Posted on Jan 30, 2005

Infatuated with Iceland

“Hállo frá Ísland,” writes Jeffrey Nebolini '96; “I've been here about 2.5 weeks and so far everything is excellent.” Long infatuated with Iceland, Nebolini was able to travel there this year, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. He is studying the world of Icelandic fashion, and working with fashion designers on clothing that is visually, and structurally, informed by the environmental extremes of Iceland's diverse geology.

“Iceland is a place of stark contrasts,” he writes. “For a remote island in the north Atlantic, it is unbelievably progressive. Here, a fashion-forward culture collides with nature. Reykjavik is just as hip as the East Village, and just as cosmopolitan as Manhattan, yet the residents heat their homes with geothermal energy, and the sun rises for only 3.5 hours in January. These contrasts are fascinating to me from a design standpoint. Icelandic designers are faced with the task of addressing these contrasts both within themselves and within their work. This fact has produced some very interesting results, especially in the world of fashion.”

Nebolini, a geology major at Union, might have ended up an environmental consultant or teaching geology, but his interests proved to be more diverse. He finished his MFA in graphic design last year at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

“I loved geology,” he says, “and I had a truly exceptional experience at Union, one that I continue to draw from on a daily basis. I suppose I'm a bit nontraditional in the ways I employ what I learned, but nevertheless, having that knowledge adds an invaluable dimension to my design process. When I started getting into graphic design, I used the visual language of geology quite literally. For example, I designed typefaces and textile patterns based on crystal geometry. Now, geology still informs my work, but its influence is much more conceptual.”

Nebolini also took courses in photography, sculpture, bookmaking, and traditional Chinese painting with Professors Charles Steckler, Martin Benjamin, and Chris Duncan. But he wasn't focused on a career in the arts at the time. “It wasn't until after Union that I decided to completely change gears. What followed was about five years of playing catch up. During that time, I essentially taught myself web and graphic design, and used what I learned in photography class at Union to create a body of work. Eventually I started freelancing and working for design studios, but I always felt as if I needed a design education. “In 2002, I went to Cranbrook, which is a very interdisciplinary school. Each student is given a dedicated studio, and the freedom to chart his/her own course. So almost immediately I started designing textiles and clothing. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't even know how to sew. I just started drawing, and designing on the computer. Then I started to take sewing workshops at a local sewing store and began to learn the basics.”

The summer following his first year at Cranbrook, he worked as a textile design apprentice at the Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadelphia. “It was there that I learned how to actually produce textiles, and from there I just interpolated.”

As part of his thesis project, Nebolini staged a fashion show using professional models, and dresses, skirts, and tops that blend traditional fabrics of high fashion, such as silk, with more durable synthetic materials associated with rugged outdoor gear, including ripstop nylon or Tyvek (used in construction). “I use industrial materials out of context,” he says. “When you start to use them in ways they weren't intended, it starts to get interesting.”

He has made textile patterns using geographical information, creating abstract shapes from the space between rock and mud cracked by geothermal heat, map grids, or even the aerial view of bird tracks in the snow.

What made Nebolini decide to apply for the Fulbright? “It had been in the back of my mind for years. I just needed to find the right time to execute a proposal. My ideas came to fruition at Cranbrook, but began at Union, where I had an idea for a Watson Fellowship based on the social/ cultural impact of geologic hazards. That is, how rituals, relationships, traditions, and even mundane daily tasks are influenced by the presence of earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods-in places like Iceland, New Zealand, and Japan. But I never applied, and I have always regretted it.”

For him, the Fulbright was a second chance. “Perhaps it worked out better this way, because in the last nine years, my ideas have matured quite a bit.

He never thought he would actually get the Fulbright: “It seemed extremely untouchable, especially for an artist. Without a doubt, it was the most difficult thing I have ever applied for.”

A large part of Nebolini's project in Iceland involves documenting contemporary Icelandic fashion design. “I am interested in how environmental extremes (and dramatic geology) influence not only the design process, but the manifestation of the design process,” he explains. “Specifically, are fashion designers addressing the needs of the modern Icelander from a utilitarian standpoint? Where and how (if at all) do utility and high fashion collide? Do designers embrace or reject their surroundings as inspiration for fashion? Icelandic artists of all other types have historically celebrated their surroundings: Louisa Mattiasdottir paints Icelandic landscapes, Halldór Laxness writes about them, and Björk sings about them. While much of this documentary process will involve talking to both designers and their clients, most of the evidence will be visual. That is, I'll be attending fashion shows, visiting design studios, and photographing landscapes looking for a connection.”

Nebolini considers himself very fortunate to have Steinunn Sigurd as an adviser: “Steinunn is an Icelandic fashion designer who has worked with Tom Ford at Gucci, and was the head of ready-to-wear at La Perla. In her own line of clothing, she derives color schemes from the 'beautifully raw' Icelandic landscape.” He is also working with Halldor Gislason, dean of the Department of Icelandic Design and Architecture at the Icelandic Academy of Arts.

The other half of his project will be designing clothing. “I'm interested to see how my design process changes when placed in such a dramatic setting. I am welcoming the snow and the darkness-how they manifest themselves in my work remains to be seen.”

Steve Ente '75 and Bob Saltzman '69 have a shared passion for “things that go bang in the night.”

Bob Saltzman '69, left, and Steve Ente '75 prepare some of the 2,700 shells that lit up Homecoming 2004

The two are fireworks aficionados, traveling throughout the Northeast and beyond to help create and launch spectacular nighttime aerial and ground displays.

They met in 1995 at the first of two fireworks shows that Ente donated to Union's Bicentennial. Ente has donated shows to the College every year since, always joined by Saltzman and others in the crew who set up, launch and tear down the shows.

The two were together again last fall, staging a show for the Homecoming launch of the “You Are Union” campaign. The display, which put up some 2,700 projectiles timed to music in just under 15 minutes, was “way bigger than we did at the last ReUnion,” regarded by most at the time as nothing short of spectacular.

Ente founded a brokerage firm and ran his fireworks company as a “hobby,” at one point doing about 40 shows per year, mostly clustered around the Fourth of July. Saltzman, a technologist for GE's Global Research Center, got involved with the business years ago and moonlights for a number of firms that do displays throughout the region.

Fireworks have come a long way since Ente and Saltzman first became addicted. Back then, most fireworks displays were launched by members of volunteer fire departments who lit the mortars with a flare. Often, they got a chance to use their training in first aid and fire abatement.

Displays by Ente and Saltzman are professional and put a premium on safety, control and timing.

A display begins with music. Ente compiles of CD of music for each show and listens to it while he drives, mentally choreographing fireworks to the rimshots and crescendos of each piece. Then he goes to his computer and assigns launch signals to send particular shells skyward at key musical moments. The computer accounts for the “rise time” (the interval between launch and burst) so that each shell explodes with precision to the music. The CD is remixed with two tracks: one with music, the other with launch signals. During a show, a laptop computer sends the launch signals to thousands of wires connected to the shells.

Musical selections at the Homecoming show necessarily had to appeal to a range of generations. The selections ranged from Rusted Root's Send Me on My Way to Wagner's Flight of the Valkeries.

Ente relies on his four children to suggest music for the shows. He has twin daughters, Karin (coming to Union next fall) and Frances; and two sons, David, 26, and Brian, 22.

Both Ente and Saltzman emphasize that there is little money in producing fireworks shows. But the compensation comes from the applause they get at the end of a show. And at Union, they get another satisfaction: “There are a high percentage of alumni [at Homecoming and ReUnion] who haven't been back to campus in 20 years and are introducing Union to their family,” Ente said. “The fireworks at the end of the night can leave them with a great feeling about Union.”