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Solitary Refinement

Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir at Mission Hill Family Estate.

Not unlike a case of fine vintage vino, it’s a rare case that wine country, in any country, doesn’t get better with age. When growing conditions are prime, rows of tangled grapevines anchor a winery’s horizon with a slow-growing sense of patience and place. At Mission Hill Family Estate winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, this recess from the ordinary reaches a near-monastic realm.

Situated high above Okanagan Lake and sequestered behind 4,500-kilogram steel gates, Mission Hill welcomes almost 130,000 visitors annually, with good reason, as proprietor Anthony von Mandl built the property up around a foundation of, yes, award-winning wines, but also much more. “The idea at Mission Hill was always to celebrate the art of fine wine and the culinary arts, the performing arts, and the visual arts. And the space, from the very beginning, was designed to contain sculpture.” To that end, the winery’s latest installation Encounters with Iceland alights upon the property this summer, opening to the public on June 22.

The creative mind of Reykjavik-born artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir is behind the 40-plus sculptures now dotting the grounds, who von Mandl first met while on a trip to Iceland last year: “[My wife and I] look all over the world for art, and every couple of years we stumble across something that really emotionally resonates.” And so, the artist’s pieces have traversed the globe over the course of two months and made their way to Canada.

Thórarinsdóttir’s materials palette includes iron, aluminum, and glass. Most of the smaller pieces found their genesis as hand-built clay figurines later cast in iron, while the life-sized sculptures are primarily plaster moulds modelled upon the artist’s eldest son’s body—a process that lends a subtle, added level of value to the work. “I look upon them as my children in a way,” she says. “Yes, my son is the base, though I am still looking at [the works] as more or less androgynous symbols of humanity.”

The installation begins upon approach to the winery gates, with two figures that appear to be scaling the fortress-like walls—a clue as to what lies within.“My work is all about those frozen moments of contemplation,” says Thórarinsdóttir. “Going through the gate at Mission Hill you already feel the tranquil and peaceful atmosphere; it’s already another world. The possibility to stop and think is part of the whole installation.”

Intentionally, work was installed in unexpected places, both indoors and out, upon the rambling grounds and the property’s 17th-century Renaissance fountain, within the underground cellar, and at many unexpected twists along the way. “In some ways, it feels as though the winery was built around these works,” adds von Mandl. “I can’t imagine them ever not being there.” Certain pieces will, no doubt, be purchased and remain amongst Mission Hill’s ever-growing private collection after the exhibition wraps. “I’ve been doing figurative work since the beginning, for 35 years,” notes Thórarinsdóttir. “But Iceland has always been a very big part of it. The texture, the colour—it is a very large country with few people, so the spirit of the figures I am making is connected to that feeling of being alone in a large space.”

Rays of sunlight catch the sculptures’ glass and aluminum accents at varying angles during the day, allowing a rhythmic, sundial-like symbiosis with their surroundings; each figure appears firmly grounded in solitary strength. In the outdoor-gallery environment, the pieces intentionally develop a natural patina with time. As Thórarinsdóttir puts it: “They age like we do. It is just part of life. And they have a life, also.”