Anna Iltnere: Sea Library

Childhood drawing by Anna Iltnere. A house by the river with blooming water lilies.

Before going to sleep I walk down to the river for a swim. With my nostrils slightly above water, I watch the ducks moving among the water lilies. The lips of invisible fish blow circles into the surface on the other side. Cut grass and cold dew stick to my bare feet as I walk back. I wash them away, kiss my boys goodnight and climb into bed to read and to dream.

If I wake up before the others, I push my bike out of the garage and cycle to the morning sea, three miles away. It’s a gulf, to be honest, but we still call it the sea, the Baltic Sea, a tiny inner pocket of the Atlantic Ocean — where it hides what’s dearest, I imagine. There’s almost no salt in the Baltic Sea, they say, but my tongue still tastes it on my lips and my skin  when I leave gravity behind with my clothes on the shore and surrender my body to the waves. When I’m dressed again, I explore the white sand with my fingertips and put a couple of stranded splinters, tiny dark brown pieces of driftwood, in my pocket, stamp souvenirs from my own little journeys traversing same paths every day. I am a sea librarian now.

My world had never been as small as in the last five years, living in Jūrmala, a resort city here in Latvia. We don’t even live in the city, but in a riverside village, outside the city centre. It’s almost like being on an island. And yet, my world is as large as ever. Because of books and because of the sea.

I haven’t boarded a plane in five years. On my last flight to Stockholm, in August of 2014, to interview artist Antony Gormley, a butterfly boarded in Riga with me and disappeared in the blue of the Stockholm sky. I returned. Having zigzagged through the world for years, spreading the meaning of flight too thin, I had to cocoon myself before I finally found my own fucking wings.

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Let me tell you about this place beyond the seven seas. It’s a small, beautiful and strange country, just like the amber that has been found on our white beaches for hundreds of years. Latvia is about half the size of Greece and slightly larger than Denmark. It lies sandwiched between two other Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia, on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Latvia’s mostly flat landscape is covered in beaches, rivers, lakes, marshes and forests. Three hundred and nine miles of its outline, roughly a third, is along the sea. The coastline is peppered with port cities, a couple of seaside resorts and tiny fishing villages with an aura of the past.

Right here on the edge of the Baltic Sea in a sea resort city of Jūrmala I opened a Sea Library with books about the sea, with writers and readers magically trickling in from all over the world. We moved here to an old wooden house with walls insulated with pine needles and moss on a full moon night seven years ago, when my life was different. I didn’t even know how to swim back then. I didn’t care much about water, I just tried to navigate the rapids of my life, that started when I was born into a family of artists.

I grew up close to the sky and stars. When I was four, dad renovated a large attic space on the seventh floor of a building in the city centre, in Riga. My mum, Zane Iltnere, is one of three daughters of a famous Latvian painter Edgars Iltners, once well-known in the Soviet Union and beyond. My dad, contemporary artist Kristaps Ģelzis, is the son of an architect, Modris Ģelzis, who built many of Latvia’s landmarks. The attic space where we lived was also our parents’ art studio, and my sister and I witnessed creation as closely as you can, skin on skin, with all its ups and downs.

The flip side is the turmoil of the creative process. The level of honesty an artist, my dad, had to put in his work to be satisfied, required nerves best soothed in a life lived to the fullest. Dad almost drowned in a Venice canal during an art biennale, wearing a fake pearl necklace stolen from a souvenir shop. He has returned home in the early morning bruised and tousled, not remembering a thing. He has escaped from hospitals in which he woke up after a night of bliss. We have searched for him in the streets and found a very happy man walking home in socks and no shoes. He was a tiger that no one could cage. Ironically enough, after a whole year of non-drinking because of health issues, my dad, sober and neat, crashed into a cow on a dark road at night in his beautiful black Fiat 500, bought with the prize money for outstanding work as an artist. He was in coma for three days.

Anna Iltnere in the wonderland of the Sea Libray on her 35th birthday this Summer

I have scribbled in the margins all my life. As a kid I wrote poems in a secret notebook with a tiny golden key: “With words you can build cities and persuade darkness to glow.” After school I went to study philosophy and started to work in journalism. For four years I was on the editorial team for a design magazine, for another four I served as editor-in-chief of an online arts and culture website, covering contemporary art in Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic countries. There were many adventures in between: modeling for friends, writing scripts for a home remodeling TV show, and selling linen garments in a design shop. I also wrote a little book about my dad as an artist.

It was all sweat and fun, but I never felt truly at home in any of those jobs. I loved to write, but there was something missing. I ran amok, taking flights to conduct ten-minute interviews with celebrity artists, stalking them in the streets of Basel, Moscow, Venice, but I still wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted. I just navigated the rapids of opportunities, not knowing, where my boat was headed.

One day I left everything behind. The city, the jobs. I burned all the bridges, deleted my social media accounts, jumped out of the train and walked home, heavily pregnant with our second son. I was thirty. My compass was broken, it had to be fixed so I could find my true north.

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As a kid I sometimes helped my dad to install his exhibits. I loved to catch that moment by the tail when the behind-the-scenes turned into the art show. One moment you hear hammers and screwdrivers, the next you’ve crossed a threshold and entered a magical space. I experienced it also in theatre, where dad’s mum, my grandmother, played on stage before she retired. A world full of Prosperos. But, oh, it felt so strange, even wrong, to see actors with overdone makeup in bright daylight smoking by the backdoor during the intermission, when we went to say hi to our grandma. The world of an artwork was truer to me than all that was behind or around it.

Truth haunts me. When I turned twenty-one, I was handed the hot potato that my biological father was someone else. Everyone already knew it, except me. There was a mute agreement between relatives and family friends that no one would tell me too soon. Even my cousins knew, the ones I grew up and played with. Later they told me it was like carrying a heavy stone around for years. Me and my sister, we were the only ones who didn’t know.

My head was dizzy when I realized, I had to redraw those memories we create in our heads. I had to imagine another man bringing me out of the maternity hospital, looking at me, saying my name for the first time. But it didn’t last long. My mum was abandoned soon after with a baby girl on her arms, the dad that I call my dad married her when I was one. I inherited a brand new grandmother. I met her by her coffin in a nationwide funeral. She was once a Soviet Era movie star, a diva. I was given a silver bracelet that she bought when I was born, but never had a chance to give me, because of the agreement that I shouldn’t know too soon where I came from. Where do we come from and where do we go? On a full moon night I took a large white plywood board and sprayed three words on it: THIS IS TRUE. The board still hangs on a wall in our kitchen, the needle in my compass.

When dad was in coma, I stayed at mum’s place, to be with her, while we waited for that one call from the hospital. It was in August three years ago. I was already living in Jūrmala, and spending my time with both my sons, hoping that sooner or later I would find what I truly loved to do. So I am sitting in parents living room, trying to clear my head of dark thoughts, and looking at an artwork hanging by the wall. It was my dad’s plastic painting, a technique he had invented in his last years. On a pixel-like surface in beige and brown you can discern two realms, water and land. There were words inscribed on each of them: “Sea is movement. Sand is stillness”. I was enchanted and strangely liberated. I was curious about the sea, I had walked there with my baby in a stroller almost every day, but at that moment in my parents’ living room I knew, there was something more. The sea was my true north. It had stillness and movement. It had the calmness I ached for, and the energy I admired.

I love my childhood. It showed me the power of the imagination, it taught me to love the truth of magic. It taught me to dream and to work hard. What I needed now, was to find an inner honesty that wouldn’t burn the world around me, but become its hot heart and grow into a wonderful and meaningful island of peace.

In my first years living here on a peninsula between the river Lielupe and the Baltic Sea, our house slowly turned into a Sea Library. It grew like a coral reef. Last summer I opened its doors to public, and now everyone who wants to can borrow sea books gathered from all over the world. There’s something special about books. The intimacy you experience with a book. When I open the first page, a unique world swallows me. I feel the sentences on my skin. I can taste the words. I can hear the timbre of a writer, the Prospero of each magic island trapped in the covers, but made alive each time you start to read. I fell in love with books about the sea obsessively. Sometimes I just sit next to the shelves and try to feel the potential of the unread bleeding behind spines of all colors. Books are time bombs. More and more people trust me with their books about sailors, mermaids, canoes, rivers, whales, islands, seas. I guard the books the way you would guard wildlife. With love, care, respect and wonder. And I share them with young and old, locals and travelers.

I’m mindful not to lose the magic of it all. Not to run into actors, smoking cigarettes during an intermission with fake round bellies and drawn-on coal-dark eyebrows. I believe in books. They are my truth. That’s why I’m running a library on the verge of the imagination, almost not there at all but, look, it’s really happening.

The farthest I’ve been into the sea away from coast is with my dad, when I was seven or eight. It was a sunny summer day when everything looked beige or blue, and he showed me how to cross the sandbanks one by one. You can walk easily to the first two, water reaching your knees, then your belly. But to get to the further ones, you have to cross a short stretch of deep water before you climb out onto a safe sandbank again. Dad raised his arms and told me to do the same, to jump up and down, slowly moving forward. At one point I had to inhale and hold my breath, the water was above my head, but I wasn’t scared because dad was right there. I submerged and emerged. I haven’t been able to repeat this crazy advice ever again. Just that one sunny day with dad by my side was I able to imagine what it would be like to walk underwater.