From sardines to art
USF Verftet is a hub of culture, creativity, and exchange
By the seaside in Bergen city lies a unique building. What used to be a sardine factory is now considered to be Norway’s largest cultural melting pot.
“When this house and its diversities comes alive, it is almost magical,” says Line Nord, who works as an administrator at USF Verftet. She describes how a black metal festival can coincide with a children’s ballet performance, perhaps on a hot summer’s day. Then you will most likely meet both people with black hair and spikes, little ballerinas and young guys in their swim trunks in the hallways of USF Verftet. Situated right by the seaside in the Nordnes neighborhood in Bergen, the area it is a great spot for taking a swim.
“I think this is what makes this job so interesting, still, after many years,” says her colleague Evy Sørensen, head of information at USF Veftet. “Things in this house are constantly changing and developing.”
Shipyard turned sardine factory
We are sitting in one of the many rooms at the USF Verftet. USF stands for United Sardine Factories, and verftet means shipyard. What used to be filled with canned fish is now a house filled with artists, a cinema, a dancing school for children, a gallery, a cafe, several stages for musical and other performances, and an authors’ school—among many things.
In 1784, Georg Brunchorst and Georg Vedeler started a shipyard here, and the street address is still “Georgernes verf.” This business ceased to operate in the late 1900s because of a decrease in use of wooden boats. After that, a knitwear factory started up, and much of the building space you see today was created during this time period. The factory soon needed more space and moved out. During the “sardine boom” in early 1900s, the factory buildings were used by the United Sardine Factories Ltd. It was very successful for many years, but in 1983 the factory closed for good. But by then, a young artist named Per Harald Nilsson and some of his friends had started moving in.
“It was kind of like a coincidence,” Evy and Line explain.
Nilsson was a young ceramics student, and he was looking for a place to finish his degree work—preferably a large space where he could make a lot of mess. Back in those days, there was hardly a proper road leading out to Verftet, with practically everything seaborn. Young Nilsson was permitted to use an old boiler room in Verftet to make his artwork. But word of mouth traveled fast, and soon many other artists wanted to set up their studios in Verftet.
The building owner saw this as an opportunity to make use of the old buildings, and he rented out rooms to artists. In addition to the studios, Verftet slowly grew into a proper house of culture. The project was formalized as a foundation in 1990 and received sufficient funding from the authorities. In 1993, the USF Verftet as we know it today opened. This was a completely new concept in Bergen and Norway at this time, inspired by how artists abroad had made use of old factory buildings. And in Norway it has inspired many other similar cultural houses.
“But it was a struggle for many in the early years. Our bookkeeper had to buy his own pencils,” Evy recalls. They can laugh about it now, but Verftet was definitively made of strong will and idealism, from the bottom up.
Welcoming international artists
Line is in charge of the Artist-in-Residency (AiR) program at Verftet. This is an opportunity open to international artists to come and live and work in Bergen for a period of time. And for the last 20 years, over 100 artists from all over the world have stayed here for one to three months, creating art, and making connections. It is funded by Bergen municipality and is completely free for the visiting artist.
“Our main goal is to strengthen, develop, and promote connections between the international artists and the Bergen art scene. I would say this has been a success. Foreign artists find Bergen open and welcoming and easy to navigate. It’s not a huge city, so you can more easily get into a milieu. Actually, a few of our former residents have moved to Bergen after their stay here. Here we used to say that rather than being oriented inward, toward the Norwegian capital Oslo, Bergen is oriented toward the world. I think this mindset comes from earlier times when the sea was the road to the world,” Line says.
More music, please
From all the countries in the world, the United States is highly represented, and artists from Seattle have also been visiting here. To apply, an artist has to send in a formal application form, which can be found on the USF Verftet website.
“What are you looking for when reviewing applications?”
“I am not an artist myself, so I cannot judge an artistic performance. For that we get help from people in whichever genre the artist is working. But we do look for applicants who wish to meet other artists and make connections and collaborations in Bergen.
“There have been very different types of artists, and musicians especially find their way to Bergen. The city is known for its music, going all the way back to Edvard Grieg and Ole Bull, to black metal, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and more recently, Borealis (contemporary music festival) and big pop stars like Sigrid and Aurora coming out of the Bergen scene.
“But we do get very few applications from pop musicians. We would absolutely welcome more of them to apply. Or traditional musicians, merging folk music and contemporary music. We are open to most people!”
Social exchange important
Kari Aasen is a well-known ceramic artist who has her studio in Verftet. She has been here for many years now, and she says it is a wonderful place for art.
“I came here in 2001, when there already were several established artists here. The best part is that you get into a daily network of different artists within different disciplines. That is not so common, I think” she says.
Kari likes the social part of being a part of Verftet, and she has also met many international artists who stayed at the AiR.
“Where else can I get in touch with an Iranian woman artist? It’s a wonderful exchange.”
Kari is known internationally, and she has shown her work in many parts of the world, including Michigan, Washington state (Seattle), and Iowa in the United States.
Some of her recent works include an interesting technique where a perishable object, for example a plant, has been dipped in liquid porcelain and then fired. The result is a non-perishable object, almost like a fossil, a frozen moment in time. Sometimes these little objects are placed in a large circle. She entitles the work “Still Life.”
“It is about the passing of the time. The circle is a symbol for the year’s seasons. For you, is summer at the bottom of the circle or at the top of the circle?” she asks.
A circle also symbolizes a clock, something most people didn’t really use, or need, before the industrial revolution.
Looking to the U.S.
“Our time is such a dilemma,” says her visiting friend and artist colleague, Rolf Monsen. “Because the people who will know most about our times, are not yet to be born. By that, I mean, that we are not capable of seeing what the main currents of the times just now are, since we are in the middle of it.”
Kari and Rolf have an intriguing philosophical talk about the passing of time and memories that have changed as time goes by.
Originally a trained goldsmith, Rolf started painting in the 1970s. He has exhibited in Asia and Norway, as well as in Minneapolis over 25 years ago. Now, the two artists are planning to go back to the United States together.
“We wish to do a joint exhibition in Seattle. We had started planning before the corona pandemic hit, and now that society is reopening, we are hoping to make the plans into reality,” they say.
You can read more about USF Verftet and also apply for a residency at this website: usf.no.
Note: This article was created while the writer stayed with the AiR program at Verftet. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the residency was made available for Norwegian artists for a limited period of time.
Photos by Ingerid Jordal
This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.