Viggo Mortensen ’80 REMEMBERS
A Walk Down Memory Lane (Literally) with the Photographer, Poet and
By Macreena A. Doyle
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
I couldn’t help thinking about that while walking in
the woods along the Little River, the location Viggo Mortensen ’80
chose as the site for an interview with St. Law-rence. It wasn’t
the typical celebrity interview, but then Mortensen’s not your
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
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
fountain in the village park.
SL: This is the first real visit you’ve
made to St. Lawrence since you graduated. How’s it look to you?
VM: 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.
you think of St. Law-rence, what are the most vivid memories that you
VM: I’m glad I’m here now, because this is what I
remember. When you’re a student, most of the time you’re
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
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.
SL: As we were walking around,
memories came to you as you saw different things. I was wondering if
you remembered any particular classes.
VM: 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.
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.
SL: Did you
find your voice at St. Lawrence?
VM: 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.
SL: 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?
VM: 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
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,
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
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
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.
This magazine’s designated celebrity interviewer, Macreena Doyle
also talked to Kirk Douglas ’39, although indoors and in warmer
weather, for the Winter 2000
St. Lawrence, when Douglas was on campus in September 1999.