In a smoke-filled bar and later in the restaurant of the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, a diverse group, which included a fighter pilot, an economist and an artist met during the summer of 1969. They had one thing in common. They were passionate about Iceland, and intent on establishing a US-Iceland Association. They were Sigrún Rockmaker, Peter Colot, Ingólfur Steinsson, Gunnar Tómasson, and Hörður Karlsson. During this informal meeting, they sowed the seeds of the birth of the Icelandic Association of Washington DC. The Association was formally established a few months later, on October 9, 1969. Hörður recalled this meeting with pride when I interviewed him in Vienna, Virginia more than 50 years later on October 6, 2020.
Hörður was born in 1933 in Kópavogur, a suburb of Reykjavik. His father was from Dalasveit in Western Iceland, and his mother from Sauðárkrókur in North Iceland. One of Hörður´s first recollections as a seven-year old was seeing his father, then a policeman in Reykjavík, strangely bedecked in a metal helmet, and with a gas mask hanging around his neck. That momentous day in history was May 10, 1940. Expecting a German invasion after the fall of Denmark and Norway into Nazi hands, the Icelandic government had established civil defense brigades in Reykjavík in anticipation of air raids, and had issued members of the brigades with appropriate defense gear. At the time, Hörður´s family was living in Reykjavik, with a summer cottage in Kópavogur.
Curious about the exciting events that day, Hörður went out and saw military planes flying very low over town. When he went down to the harbor, he saw foreign ships disgorging menacing soldiers with drawn guns and bayonets. It turned out the invaders were British, and they had come to protect Iceland from Hitler. As the occupation unfolded, he remembers in particular the blackout imposed on all buildings in town, the war-related construction activities, and the military entertainment center on Snorrabraut, near his home. He also remembers seeing Winston Churchill when he visited Iceland in August 1941.
After completing compulsory schooling in 1946, Hörður engaged in a slew of odd jobs. As many of his contemporaries did in those years, he started as a newspaper delivery boy, followed by flower store deliveries, movie theater ushering and assisting in a butcher shop. After that he tried his hand at factory work in a Pepsi Cola bottling factory, and as a weaver’s assistant in a textile factory. Preferring the outdoors, he at different times worked at ditch digging (installing water and sewer pipes), dock work (loading /unloading cargo ships), house construction (concrete work), and house painting. He went to sea as a herring fisherman and later as a mess boy and cook´s helper on commercial ships. At one stage he even found himself as a rodent exterminator, a food line server and desk clerk at Keflavik Airport. After this plethora of activities, he finally settled down for four years to become a fireman at the Fire and Rescue Department at Keflavik Airport
While in Keflavik, Hörður befriended an American entertainment group, which sponsored the then 21-year-old Hörður for a journey to the land of his dreams, the USA. He arrived in August 1954 in Washington DC where he worked as a hospital orderly, and on several small projects as an assistant producer and designer at trade show exhibits. Although Hörður had enrolled for a couple of years during evenings as a teenager at Handíðaskólinn, a handicrafts training institute in Reykjavík, his interest in art had since lain dormant. The new job rekindled his interest in painting as an art form, and he enrolled in an art school in Washington DC, which eventually settled his future.
One day, as he ambled around town, he noticed a large somber-looking building with a lot of flags, including the Icelandic flag, on display in the lobby. After entering the building and asking for a job, he was told that the World Bank had no use for him and advised him to go to a different floor, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) might be interested. There he got a slightly more positive reaction. They jotted down his particulars and said that they would be in touch. Three years later, he got a call and a job offer, which he thought would be for an artist, but turned out to be for a mimeograph operator for a pittance of a salary. He turned the offer down, stating that he was looking for a job as an artist.
That offer came one year later, and after serious negotiations, he got the job and stayed at the IMF for the next 32 years. The work entailed designing all sorts of graphics and maps for the organization´s reports and publications. He left the organization at age 55 when computerized graphics came on stream and hand-crafted art became obsolete.
Hörður has since devoted his time to painting. His art has been on exhibitions in Iceland, the US, and Seville, Spain. He has also designed postage stamps for the UN and the European postal service, CEPT. He now shows and sells his paintings at his home by appointment only (phone 703-532-8222, or e-mail address email@example.com).
Hörður is married to a delightful Peruvian lady, Maria, whom he met when both were working at the IMF. They live in Vienna, Virginia.