Viggo Mortensen ('80) remembers
A Walk Down Memory Lane (Literally) with the Photographer, Poet and Actor
Author: Macreena A. Doyle
Publication: SLU website
Date: Feb '03
If you’ve seen the movie Notting Hill, you have a fairly accurate rendering of the typical celebrity interview: the film star sits in a hotel suite while journalists are shuffled in and out at five-minute intervals. I couldn’t help thinking about that while walking in the woods along the Little River, the location Viggo Mortensen chose as the site for an interview with St. Lawrence. It wasn’t the typical celebrity interview, but then Mortensen’s not your typical celebrity.
Taking a break from the hands-on installation of an exhibition of his photographs and poetry in the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, Mortensen talked to St. Lawrence in the place he appears to feel most comfortable – outdoors, in the woods. Never without his camera, he snapped away at branches, sky, ice and snow while he talked, stopping only to ask a question, write something in his journal or point out deer tracks and places where beavers had gnawed through trees. Nearly every step seemed to elicit a memory, of some youthful mischief with a friend, a favored fishing or skiing spot from years ago, a conversation with a former neighbor.
A short drive through Canton brought more memories and questions, as well as a choice for a site to actually sit and talk: the base of the fountain in the village park.
This is the first real visit you’ve made to St. Lawrence since you graduated. How’s it look to you?
Structurally, some things are different, some of the buildings have been restored, or things have been added on. The sports complex is completely different, and the bookstore. But Canton itself, and more importantly the feeling that you have as you walk around campus or as you walk around in the woods, is pretty much the same.
When you think of St. Lawrence, what are the most vivid memories that you have?
I’m glad I’m here now, because this is what I remember. When you’re a student, most of the time you’re here it’s cold or snowy. That’s familiar to me anyway, from growing up and going to high school in Watertown (N.Y.). Walking around and seeing all the students, I noticed that most don’t seem to be in a big hurry, they’re just walking from one class to another or are on their way in or out of the library. Obviously, St. Lawrence isn’t the only campus that is like that, but I was reminded of how lucky I was to have the time to figure out what I thought about things, what I was interested in, and to have the opportunity in this place to make mistakes and get off the path and get back on it.
The specific things I remember learning, or reading about, or thinking about, were done in a quiet way, sometimes outdoors. When you’re in a place like this and you’re in a hurry, studying and cramming and memorizing for this and that, you’re trying to make all these pieces join into a picture. If you’re trying too hard, then you’re making something that’s not going to stay with you. If you allow the pieces to tell you how they’re supposed to be joined together, rather than you telling the pieces where to go, there’s a better chance it will stay with you.
That’s the thing about a liberal arts education and about a campus like this one – there is pressure in terms of grades, memorization and understanding concepts, but you’re in an environment that allows you to take the time so that by the time you’re out of here, you’ve found some sort of focus. I think there’s a way to get good grades and do all the memorizing, and also learn something about yourself. You can get too wrapped up in rote memorization and study. Inspiration is a notion, an impulse, that has its own shape, before you stumble onto it. If you’re in too much of a hurry, you try to tell it what it is, instead of having it tell you what it is. And I think if you do that, you’re gonna miss out.
As we were walking around, memories came to you as you saw different things. I was wondering if you remembered any particular classes.
A lot. I remember in particular (government) professors (Robert) Wells and Sandy Hinchman, and Henry Garrity. I remember Professor Garrity teaching French and the way he used literature, movies or his own experiences in France – it gave a hands-on feeling. He’d encourage us to do things like listen to the radio from Quebec, so we could hear the language. It’s a practical way to think about culture. Sandy Hinchman also had an unusual, open-minded teaching style that made you interested in learning. She found ways of comparing different outlooks and philosophies that you could apply to your own life. If you can’t identify with something, you can’t apply it to your own life. A lot of people don’t have teachers who encourage that, and it never occurs to them that they could do that.
Did you find your voice at St. Lawrence?
I don’t know. Teachers like the ones I mentioned encouraged open-mindedness and enquiry. The idea of being open to and considering other ways of thinking before dismissing them definitely helped me to understand how to form my own ideas.
You’re here on a Friday night and a Saturday. What was a typical Friday night and Saturday when you were here as a student?
In the fall, I would like to go out and have fun with my friends. In the winter, I liked to cross country ski. Sometimes I’d go fishing, and I remember taking out canoes on the river. I’d sometimes go home to see my family, because we’re not that far from the Watertown area. In the fall especially, I really liked to take a book and go somewhere, like we did today, and read, be by myself. When you’re in classes all week, or in the dining halls, you’re always around people. And I liked to get away from that and be by myself sometimes, when I had the time, which was on the weekends. And of course, like everybody else, I’d go to hockey games! I remember taking a lot of pictures, too. I would wander around a lot and pick up a lot of information that way. I wasn’t in a lot of group activities. The groups I remember being in were mostly classes. I remember during bad weather or walking along the river, or being up late at night, it being very quiet. I remember being in common rooms in the middle of the night studying—those moments stay with me because I was very quiet and very focused. You can do that anywhere; you don’t have to be in an environment where there are trees and rivers. But as long as they are here, it’s a shame not to look at them. I don’t know how many students go to the (Frederic) Remington (Art) Museum (in Ogdensburg)—it’s a shame not to.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the books that inspired Mortensen’s most successful films, wrote in one of them that “deep roots are not reached by the frost.” Some of Mortensen’s roots are clearly at St. Lawrence, and it’s equally clear that the sparkling cold of February did nothing to stem their reach.