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The people of Svalbard

Our guide to the tough, resolute and fascinating people who call Longyearbyen, Svalbard, home. Part of our Svalbard special.


The artist (who is not Santa Claus)

Olaf Storø is not just the most famous artist in Longyearbyen – he’s something of a local legend. When the summer comes, his beard disappears and he walks around in shorts and flip-flops. Come the winter, they say the beard appears almost overnight. And no one’s ever seen him next to Santa Claus.

We meet Storø in his impressive three-storey home/studio, which is dominated by a giant Steinmesse & Stolberg lithography press, on which Storø makes almost all of his art. “I love the process, the smell of ink,” he says, showing us how he paints and carves onto stone slabs before creating his works – most of them blue-hued Svalbard landscapes – on the four-and-a-half tonne machine. “It goes into your spine”.

Storø was a pre-school teacher in a past life, before becoming a full-time artist in 1986 and studying at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä. He bought the lithography press in 1996 for his other studio in Kristiansand, for the bargain price of NOK20,000 (it should have cost more like NOK400,000), towing it away with a Toyota Landcruiser and then a crane.

Svalbard, he says, was a dream growing up – when he was 11 years old and living in Levanger, a friend of his father’s called Lars was a trapper, a traditional hunter, who taught Storø to hunt, fish and wax skis. “Svalbard was always the ultimate place for a trapper. I first came here in 1989 for an exhibition in Ny-Alesund. It was a success, everything sold and it made the local papers here and at home. When I went back home, near Stavanger, my wife gave me the phone and said: There’s an angry man on the line. It was the old trapper, angry that I’d gone to Svalbard without him. Very soon, a helicopter arrived in the village – it was Lars. He was an old man, but he said: ‘You’ve been to Svalbard without me; I’ll kill you.’ Luckily, he wasn’t serious.”

Storø soon got a place on Svalbard, spending ten years coming to Isfjord Radio before moving to his current Longyearbyen digs in 2000. When he first bought the house it was a simple cabin, but he’s built it up over the years. “It took 14 days to become a workshop,” he says. He still has a studio in Kristiansand, but Longyearbyen is home, and his 15-year-old daughter (one of four, from two marriages) goes to the local school.

Svalbard, he says, is “an illness. It goes in through your feet and sticks in your heart. It’s the silence, the colours, the darkness, the light, the friends, the stories. It’s also a nice society to have a daughter in – if something were to happen, I’d have a call within ten minutes. Unfortunately for her, if she’s holding hands with a guy, I tend to hear.”


Meet Ah, the Thai chef

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