Laborlore: James P. Leary’s Public Folklore Class Explores the Culture of Icelandic Workers

Roadside sign guiding visitors to Bjarnahöfn. Photo by James P. Leary

Roadside sign guiding visitors to Bjarnahöfn, where hákarl is made. Photo by James P. Leary

One of the perks about being a Fulbrighter in Iceland is coming into contact with a handful of other students, scholars, and artists whose work and interests are completely far flung from my own, and getting to learn a little about their various passions and areas of expertise.

A good example of this is current Iceland Fulbright scholar James P. Leary, who is not only a very nice guy, but also a professor in the Folklore and Scandinavian Studies program at the University of Wisconsin and the co-director of The Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Per his university bio,

“I’m a folklorist who was born and raised in Rice Lake in northwestern Wisconsin. Since the early 1970s my research has focused on the traditional songs, stories, customary practices, and handwork of indigenous and immigrant peoples and their mostly rural and working class descendants in America’s Upper Midwest, resulting in numerous museum exhibits, folklife festivals, public radio programs, documentary sound recordings, films, essays, and…books…”

In Iceland, Jim’s project has been to teach a Public Folklore class at the University of Iceland, focusing on the lives and practices of Icelandic workers and tradespeople. (If you are unfamiliar with the term “public folklore,” as I was, you can check out this Wikipedia page, but in short, “Public folklorists are engaged with the documentation, preservation, and presentation of traditional forms of folk arts, craft, folk music, and other genres of traditional folklife. In later years, public folklorists have also become involved in economic and community development projects.”)

Public Folklore which concentrates on workers is called “Laborlore,” which, quoting a description on Jim’s class website, “consists of the cultural traditions of workers: their job-related personal histories and identities, as well as their informally acquired job skills, sayings, stories, customs, and material expressions.” So in their course this semester, Jim and his students went out and interviewed and photographed Icelandic workers from all social and trades strata:

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Local Celebrity Sighting

I’ve held open doors for the likes of Harvey Keitel (at BAM, heading into a play), Annie Hathaway (my bff, as she was leaving an NYU building, dressed in adorable white capelette), and now…

Kjartan Halldórsson, the Sea Baron.

Having previously made very efficient use of the neighborhood Bónus, we had our first ‘sit-down’ dinner out last night at Sægreifinn, a seaside fish shack serving delicious lobster soup and daily-caught fish skewers. I held the door to the covered porch open for a waitress who was taking food out (yes, there’s outdoor eating in Reykjavík), and in came this guy behind her. It took me a moment to recognize him, but a glance at the wall reminded me:

That’s him, proudly holding a package of fish jerky, I believe. I’m pretty sure it’s based on a photograph of him proudly holding a giant machete-type knife. (They sell postcards of the photo in the shop usually, but I couldn’t find the image online.)

My first local ‘celebrity’ sighting since moving here! No sign of Björk yet.