In Iceland, an exploration of nature and identity awaits

Julia Hechtman, lecturer in the Department of Art + Design, has been selected for a Fulbright award to Iceland. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

When it comes to her art, Northeastern faculty member Julia Hechtman said she views herself “as a 6-year-old scientist.” She’s long had a fascination with the fundamentals of science and the natural world, and over the years her work has often explored how people identify and connect with their surrounding environment.

Hechtman grew up as a city kid in Brooklyn, New York, but her family had a summer home in Westchester that provided early opportunities for discovery. When she was 6, for example, she collected eggs she found on the beach, realized they were baby snapping turtles after they had hatched, and released them back into the lake. Later, after college, she worked as a National Park Service park ranger in New Mexico and Alaska, which she said served as a transformative experience by broadening her understanding of and connection to nature.

“My vision of the American West before living there was highly romanticized,” she said. “Only by moving to New Mexico and then to Alaska and living within those grand settings could I begin to value the subtler aspects of the environment, developing a deeper understanding of the landscape and its resources.”

Her artwork features photography, film, and video, and has been exhibited throughout the country. In recent years, Hechtman—lecturer in Northeastern’s Department of Art + Design—has developed a fascination with Iceland, where she first visited for an artist residency in 2009 and has since led Dialogue of Civilizations programs for Northeastern students. Now, she’s been selected for a Fulbright award to spend six months there next year advancing her research and teaching.

On the Fulbright, the focus of her work will be based on the principle that both cultural and personal identity are informed in part by the surrounding landscape. For the past year, Hechtman has been writing a currently untitled memoir of her adolescent experiences between ages 12 and 18, with short vignettes serving as chapters related to specific years of her life.

Through this Fulbright, Hechtman will film these short stories with Icelandic actors in the local landscape. She also plans to teach at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

The environment, Hechtman explained, contributes directly and indirectly to our every experience—from what we wear to how we interact with each other. “One’s sense of self is confused and shifting,” she said, “so filming the short stories in the context of the Icelandic landscape, rather than the urban American landscape of my youth, will present conflicts and continuities that cannot be predicted, but should present many questions regarding identification with place and culture.”