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Last updated on Mar 18, 2020

Midnight Sun

Faculty: Aspen Mays

May 20-June 9, 2020

Housing Check-in: Wednesday, May 20
Housing Check out: Tuesday, June 9

red field with Icelandic ponies against the backdrop of a rocky black mountain and cloudy sky

Open to undergraduate and graduate students

Starting in Mid-May, the sun in Iceland only sets for three hours of twilight a day – a phenomenon known as the “Midnight Sun.” This abundance of daylight is but one backdrop to our experience of a land forged by fire and ice. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, runs through the center of the island nation, one of the only places on Earth where such a boundary rises above the ocean. The movement of these plates not only formed Iceland, but also continues to make it one of the most geologically active places on the planet (with over 30 volcanic mountains!). Significantly, Iceland has harnessed these forces to generate all of its power from renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. What’s more, Iceland, a tumultuous land with a population of only 350,000 is known around the world for its remarkable creative output in art and music.

Medieval wooden sculpture of a bearded man with his hand outstretched toward the viewer in the National Museum of Iceland

As we look to an uncertain future, many of the dynamic forces at play in Iceland offer valuable insights into coexisting with nature, creative problem solving, and living with a deep artistic engagement. As visitors, as artists and designers, how can we channel, observe, and participate in this rhythm of change, destruction, and regeneration? How does it shape what we make, the conversations we have, and the relationships we form?

Let’s find out together. We ground our experiential approach in observational science as both model and metaphor for collaborative research and field work. In this three-week interdisciplinary course, students encounter the people, nature, culture, and history of Iceland. The first week takes place in the capital city of Reykjavik where we immerse ourselves in contemporary culture, social life, and the creative work of Icelanders. We visit galleries, museums, and artist studios to situate ourselves in Iceland’s vital interdisciplinary arts scene. We look at primary source documents of historic volcanic eruptions and meet with geologists and astrophysicists at the National Geomagnetic Observatory to glimpse the types of novel scientific research taking place in Iceland today, as well as how these disciplines evolved over time. Guided by observational methodologies, we discuss and plan collaborative and idiosyncratic ways to document and record our experiences traveling around the country. What is needed to create the conditions for unexpected connections in our work?

Sailboats lined up in front of the modern Harpa Concert Hall, covered in blocks of iridescent color, shimmering like the sea
Black and white image of a white sky over a snowy expanse of ground with the minuscule figure of a man in its midst; a hill rises up from the ground to his right.
Dark grey Icelandic glaciers with two almost circular pools of water in the foreground and a long stretch of water in the middleground.

From Reykjavik, we journey south over one or two days (possibly stopping at Vatnajökull National Park, a volcanic glacier and location of the Laki eruption in 1783 – still one of the largest ever recorded) along the famous Ring Road to the fjords on the east coast of the island, where we spend the next two weeks in the tiny village of Seyðisfjörður. With a population of fewer than 700, this village was the location of Dieter Roth’s studio in the final decades of his life and is the current home of four different artist residencies, an experimental art school, a yearly arts festival, the site of a permanent sound sculpture in the mountains above the town, the location of archaeological research demonstrating continuous human occupation since the Viking settlement in 1000 BC, a seabird monitoring center, and the port of arrival for a weekly ferry from Denmark, in operation since the last century.

In Seyðisfjörður, we settle in and meet with local arts institutions, as well as the local scientific research station, as we consider our own creative output in this remote place. How has this small town managed such a dynamic flux of artists and artistic endeavors? In a hyper-local way, we look to adapt these strategies for ourselves as we explore potential locations for exhibiting work in progress, but more broadly, we discuss how to build artistic relationships for future collaborations and what to consider as an artist and designer working in residencies around the globe. While students are encouraged to initiate and pursue individual lines of inquiry through exploring, journaling, and researching, a variety of prompts are also provided that center on direct observation and perception of the surrounding natural environment. As the class concludes, we travel north on the Ring Road back to Reykjavik, effectively circumnavigating Iceland’s entire perimeter in our three-week journey.

photo credits: top right, Brendon Kahn; second on the right, Jeffrey Li; third on the right, Brendon Kahn; bottom right, Jeffrey Li

This trip was not only an aid for thinking about my artwork, but also an aid in thinking about life. It opened my eyes to so many new and humbling things that I would go so far as to say that everyone needs to experience Iceland.

This class was the best thing I could've done for myself and my art practice.

. . . significantly and positively changed my artistic practice and methods and made me reconsider the place my art has in the world.

In her photographic work, Aspen Mays has been called a “Postmodern mystic.” Her work challenges the expectation of photography as a documentary and categorical medium, and her research explores the visualization of knowledge in both visual art and observational sciences. She is interested in the fantasy of objectivity in photographic processes, the artifacts and archives of these processes, and the desire for transcendence in the ordinary and prosaic.

Learn more about Aspen Mays »

CCA students  at master class with interaction designer, Nils Wiberg, at Gagarin Reykjavik


  • Undergraduate students: Completion of at least sophomore level by summer 2020 and instructor approval
  • For Photo Advanced Workshop (PHOTO 3700) credit: PHOTO 3000, PHOTO 3400, PHOTO 4000, and instructor approval.
  • For Upper-Division Interdisciplinary Studio credit: Drawing 1, 2D, 3D, 4D, Writing 1, Foundations in Critical Studies, Intro to the Arts and Intro to the Modern Arts. Junior Standing and instructor approval.
  • Graduate students: Instructor approval

In addition, all students must be in good academic, conduct, and financial standing for the 2019-20 academic year. Students who are on probation in fall 2019 are not eligible to enroll in a 2020 summer study-abroad program.

Course Satisfies

  • For undergraduate students, this course satisfies a Studio Elective or, for students who have achieved junior or senior standing by Summer 2020, an Upper Division Interdisciplinary Studio.
  • For photo undergraduates, this course satisfies a Studio Elective, an Upper Division Interdisciplinary Studio, or an Photo Advanced Workshop requirement.
  • For graduate students, this course satisfies a Grad-wide Elective or Studio Practice.

Icelandic Artist Studio Visit.jpg

Program Fee
$5,600 + $50 summer registration fee.

Included in program fee:

  • 3 credits, housing, shared studio space, breakfasts while in Seyðisfjörður and two group dinners, guest lectures, museum entrance fees, field trips, and travel/health insurance

Not included in program fee:

  • Airfare to and from Iceland, ground transportation to and from airport in Iceland, most meals

Please read the Summer Study Abroad Registration & Related Information in its entirety.


Please see Frequently Asked Questions.

All CCA summer study-abroad courses (including Exhibition Brooklyn and New Orleans) are coordinated by the Office of Special Programs.

Office of Special Programs
Oakland campus, Irwin Student Center

Nina Sadek
Dean of Special Programs

Carol Pitts
Operations Manager, Special Programs