(Originally published in the High Plains Reader on July 12, 2017.)
Justin Chirico and his wife, Sarah Chirico-Wyss, live in Glåmos, a village just north of Rørøs, Norway. They have 10 Alaskan huskies and a black labrador named Belmont who is training to be a rescue dog and a bed bug sniffing dog.
Sarah races the dogs competitively, while Justin prefers to take the dogs out for fun and doesn’t have any interest in mushing. Together they train the animals that they consider part of their family.
He said that interacting daily with the dogs has helped to build a connection with them, and each of the dogs has their own personality that makes them diverse and individual.
“There’s a love there,” Justin said. “There’s a friendship.”
Finding His Place
However, Justin is new to life in rural Norway. Justin is a New York painter who found his artistic voice and the loves of his life in the Norwegian countryside.
He grew up around creative people and always liked painting, but the thought of making a living as an artist didn’t really hit him until early in his college career at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania.
Justin felt being a student wasn’t helping him develop into who he wanted to be. He was increasingly losing interest in general studies courses and spent most of his time alone in the art studio.
After a good amount of thinking, he recognized that a large city would be the way to go if he wanted to become an artist, and in 2002 he made the important decision to relocate to New York City.
Justin thought the move would end up being what he called a six-month experiment, but he stayed in NYC until 2014.
In 2008, he was ready to leave the city. He was invited by an artist to help work on a project in Greenland. While he noted that he was there to make another artist’s vision happen, the trip impacted him by allowing him to meet and interact with the Greenlandic community, something that he valued immensely.
He didn’t want to return to NYC, but he did until he traveled abroad again in 2014. Justin went to Norway to show his art with a Norwegian as part of a traveling art show from the capital of Oslo to Røros.
While in Røros, he met Sarah Wyss, a Swiss woman living in Norway. He fell in love with the wilderness and with Sarah, and he would return to Røros numerous times during the next year.
With Justin living in the U.S. and Sarah remaining in Norway, the two discussed relocating to live together. Each time Justin returned home from Norway, he said there was a sadness when he was away from the nature of the country.
Despite that sadness, Justin had never considered leaving the U.S., and was hesitant to leave NYC because of the comfort he experienced there.
Eventually Sarah moved into a home outside of Røros with space for her dogs. Justin visited and in 2015, returned to the U.S., packed and moved to rural Norway, a strong contrast to the busy streets he had walked for years.
His family wasn’t thrilled with his choice to leave the U.S. His parents were concerned both with distance and how he would make money in Norway. But they supported him and wanted him to do whatever made him happy.
His choice to leave rattled some artist friends though, and he lost some friends who couldn’t believe an artist was leaving a energetic place like NYC for somewhere so isolated. When he left, he essentially chose to throw away some of the theory and intellect close friends and mentors had shared with him, he said.
Some people he worked with even saw him as a traitor, but he said he needed to leave. In New York, he was assisting other artists, and he compared the choice to leave to a member of a band walking away to pursue a solo career.
“It’s very hard to take chances and walk off the path, [to] follow something off into a dark, uncharted way,” Justin said.
He said that it was tough for him to make the transition, but that he trusted his love of Sarah and his love of the wilderness enough to take the leap.
“It’s fuel for a creative mind to dare to reinvent yourself and know that wherever you go, you take your brush with you,” he said.
Compared to New York, the pace of life in Norway is something Justin prefers. Back in the city, he said he could be woken up in the early morning hours by friends banging on his window to see if he wanted to go for a coffee, or people climbing on his fire escape. Now, he wakes up to the sound of his dogs.
Life and Art in Norway
Justin said that his move to Norway didn’t necessarily impact his subject matter. His artwork is a combination of dreams, memories and his imagination fusing together to create the stories that are his paintings.
The largest impact the move had on his art is the approach he takes to creating. He often uses items like sticks and other objects that wash up on the shore of the lake near his home, to paint. He started painting on driftwood he finds, as well as dried animal skins.
He has also drawn inspiration from interacting with the Sami people, an indigenous group who herd reindeer.
He had started breaking away into his own realm back in New York in 2010 when he established Chirico Studios, but didn’t fully focus on the endeavor until he got to Norway.
Justin sees more of an appreciation for art in Norway than he did back home. He said that he has noticed Norwegians care more about art that they like rather than the name of the artist who produced it. This applies to everything from music to books, he said, and provides a more supportive environment for independent artists.
On the contrary, he believes that art in the U.S. has, in many cases, become too competitive and commercialized. It’s being viewed as “art as moneymaker, not art as intellectual, spiritual enrichment,” he said.
A focus on other artists got in the way while he was in New York, and he said he didn’t have the confidence he now has because he was paying attention to what they were doing instead of spending time reinventing his own art and exploring.
While he went to the city with the intention of becoming an artist, his time was often spent helping other artists, including Per Fronth, William Quigley and Shalom Tomas Neuman.
Justin worked in the studios of artists and was painting his own works on the side. To survive, he often had to juggle several jobs, making it hard for him to make time for his art. Sometimes, he assisted for free.
He said that the days of assisting artists were long, and could be spent cleaning paintbrushes, mixing paint, posing models, taking reference photos or sweeping the studio.
Justin valued being around more experienced artists and gained inspiration from them, so he continued to embrace opportunities to help when he could.
He said he felt he “needed to try and hold onto the bizarre opportunity to be, and stay for as long as possible, in the company of these innovative minds.”
He added that when the work was done, he typically would paint alongside the artists he was helping, though he wasn’t getting a chance to follow his calling.
“In New York, you’re always under a machine,” Justin said.
In Norway, he’s free to explore as an artist, create and make a living.
When Justin came to Norway, he had established art world connections back in the U.S. that allowed him to move away from the big city and yet still be able to sell his art, both in the states, Norway and internationally.
He maintains a minimal presence on the internet. Aside from a website, he doesn’t use social media and sells much of his art through those connections formed before moving. Numerous public and private collectors support his work, including the alumni association and fine arts building at Lock Haven University, the school he left behind for New York.
The culture, the people and the landscape of the north have all been powerful to his thought process and have impacted his inner experience.
He said he may be able to get the same wilderness experience from somewhere rural in the U.S., but he prefers to connect with the natives.
Rather than cleaning up after other artists, his days now involve tending to the dogs and the property, fishing and finally, painting.
He used to fish with poles as a kid but was introduced to net fishing by the farmers who live around him within his first few weeks of living in Norway. Typically, he and Sarah are able to catch enough fish for them to feed the dogs and have a fish dinner of their own two to three days a week. He waits to start fishing until the winter ice on the lake across the street from their home has broken up and melted.
He tries to paint for a few hours each morning, but he said that his best inspiration comes at night, and he can sometimes be working until the early morning hours with Belmont lying at his feet.
Justin attempts to fit in his morning painting daily, even if it’s not when his best work is getting done, because he feels that as an artist, it’s necessary to always continue to create.
The biggest distractions to his art tend to come in the winter. All of his neighbors are farmers so if a large snow causes them problems, he goes to help them rather than painting.
He and Sarah have discussed potentially moving to the U.S., but he said the politics of the country put a stop on those plans. While moving back isn’t completely out of the question, it’s not currently on their radar.
Right now, Justin is happy and content where he is. While he lost the awe he once had for New York, he’s yet to lose the admiration he has for the wilderness and beauty of Norway that continue to fuel his creative spirit.