tactic which many of us have used during the early days of our extended sojurns?

Settlers The years passed by. Heather learned Danish along with the children – no lessons on offer then! In the summer months, she painted portraits of Geman tourist children and began to teach locally – which led to her refining and devising new ways of learning the art and science behind drawing. Like her children, she became bilingual, but it was in the inner world of creativity that Heather blossomed – publishing books, writing poetry and developing her consumate skill as an artist. She began to exhibit internationally, to teach workshops throughout Denmark, and right up to the present, make annual trips to Canada and the UK with workshops and residencies.

Wonderful Copenhagen

In the 1980s Heather relocated to Frederiksberg. Here in Denmark and around the world, she flourished as a respected artist, teacher and writer. Her home is filled with books, patchwork quilts, and files of thousands of drawings of premature infants, courtroom scenes, Palestinian children (she travelled twice to Gaza), musicians, poets, authors, dancers, craftsmen, and swimmers. The front part of the apartment, once a shop, is a small gallery and working space. In her lounge, she has a large PC where she communicates daily with the world; her friends, family, fans and where she has just completed a third edition of her textbook for artists - The Creative Eye.

First impressions

I first met Heather at an expats’ writers’ group meeting, one dark Danish evening in 2003. I noted the wise words, the pared-down sentences, and thoughtful observations of one whose life had been dedicated to noticing the nuances and truth both in word and in line. She drew my infant daughter, as I held her to read my latest piece of prose aloud. The drawing she made is one of my most treasured belongings. She deftly captured the essence of my baby, and as I glance today at the simple sketch, it still invokes maternal feelings in me – she captured the very soul.

Heather Spears, has published 15 collections of poetry, 5 novels, and 3 books of drawings. She has won several literary prizes including and The Governor General’s Award. She is a respected teacher of drawing workshops in Denmark, the UK and Canada, and has held artist residencies in hospitals, drawn in courtrooms, war zones, concert halls, at literary festivals, and in drawing premature and stillborn babies. She has exhibited widely in Europe and America. The Creative Eye, drawing, vision, and the brain were reissued in 2020 (ISBN-13: 978-8797161906) as an affordable how-to-draw manual for serious artists and those interested in the science behind creativity. Heather Spears will be launching this to coincide with an important exhibition of her work at My Beautiful Gallery (Rungsted Kyst) at 12:30 – 17:00 on the 8th of March 2020 (see event listings)

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