As a collector of Faroese stamps, I look forward to receiving the Posta Stamps magazine. It always teaches me something new about the Faroe Islands, and the latest issue has introduced me to the American-Faroese artist Joel Cole. One of the first stamp releases in 2021 showcases his work, a six-stamp minisheet featuring sculptures that explore the immigrant experience. On his Instagram account Cole notes that these selected pieces are just a subset of some 80 pieces he created for this series addressing “ideas surrounding human immigration and integration.”
The sculptures are beautifully textured abstractions, radically varied in form, with titles that hint at the complex emotional experiences they represent. Although the materials seem deeply personal — they’re made of wood from artist’s native Minnesota and mounted on bases crafted from Faroese basalt — the article in Posta Stamps notes that Cole drew upon the experience of over 50 other immigrants to the Faroe Islands.
This collection caught my attention for a variety of reasons. I love his work on a purely aesthetic level, and of course the connection between Minnesota (where my wife grew up) and the Faroe Islands resonates for me personally. But I’ve also been been listening to the Home and Away radio show, which was rebroadcast over the last couple of years on the Faroe Islands Podcast. Originally aired on FM1, the host Stella Zachariassen interviews immigrants to the Faroe Islands about their varied experiences and homelands. In the latest edition she’s been talking to the children of immigrants, like the one I listened to a couple of days ago with a Pakistani-Faroese teenager who moved from England as a child. Because of these shows, I was already thinking about the experience of immigrating to such a remote island nation, and it made me wonder if any of the show’s guests contributed to Cole’s research.
Cole visited the Faroe Islands for the first time in 1986, as a high school exchange student in Klaksvík. Earlier this year he was a guest speaker (remotely) at a Rotary E-Club meeting, and the recording of that meeting with his former exchange organization is on YouTube. Watching it feels almost voyeuristic, like peaking into a private Zoom meeting with all the expected technical challenges, but it was great to get more context on Cole’s life and work. He talks about his family, how he came to meet his Faroese wife (who has a connection to the remote island of Fugloy), and how careers in the Faroe Islands require a “jack of all trades” spirit.
He also described his art studio, which is located in the abandoned NATO military base overlooking Tórshavn. Interestingly, the building is also home to the only prison in the country, and he pays his rent by instructing prisoners once a week in woodworking, philosophy, English, and other subjects. I actually drove by this building when I visited in 2018, and of course The Faroe Island podcast also has an episode on the prison.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation is learning how he acquired the wood for his sculptures. Cole describes himself as an “intuitive” artist, working with what’s in front of him, but of course there are no trees in the Faroes. When he moved to the country he packed 20 tons of wood in a shipping container, along with the content of his workshop and all his life possessions. Last year, on a trip to Minnesota, he restocked by felling nine sugar maple trees and shipping an additional 30 tons of wood back home. Some of these tree were nearly 200 years old, but harvested sustainably by working with the landowners to choose trees that had recently fallen or were dying. He mentions how the lack of trees in the Faroe Islands means there’s no native history of wood as an artistic material. Given the scarcity, imported lumber or scavenged driftwood was always put immediately to practical use.
You can see more of Cole’s work by following him on Instagram and Facebook, or visiting his website. It doesn’t appear that the Transplanted stamps are available to purchase online yet, but Posta has also announced that they’re producing two posters featuring “Floral Fireworks” and “Casual Alien” from the series. I’ll be keeping an eye on the website for both to become available.
Update: Joel Cole was interviewed on the Faroe Islands Podcast, which you can listen to below.