Ove in Antarctica in 2003.
Ove in Antarctica in 2003.

Journey into Ove's artland

Ove Altmann spends his days as a creative arts assistant at St John’s College Woodlawn helping kids with visual arts, multimedia, music and theatre. But he has just come back from a trip to Norway, where he was the artist in residence on board a ship that runs cruises into the artic circle.

Ove was working for an Australian company called Theme Media run by Ashley Frost, an old friend of his from their days at the National Art School in Sydney.

Theme Media has reworked an old idea of putting artists on ships to capture and record the journey. They also engage passengers in workshops and assist them to make their own artworks.

When the company started in 2003, Ashley gave Ove the job of helping him establish a bit of a template for how things might work. Ove became one of the first artists in residence on board the Russian icebreaker Khlebnikov on an expedition to Antarctica.

“I gave a lecture on my work and my processes and then spoke about artists that had been to Antarctica, like painter Sidney Nolan, author John Marsden and photographer Frank Hurley, and some of the issues they faced working in extreme environment. I was also shooting video and taking photographs to use as the basis for further works and doing observational drawings and keeping a journal at the same time,” Ove said. “Then I did workshops for the passengers on how they could do it themselves and it was basically ‘we’ve got art materials, how would you like to get involved?’ And people really enjoyed it. They got into it and we had an exhibition of their work at the end of the voyage.”

The program has been a success and Theme Media has employed dozens of artists for similar expeditions over the years. Then last year they got a call from Norwegian shipping company Hurtigruten, which was interested in running a similar program on their cruise ships.

Ove, who was born in Norway and speaks the language, couldn’t believe it when he got the call. He hadn’t been back to his homeland for 28 years and jumped at the opportunity.

“I was unresolved personally, spiritually, emotionally, having been disconnected from my Norwegian past, having not been there for so long. I feel like a Nor-stralian; very much Australian but I also have this strong sense of where I’ve come from and I really wanted to go back and start developing ties with Norway again,” he said.

“That was a big aspect of the journey for me… One of the traps of owning your own home is you become more sedentary and look at your garden more, which is perfect for me at this stage of my life, but the adventure part is still there and as soon as Theme gave me the call I grabbed the opportunity.”

After spending a few weeks meeting up with aunts, uncles and cousins, Ove immersed himself in Norwegian art, visiting as many galleries as he could as part of his lecture preparation.

And because he speaks fluent Norwegian, he met up with the head of Hurtigruten, with whom he and Ashley discussed various ideas.

“Hurtigruten have branched out to become a significant player in the cruise market… They were looking for new ideas for their own self promotion. They’re not about gambling or partying, it’s generally for the gentle traveller so it’s about the scenery. It’s a perfect environment for an artist to work in with the passengers,” Ove said.

The voyage itself was an 11-day cruise on the coastal cruise ship Polarlys, from Bergen in the south of Norway up to Kirkenes, near the Russian border.

It was a small cruise in the off season, with 60 to 100 passengers at different stages of the voyage. Ove said they were predominantly English, but also German, Swiss, Danish and American.

“We went on board to give workshops on watercolour or charcoal drawing and how to look at landscape and compose… It gave the tourists the opportunity to get more involved with the beauty that was all around them.

“As well as giving workshops and lectures, we were helping people with their own ability to take photographs and shoot video. It’s a common problem: people with high-tech technology often don’t really know how to use it.”

They also shot their own photos and video for a multimedia DVD with interactive maps, which passengers could buy as a memento of their trip.

When The Echo visited Ove at home he was frantically working away on his laptop trying to get everything in order for the DVD.

Ove said the trip was very much a pilot project for both Theme Media and Hurtigruten, but if all went well, they were hoping to create a roster of artists for the whole fleet of 20-30 ships.

Ove said most of the artists would come from Europe, but he’s hoping it might allow him to tap back into his Norwegian roots and visit his relatives every now and then.

“The artists need to be good with people, be able to work to a hectic schedule, wear a lot of different hats and speak several languages,” he said.

It’s a job that seems tailor made for him.

At age 15, Ove left his family in Australia to study navigation in Norway, following in the steps of his father and grandfather. He then spent a year working on board a chemical tanker, but realised life at sea was not for him.

“I realised it was more of a dream than a reality for me. It was hard; 12 hour days, seven days a week and I worked in the very unglamorous world of chemical tankers. I saw a lot of things in life at a young age that really opened my eyes up, so I came back to Australia specifically to study arts,” he said.

Over the years he has worked in film and theatre as well as the visual arts and now enjoys sharing his skills with a younger generation.

“Now this has come along and just ticks all the boxes for me; it allows me to get back to Norway, to pursue my own artistic practices, to get on board ships again. Then there’s the opportunity to problem solve and develop an artistic program from the ground up,” he said. “It’s become more than just a job on a ship, it’s more like a spiritual homecoming or awakening.”

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