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  • Jamie Ramsay

Following the Tide, One Year On & A New Studio

Learning the old school techniques of oil and veg tanning fish leather

A year ago today I was shipping out from a tiny island on what felt like the edge of the world. It changed my life and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about it, long for it, feel its pull.

My view of Sanna from Husøya.  I called it Snoopy Island.

Last summer, I spent a few week business residency for Life on Mars Goods, in Træna, Norway, the Arctic Circle archipelago, most known for its fishing and its annual music festival. (Though in 2018, they were just recognized with a KMD Innovation Award from innovation of culture and good results, so there’s that now, too!) I found my way to Træna to start building on the dream I have to work in sustainable materials and create goods that help people make the transition away from toxic, pollutant materials. For the health of this planet, I want to help people be able to easily incorporate natural products, in a symbiotic, less voracious way of existing. We throw away far too many synthesized materials that fall apart and end up in oceans and landfills. It’s a tough total transition, but I see the small changes people can make and the creativity with which people are doing them, and it gives me hope. So that’s what brought me there - expanding my leatherwork with the possibility of resurrecting an old material: fish leather. An island teeming with fisheries seemed like a great place to start.

And it was - the potential of Træna is enormous in so many ways, primarily on account of the inspired residents of the island, who seem to create magic in such a spontaneous and collaborative way, daily. During my residency I had the fortune to learn from a similarly minded, lady-boss, startup The Northern Company, that hand-harvests seaweed for food production. Træna nurtured the droplet of an idea that became an Ocean of Food.

Sailing from Træna, photo: Moa Björnson

A year ago today, with the leader of the residency program Moa Björnson, I was boarding a huge ferry, making my way back to mainland Norway. From there, I flew to Stockholm, and was then on my way to perfect my practical skills in fish tanning with master tanner Lotta Rahme in Sigtuna, Sweden. I remember that last night on Husøya so well, and the midnight sun soaking deep into my skin, as I barely slept...not wanting the residency to end, but also looking forward to learning how I would carry this experience, when I was physically somewhere else.

I had hoped to already have returned to Træna on this anniversary. I had hoped to have had hours of tanning fish under my belt and several prototypes made. I feel that the island is waiting.

But, sometimes, hell, as I’m learning, oftentimes, in small business, plans get delayed, timelines stretch, the hours in visions pass so much more quickly than those of the daily grind. Life, work, bills, health, balance, it’s how you learn to cope and reset without freaking out or beating yourself, up rather than the comfort of everything falling into place. At least, I’ve can look back on my life so far and confirm that, even if I forget it in the moment.

My leathering mentor: Lotta Rahme

One year on, I’m not yet at the point to do a leather run on that island that calls me.

But, without really having the time to process how it happened to smoothly, I did land myself a great opportunity to finally have a my own studio space in Chicago!!!

And I’m bolstered by a stimulating crew of studio-mates that have helped me realize the importance of this detour. Without fighting for creative space in my home or elsewhere, I am afforded more efficiency in designing and working, and might even get to that tanning run point - finally. What's better is that I get to share this space with creatives whose work I respect: my partner who paints, a woodworker/leather worker who used to play derby with me, a great photographer colleague and an interior designer. It's such a solid gold group of folks who I adore and that makes the environment that much more fertile. Rarely does the river take the course you think it will, but, ultimately you still make it to the destination, a destination, if you keep your hand on the paddles of the boat.

We’re getting things set up in the studio and every moment I stop to breathe, I feel that wash of comfort - that feeling I had when I arrived in Træna the first day, in a town of 500 people, none of whom I knew, but who all made me feel instantly supported, instantly accepted, instantly linked to this place that kept space for me.

Where all kinds of magic is going to happen.

I don’t keep up with yoga at the pace that I should, but it seems to find a way of blipping onto my radar at felicitous times. Recently, I was in class with a favorite instructor, Amber, who read a passage, as she regularly does, this one from Consolations, The Solace Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte. I always listen, and it's part of my hour and a half on the mat. But then, there are times when words won’t leave me for weeks after a class, and this is one of them.

“The ability to speak the truth is as much the ability to describe what it is like to stand in trepidation at this door, as it is to actually go through it and become that beautifully honest spiritual warrior, equal to all circumstances, we would like to become…Honesty allows us to live without knowing. We do not know the full story, we do not know where we are in the story…”

I realize, I cannot know where I am in my story, and this side narrative is not what I envisioned when I started my chapter in Træna. And I guess I told myself this a year ago, too. But if nothing else but my gut tells me, I can be honest with myself in saying that I am really happy with where this story is right now.

I do not need to know where I am at in this story, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t hope those faint sound of waves, that I hear in my head, as I fall asleep each night, didn’t get louder and closer in the next year.

Unending light in Træna
Inside Lotta's Garveri where I learned fish tanning.

Drying fish on Selvær in Træna

Træna from the ferry, across the Norwegian Sea

photos by Jamie Ramsay

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