Artists: Equal but separate couple’s strength lies in each other
By Laura Stewart Dishman, Orlando Sentinel Art Critic
Published: SUNDAY, April 19, 1987
If Kristin Eyfells had never met Johann, her husband of nearly 40 years, she’d still be living in Iceland, designing and selling women’s clothing. And if Johann had never met Kristin, he might still be an architect, living and working for a large firm on Long Island.
Instead, the Scandinavians, both now in their mid-60s, became artists and moved to Florida. They still go back to Iceland occasionally, but prefer to spend most of their time working in the sprawling studios that command more than half the space in their 6,000-square-foot Oviedo home.
They like to say that the art they create in those studios has little in common except that it is made by a husband and wife. Yet Johann’s bold, organic sculpture and Kristin’s confrontational, geometric paintings are similar in their strong impact. Twenty-seven of their pieces are on exhibit through May 3 at the Osceola Center for the Arts in Kissimmee, inviting comparison.
The oversized faces of well-known figures stare blankly from Kristin’s smoothly painted oils at the Osceola Center. In a piece from her arresting ”Anonymous Ladies” series, a square-jawed woman with bright purple hair is set against an acid-green background. Tiny wrinkles and shadows are transformed into stylized, elongated diamonds enameled in harsh blue, green and purple tones. No one can escape the penetrating gaze of these visages, especially the hard, frozen faces of her perfect women. No emotion is expressed in the works. The dreamlike faces are so cool, so symmetrically presented and so geometrically exact, that they become unforgettable icons.
Johann’s abstract sculptures and works on paper are just as unconcerned with convention, and every bit as forceful. His cast-aluminum-and-bronze ”Receptual Cube” is a deep-red eroded block that looks as if it might be light to lift and touch, despite its obvious solidity and weight. The piece is both delicate and formal, concerned with texture, contour and tone, not with narration or representation.
The Eyfells have shown their works alone, together and in group exhibits in America and Europe since they moved to Orlando in 1969. But they prefer husband-and-wife shows. ”I love showing with Kristin,” Johann said. ”We’re equally dedicated as artists and our standards are equally high. I wouldn’t be as pleased to show with her if she weren’t as serious an artist as I am. But there’s nothing there that relates the works to each other except that they were made by a husband and wife, which is our strength.”
Leaning forward as she sat on a long, black sofa at one end of her studio, Kristin interrupted: ”Yes, that’s right. You go into the show and see two exactly opposite artists who work together.” Any similarities in styles could spring naturally from their shared Icelandic heritage or from the fact that they’re on ”the same wavelength in terms of artistic sincerity and dedication,” Johann said. ”I don’t think we enhance each other’s talents — we really don’t help each other out at all. We simply get peer pressure from each other. ”Ours is not a competitive relationship, but our critical judgment keeps us on our toes,” he continued. ”We know when we look at each other’s work, we have to measure up. Her eyes are honest, penetrating, discriminating — and able to intercept any hint of artificiality in my work.” With that, Kristin shrugged and laughed almost uncomfortably at her husband’s dispassionate yet flattering evaluation.
Unlike many artist couples who work in tandem to create pieces that seamlessly blend two styles and personalities, the Eyfells share a respect for the need for solitude and privacy during the crucial creative process. ”We give each other hints, but very rarely advise,” he continued. ”Our dialogue as artists is taken for granted; we have identical ideas about quality and are both striving for quality, which is anything that taxes every fiber of our beings and is uncompromising. My art is my life.”
When Johann and Kristin met after World War II in Berkeley, Calif., he was studying architecture and she was taking a year’s leave from her clothing businesses in Iceland to travel and study. He was painting on his own, but she had never thought of herself as an artist.
They married in 1949 and by the end of the 1950s were living on Long Island. Johann, still an architect, was beginning to sell the canvases he painted in his spare time. Kristin, intent on becoming a doctor like her father, had gone back to college and was studying psychology. To fill a blank spot on her schedule, she registered for a sculpture class, and ended up, like her husband, an artist.
In 1965, after Johann had finished an advanced degree in painting and design at the University of Florida, the couple returned to Iceland, where he spent four years teaching art at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavik. They came back to America in 1969, settling in Orlando so Johann could teach at the newly opened Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida). After nearly two decades here, their works do not reflect the Florida experience, the artists agree.
Johann believes that his organic sculpture may be influenced by Iceland’s volcanic formations. Kristin takes her gigantic studies of famous faces from magazines. If anything, she said, her images reveal an interest in psychology and express her feelings about her subjects. She does not know them personally, yet she uses their initials as titles — almost as if they are friends. Somehow they are not just hers, but her.
Because so much of their energy and emotions are invested in their work, the Eyfells rarely discuss their art — or the art of others. They have trouble understanding how or why people talk about something that can be expressed only by doing. Art, to them, is not an object but an action, Johann said, looking at Kristin as she nodded in vigorous agreement. ”It’s always amazing to me that people try to tell me about their art. Students sometimes try to talk about what they’re doing. And I always stop them.” Sometimes, though, Johann will communicate, without speaking, with Kristin when he feels a particular painting is just right. He’ll leave her a note on the breakfast table:
”It’s finished now,” Johann Eyfells will tell his wife.