The Story of Thor

– the art, the life and TORA Victoria


Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA

So, I am finally going to do it – I am going to write my story. Mainly, I am doing this for my own benefit; “nosce te ipsum” – I need to know myself. Also, this is written so that anyone, who is interested, can get to know who I am, what I am and why I am the way I am. This is meant to be many things: I need to do it. It is a healthy exercise for anybody. To get to know oneself and go over one’s lifespan in an objective manner is a cathartic exercise. For me this is a necessity, a healing process; a growth opportunity – and I intend this to be a “brutally honest” account. 

I am an artist, but I am also many other things. I believe, being an artist, is my archetype so to speak. By that I mean, it is not a choice – I’m born that way. Some people are of the archetype doctor or a teacher, a worker, a soldier etc. There are many archetypes and probably individuals who might fall into more than one archetype. 

This is also to be a document about my life and art. I was always this artist that thought that my art should explain itself and people should be able to read me through my art. Who I am, as a person shouldn’t matter any more than who is the person that is acting a particular role in a play or a movie; I thought it be vital to distinguish between the art and the artist, the work and the worker. Today I think differently. Knowing the artist and the background; where he is coming from, what influenced that person growing up – what made him or her into the person/artist he is, might not be a requirement to understanding the art but it is essential in understanding the artist and hence vital when it comes to really comprehend the art.  

So, this is who I am, or maybe who I think I am. It could be just who I want to be. But, whatever else it might be; this is my story – The Story of Thor Stiefel.

Chapter 1

The First Years

My first summer

So, where to start? – as the Hobbit said. Well, I was born on the fifth of March 1967 in Reykjavik Iceland. My given name is Thor Ludwig Stiefel. In my native tongue, Icelandic – my first name is written: Þór. Yes, we have special letters in Icelandic that are only in the Icelandic alphabet and Thorn is one of them; the first letter in my name and quite descriptive it is I might add.

My mother, Þórunn Magnea Magnúsdóttir, was young when she gave birth to me. Perhaps not so young for her generation; she was twenty-one years old, but that would be considered young today. She met my father, Erhard Stiefel, in Paris when studying to become an actress. He, a young promising artist working on scenography in the theater, fell in love with the young nordic beauty and she fell for the handsome young artist from Switzerland living in Paris. I am not aware if I came under by accident (I suspect it to be so) but as it turned out, she became pregnant and went back to Iceland after graduation to give birth to me.

My father followed later. I have some photos of me as an infant taken by my father and there is a home movie somewhere that I have seen of him in Iceland from that time. That is pretty much the only thing that reveals his presence in my life as a child. As it turned out, soon after I was born, he went back to Paris and was never heard from again until I was twelve years old, when he wrote a letter to my mom. According to my mother, my father went ahead to Paris to find a place to live for this little family. 

My first ever memory is from the moment my mother left me at the kindergarten for the first time. I was two or three years old. It was a horrifying experience. I remember crying in terror when she left me alone with those strangers. I vividly recall thinking that if I only cried loudly and long enough she would come back for me and if I would stop crying it would be an admission of losing my mother forever. So I cried and I screamed. I was determined. This was a way for me to show the world that I did not want to be abandoned and I was going to do everything in my power to prevent it from happening. Yes, I do have abandonment issues.

This was a traumatic experience and my first ever consciousness in this life. I later found out this was not my first and definitely not my last anguish in this life. The reason why I acted this way, I have gathered through self inspection and therapy, stems from earlier distress, buried deep into my unconsciousness from my first months on this planet. 

My mother was a young actress, starting a career in the Icelandic theater world. I am pretty sure that becoming a single mom at twenty one years old was not on her agenda. She was quite frankly not ready to have a child, let alone raising it on her own. In those days the Nordic welfare system, we enjoy today in Iceland, was non-existent. It is safe to say that my appearance  changed this young actress’s life.

Before proceeding with my story, I have to give you a little family background. It will explain a lot about me. Nothing happens out of the blue and everything is connected in a chain of events and one of the catapults in my early life was my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Magnea Bergmann or Amma Dreki as I later called her (Amma means granny and dreki means dragon in Icelandic).

Before proceeding with my story, I have to give you a little family background. It will explain a lot about me. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, Magnea Bergmann or Amma Dreki as I later called her (Amma means granny and dreki means dragon in Icelandic) was an influential person in my life and everybody’s life she touched. Amma Dreki, had made herself. Adopted as a young girl after losing her own mother, she ended up a successful business woman in Reykjavik. She was a survivor. A mother of four and herself a single mother, she was adventurous, strong minded, the family’s matriarch and – notably – a drinker.

My mom along with me, her siblings and Amma Dreki

As I have found out and puzzled the pieces together of my early childhood, there was a traumatic experience in my first months, something that scarred me for life and probably explains my ferocious reactions on my first day in kindergarten. The very first summer on this planet my mother did leave me. She left me with Amma Dreki. Mother had to work. She had just been hired at the National Theatre of Iceland and was starting her professional career as an actress. This summer she was touring around Iceland with a play. Meanwhile, grandmother was going on a holiday trip to Denmark. She took me along with three of her own children on a cruise ship heading for Copenhagen. In Denmark Amma Dreki had rented a farm and was going to spend the summer there with my mother’s siblings and me. My mother was later to join us after her theater touring in Iceland was over.

This trip must have been a horrible experience for me, a fourteen month old infant. The first months are, after all, the most influential and crucial in a person’s life and the place one should be, is with one’s mother – and definitely not with a stranger, although blood related, who is going on a holiday on a cruise.

I do not remember anything from this trip (fortunately, I should add). This trip must have been a horrible experience for me, a few month old infant. The first months are, after all, the most influential and crucial in a person’s life and the place one should be, is with one’s mother – and definitely not with a stranger, although blood related. Gullfoss was the name of the ship and it is renowned in Icelandic cultural history. It was closest to a cruise ship Iceland had to offer and the stories of the feasts, glory and drinking – viking style – during the cruises, are renowned in Icelandic history. Often, especially after a few, my grandmother told me about this trip. She made a point of cutting it out that I had not stopped crying the whole time the boat was sailing – as making a point that I had almost ruined her whole trip with my unstoppable crying and fits. Her story then concluded by declaring that she just had to give  up and leave me in the cabin on my own “‘cause the crying was unbearable”. She just went up to the hall – and knowing her, I know she went there for drinking and feasting long into the night. I recall grandma’s grinning when telling me that one of the ship’s stewardesses had taken pity on me “‘cause you just wouldn’t stop crying and one could hear your screams all the way up to the ballroom”. Well she was probably not drunk all the time and she must have cared for me somewhat during the trip, but picture this: A few months old toddler, taken away from his mother, at a crucial age in his development, handed over to an alcoholic grandmother, who went  on a cruise where she was surely not in any way willing, nor even able, to think about a toddler. Can you imagine the infant crying so frantically that the ship´s staff had to take it upon themselves to enter the cabin to comfort the toddler, since the caretaker had absolutely no intentions to do it herself. The old lady even gave it her best to guilt me about this reprehensible behavior: “You were so demanding!” This must have been a serious traumatic experience for the toddler, something that is buried deep into my psyche and ought to explain why I have abandonment issues and why I have a hard time trusting people. Just to make it clear: In my first year alone I was abandoned by my father, my mother, my grandmother neglected me and pretty much everybody who was supposed to take care of me failed rather miserably and believe me – this was just a prelude to things to come; and they say that the first year is absolutely crucial in human personal development.

So, now after all those years, I am enlightened to the massive effect my parents’ absence had on my personality, life and upbringing. I know that parents do make or break a character and knowing for a fact that a parent doesn’t care if one is alive or dead, does a lot to a kid. That was the case with my father. My mother on the other hand, did care and she has loved me throughout, but during my childhood she was preoccupied with her own life, career, new relationship and a new child – my half brother. Basically I can say that I was neglected as a child. I really was a burden to her and I felt that. In any case, this at least helps explain the insecure individual, with a very low self esteem and abandonment issues, I turned out to be.

Asserting that  I am in a profession that triggers rejection issues is an understatement. All artists, I am sure, must deal with various rejections on a regular basis throughout their career, especially early on. A large portion of an artist’s work is to sell works, apply for grants and galleries and basically present oneself to the world and the art market at large. In simple terms, the PR of an artist is plainly a cry out for attention. Look at this! – I made this! Don’t you like it? My estimation is that most of us get far more rejection than approvals, not the least us artists. Anyways, this has been my case, and since I didn’t “made it before thirty”  it is probably not going to happen and the rejections seems to increase with every new generation that takes hold in the art world – so cry me a river.

A contemplating 4 year old

I have always been drawing and painting. Soon  I came quite skilled at it, I might add. It was one of the few subjects in school that got me any attention and I needed that. My mother never tires from telling whomever will listen, that this kid of hers was so quiet and content if only: “I gave him some crayons or pencil and paper to draw. He could be content for hours, sitting quietly in his corner drawing – I didn’t knew he existed”. Yes, I surely enjoyed being on my own, coloring, drawing and creating my own worlds ever since I can remember. I’m guessing that many of you out there, have probably figured out where I found my happy place; where I felt safe and at ease – and quite frankly, it has remained so to this day – my studio. This is one of the fundamental reasons why I cannot abandon the path of an artist, despite various attempts throughout my life. 

To finish off the story about my infanthood, let me tell you about my second traumatic memory. I was being kept (I use this phrase deliberately) with some strangers at a farm outside of Reykjavik. I later learned the reason for me being there was that my mother had kidney failure and was in a hospital fighting for her life. Basically my second memory in this life is when I wake up being carried down a staircase on the shoulder of some stranger into a room full of people at a strange place. I think I was not even two years old at the time. I remember, like in a dream, being exhibited in a drunken party. There was shouting and a lot of noise all around. I did not understand what was going on, but I seem to recall some adults having a quarrel about this not being right at all. I was a beautiful baby, I am told and there I was, a fun thing to flaunt at for some unfamiliar drunks at a party in a foreign place. What a start to a lifespan. Did I say that I have abandonment issues? – and might I add I have some traumatic childhood memories.

Chapter 2

Growing up 

I was never sexually abused as a child (well, it is a point of view) but on a couple of occasions it was a close call, only prevented by something that I like to call a divine intervention. I was abused a lot however by strangers, teachers and other adults in various farms and elsewhere where I spent a lot of my childhood. The fact of the matter is, that I was babysitted a lot in my childhood by strangers. Those were different times and I understand my mother had a career to think about and she had to work to make a living, I get all that, but it is what it is and it certainly didn’t help with my self esteem and abandonment issues, not to mention this eerie feeling that I don’t belong and am a burden who doesn’t deserve really deserve to be alive.

There are countless sad incidents from those years when I was mistreated and abused by some strange folk on some unfamiliar farms around Iceland. Suffice to say: I was not treated well when I was away from home and I was away a lot. There were beatings, punishments, cold shoulders and hard disciplines. Nothing of this was even seen as anything in particular. Everybody who has been a lot around strangers growing up can relate – it is not the same as being around your relatives. In those days it was a common practice for a lot of city families to send their kids to farms in the summers – “To learn how to work”. Today, this is regarded as child abuse and extortion and this practise is currently banned by law. Some kids were fortunate to stay with relatives. In my case it was always with strangers and they all just saw me really as a cheap labor,  basically as a slave whom  they could treat as they saw fit. I for sure had to work for my food and lodge and we are talking about a kid here. From six in the morning until the evening every single day – without pay or so much as a thank you. 

The biggest issue about this is not the slavery. It is the abandonment. Why did my mother send me there? Where was my father? Why did I have to go but not my brother? Most of my friends didn’t have to go through this and I certainly did not like being at those farms slaving for strangers. The fact of the matter is that we are not all lucky and some of us had lousy childhood and that does affect our lives and prospects. Those early years define you as a person; how you are able to love, to trust, to show affection, smile and believe in yourself and the good in the world..

Elementary school 

One certain factor had a paramount effect on my development – that is the attitude I met from a horrible little old lady that was my school teacher in elementary school. She was a mean old woman, from a by-gone era. She made sure I felt un-welcomed in class. I later figured out that, not only did she hate boys, but she especially loathed kids from “broken” homes. Yes, there was a stigma in Iceland about divorce and single moms in those days, a shadow of shame that was purged down on the innocent kids. Basically, single moms were equivalent to whores and their children were bastards. On top of that, I had a foreign father! That was absolutely reprehensible to this old bag who really should have been doing anything else but teaching young children.

This horrible human being did not even try to hide her contempt for me. Why waste any time on this little bastard? He will amount to nothing! I had to endure this reprehensible scum for years. Well, she did not only have it in for me. There were other boys of course in my class and many of whom did not come from decent families. Finally four of us revolted and actually there was a fight one day. We stood up to the tyrant and being a fragile old woman she had to stand down, her front was torn, there was a revolt. Something had to be done by the school. 

It was the first time in my life I realized that one does not have to take abuse and a fight against oppression can actually make a difference. We all wanted to get away from this horrible bitch. She was actually the bad guy in the situation – we were the victims. There was a meeting and the parents were called up. The result was that two of us rebels got transferred to other classes and one to another school. One stayed – and guess who that was? It could not be so that this old bag lost four of her students in one go. That would have looked bad for the school and definitely for her – even in those days. The class would become too small and definitely no one from the other classes wanted to trade places. I was taken to the principal. A whole day, I had to stay in his office. He had me hanging there while attending to his business. Towards the end of the school day, he sat down and we had a little “talk”. He spread his legs and touched his genitals. Then he took me for a ride in his car! Honestly I can’t remember more. 

I failed to get rid of the old bag and stayed in her class until that school was finished and highschool took over – which was thankfully, as I remember, just one more year. I still to this day can bummer over why I did not persist in not staying in her class. I did not deserve her abuse and foul treatment. I do meet those moments still to this day when I fail to stand up for myself when wrongly treated and strange as it is, it is as I am programmed to bend down and take the abuse. I am getting better at standing up for myself though, but to break out of those early  conditionings takes a lot of effort and comprehensive work – one of which these writings are a part.

The National Theater of Iceland & Lenin the Cat 

The National Theatre of Iceland

Allright, that out of the way, I had some things going for me in my childhood of course. Beside my creative retreat and artistic talent, I spent a huge portion of my childhood at the National Theatre and that was surely an adventurous childhood world. This was my moms place of work and she brought me along whenever she couldn’t find anyone to babysit me and that was frequent. Sometimes I sat in the empty auditorium and watched the rehearsals on stage, but often I took on venturesome strolls around this magical place. I visited the workshops where people were creating the sets. I sat and followed the ladies making wigs and special makeup magic. Paid a visit to the wardrobe department, chatted with the chef and the staff at the canteen, learned about life from the doorman or got lost at the enormous storage spaces filled with old theater sets – it was truly a magical place to grow up in. What a place!

If I was not at the theater and that was usually when mom was performing, which usually was during the evenings, I was left home alone, basically as early as seven or eight years old. In fact I raised myself. I taught myself to read and of course I was always drawing and painting. For sure, in today’s standards, at least in Iceland, this would not be seen as ideal or acceptable, but for me at the time it was just fine and of course I didn’t know anything else. In fact  sometimes I pitied my mates who had to be in bed at a certain time and obey some rules, especially was I wary of all fathers, who I saw as authoritarian figures and generally a huge nuisance.  

Who needs a father, or anybody for that matter, when you have an angel in your life?

When I was six years old, my mom brought home a little kitten. She named him Lenin (that ought to give you an impression of the political environment I was brought up in). Lenin became my best friend and I have never since been bound to any other living being as strongly. He was part of my life for most of my childhood and adolescence; he was my best friend ever.  He was always there. With his unconditional love and affection he gave me more than most people ever could have – and I loved him deeply. He lived to be nineteen years old. Sometimes I think that whatever good is in me I owe to him. Tears come into my eyes when I am writing this.

With my best friend Lenin


I did okay in school, especially given the lack of support from home. Don’t get me wrong – my mother loved me and wanted all the best for me, but she wasn’t there much. She had no time to help with my homework or partake in my daily life inside or outside of school. Always working, a single mom with two kids; well perhaps she also just didn’t know how to, I mean nobody’s perfect. For most part I was fine with that. I always was and always have been, the creative type. Always drawing and creating worlds in my head alone in my room. When the offer came, I joined the school’s brass band. I chose the drums and percussion. I loved to bang on things and rhythmic, I have always been. I loved to dance and play music. I took guitar lessons and later played the bass in my own rock band.

Mom met a bloke after she broke up with the  father of my half brother. This time she and that guy got married. We moved in with the new guy Gummi, as he was called. He was not the nicest guy but he could tolerate me, but he hated my brother and he really did not think much of the rest of my mother’s family. It was a turbulent relationship. He despised mom’s profession; acting was not a real job in his opinion and I later learned that there was some domestic abuse. Gummi was a plummer. I would describe him as a rather lazy person. I remember in our home, a house provided to him by his employer, there were a bunch of forever going renovation projects all over the place that never got anywhere after the initial startups. He began projects enthusiastically, but never finished anything. He was not a bad person per se in my opinion but my mother would like to disagree on that. As it also turned out Gummi and my mom got divorced after a few years.

But Gummi did not come alone. He had a son and we became very good friends, almost like brothers. We kept contact long after my mother and Gummi parted. We even formed a punk-rock band and played our own music and performed with no lesser stars than Björk and the Sugarcubes on more than one occasion. 

First art lessons 

After the Gummi period the time of adolescence commenced. This was the time of youth revolt expressed through punk-rock culture. Punk suited me perfectly. Our attitude was basically to give life and the system the finger, scream at it and blame the capitalist society for all misfortunes. Life surely had not been too kind to me. Basically whenever I was not in my own world or at the Theatre I was being abused or bashed by grownups, at least that’s how I remember it. Back in those days, being from a broken home was frowned upon. I understand now that teachers and others always saw me as an underdog, an unfortunate kid like the rest of the braids from single households. On top of that I was a foreigner, with some strange impossible to spell family name. Case in point here is that in secondary elementary school, I guess we can call it highschool, the class was split up. I didn’t understand it at the time but later it dawned upon me; we the underdogs were being separated from the privileged – or the “normal”  kids. They did not want to mix up the good kids with the bad ones. So yeah, fuck you society.

Artwork by Thor Stiefel
One of my first attempts at abstract oil, 1984

One great thing came about at this time though – my art teacher (who incidentally also was called Gummi). He was a lovely, considered human being and a great teacher. In his class I made my first oil painting. It was of clowns descending from the main door of the Icelandic main parliament building. A painting I lost somehow along the way and have no picture of regrettably. It was all about clowns in those days. I named my punk rock band The Clown. For me the whole society was a circus full of clowns. I still work a lot with this character and the concept of the clown; the exterior of happiness, smile and joyfulness, while underneath is crumbling desolation, sadness, pure madness and sorrow.

At the graduation ceremony from highschool, I was awarded for excellence in art and got a prize, an art book signed by my art teacher  – something I treasure and keep with me to this day. Like I said, I was gifted in the art department so no wonder I took up the career as an artist.  And yeah, one of the girls in my class was awarded for having the highest overall average grade in Iceland that year. She is today an engineer and was my childhood sweetheart, but of course I didn’t have the courage to act on it.  So, take that you suckers, who wrote us off as the troubled class and the bunch of bad and lost kids. Maybe realizing that we were labeled as undesirable made us stronger later on, but at the time it made me at least just angry and destructive.

The relief of mind altering substances 

Now, this is a ripe and fertile soil for a young teenager to discover drugs and alcohol – and what a relief it was when that happened. I was an alcoholic from the start – of that I am sure. I grew up with alcoholism. My mother and grandmother used alcohol and cigarettes like there was no tomorrow and they did not hide it from us kids. I remember numerous occasions waking up in the middle of the night to a party, often wondering why on earth they did not consider I had to wake up early to go to school the next day. Quarrels, fights, loud music and talks, long into the night – get used to it kid. 

I remember one day in highschool when there was this lecture about alcoholism. Everybody had been summoned in the hall to listen to these two not so good looking blokes, admitting to all of us they were alcoholics. “If you kids do not take care you will surely end up like us”. There is one thing in particular I remember from this talk. One of them said if we experienced blackout when drinking we were highly likely to be a material for an alcoholic. Well, I was a black-out drinker from the outset. Started drinking out of peer pressure at the age of fourteen, despite having previously promised myself never to take up that stupidity. I simply could not handle my liquor. Thank heavens I soon discovered Cannabis. That I could handle, and handle it I did quite well for decades. I had found a place where I could escape into and feel at ease, away from this dreadful world; not art this time, but some substance that altered my reality perception – a beautiful escape. 


I was growing up and becoming a youth. I left highschool with recognition for excellence in art and above average grades in the rest. It was my strategy all the way through college: Put all my effort into art and do just enough – and no more – to pass for the rest. Why waste more energy than needed? I chose to go to Hamrahlid college. Most of my highschool mates chose the neighborhood local prestigious Reykjavik College – or MR as it is called (that’s where most of the privileged kids go). The reason I chose Hamrahlid college was that it was a progressive educational institution and it did not have the class system. I always hated being stuck in a class. I am a loner by nature and I really fit poorly in a group. Considering my upbringing and background – how could it really be otherwise? Besides, Hamrahlid had a unit system, similar to a University and one could choose the pace of study that suited oneself – not have everything hand–fed to you as in the other colleges. Also, Hamrahlid College offered art classes and it was the place to go for the art inclined students. This was the school where the cool and creative kids went (yes, Björk Guðmundsóttir was there too concomitantly).

In many ways my college years were good years. I am a good student when I put my mind to it. I sank myself into art classes, visual art, acting classes and enjoyed many of the more academic subjects such as philosophy, economics, psychology, history and law. My mind was already made up on going to art school after graduation so this time was more about enjoying my youth than focusing on the subjects and my studies. I formed an art club and we held ambitious art exhibitions in school. It was cool and felt like I was becoming a real artist. I also kept appearing on stage at the National Theatre as I had done throughout my childhood as an extra. That gave me money to pay for my instruments I used with my band. These were creative times.

“The Lighthouse”, from my first solo exhibition in 1990

In this period I also started engaging in the larger artistic environment. I got involved in a theater group. The group was called “Svart & Sykurlaust” (black & sugarless in english). I traveled around Iceland with the group doing performances. I also played a big role in a film by famous Icelandic film director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, who is renowned for his viking films. So I was basically living the life of an artist from the early on.

I still had my same low self esteem though and on top of that I stopped growing at 175 centimeters. Not small per se, but not tall either. I was considered a good looker and the looks helped, so I was okay with the ladies – and the guys, but I was always awkward in social settings and made few friends. All in all, I was this distant arty type with locust social skills and an eccentric. My social group was mostly based around my punk rock band. We met in our rehearsal space and partied and smoked a lot of weed, which of course did not aid with my social skills. Yet another handdown on my confidence: Too short, smoking weed all day, isolated within a confided social group – basically a punker that doesn’t gives a fuck – so, there you have it!

Chapter 3

Being different 

Ever since I can remember I felt different and out of place – an outsider. Constantly being pushed into the hands of strangers, from the outset, felt unwanted, unworthy and dirty somehow. Being abandoned and neglected as a child, I was constantly justifying my existence. I didn’t have a father like the other kids, my mother was always busy and away. I was always drawing and creating something. Growing up in the theater, living in that world knowing, thinking, talking about theater, art, ballet and opera was unusual and nobody around me was like that. The kids around me and my friends were just normal and had normal families with mom, dad and siblings, going on holidays together doing normal things.

Raised by a single mom, under the influence of a strong matriarchal grandmother, without a father or male figure around, surely affected how I look at gender and gender roles. My role models and heroes were predominantly females. Pippi Longstocking, a character created by writer Astrid Lindgren, was my childhood hero. My mother was a source of love and my grandmother was the stronghold and the achiever. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first ever democratic female president in the world, is a theater person and personal friend. Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of Great Britain when I was growing up. Women formed a feminist political party in Iceland and the so–called Red Stocking feminist movement was strong in those times. And of course there was Queen Elisabeth and Queen Margaret of Denmark.  The female power was augmenting so it was probably not out of the clear sky that I  wanted to try on my mother’s clothes – and sometimes I did.

One incident this related I must mention since it is carved deeply into my psyche. At a Christmas party, with my brother’s family (my mother tried to squeeze me in there sometimes so I didn’t feel left out – or maybe simply because she needed a babysitter) I remember playing with some dolls owned by some girls who were also there. I recall my brother’s grandfather embarrassingly explaining to me in a mocking manner that “boys do not play with dolls”. I was baffled. Obviously, I had done something wrong. We never spoke about that incident again. I am pretty sure the old man’s good intentions – but what a traumatic experience for a five year old! I had done something wrong and I did it without knowing it, I simply did it as it was just a normal thing to do! I must be a very damaged person indeed. I was a boy, but I was odd in this regard – that I could tell. I was attracted to girls and I sometimes wondered if my admiration of them was that I wished to be like them. They were at least allowed to show feelings and be vulnerable, while we boys were not allowed to cry and if we were hurt we were told to shut up and shuck it up. Today, we would probably say that I was in touch with my feminine site. I had long hair when it was not in style, even among the girls and I have always been the soft type.

TORA Victoria

Taking on a role, becoming something I was not – somebody else, was arguably just logical for me. Trying on a different gender was, on a psychological level, probably a way to recuperate my life.  I always felt I was no good, unwanted and wrong. Dressing up and experiencing myself as a girl was a rectification and an escape from this bad situation I was born into. For me it was entering a space where I could throw away my protective, aggressive persona; shut off the outside world, relax and just be. Without having to excuse my existence, without anybody governing me or resenting my presence, I could be me somehow – when I became someone else; when I became her. It is hard to express exactly how it feels to enter into a new role, basically to enter into a new body, but it was exciting, transgressive, and relieving. In a sense, it was like I was unpacking a part of me that had been suppressed all my life and I felt honest, free and true. It had nothing to do with sex or puberty, I was withdrawing into her space long before.

This was prior to the internet and the information age. Little knowledge did I have about what I was experiencing, or what the heck was “wrong” with me. Of course I “knew” it was not “right”. Alongside the relief and calmness of experiencing myself as somebody else there was a shame and the notion of doing something forbidden that made it all the more exciting. Boys wear certain clothes and outfits and girls have different ones – you do not mix these two and certainly you do not cross over. I was breaking the rules that I felt had held me down forever – I had taken the Red pill. The vague idea I had about what I was entering was that it was labeled transvestism and the little I knew about that phenomenon was that it was associated with pervertism. Obviously, and in perfect accordance with my life, my solution to my anguish was associated with something wrong, hideous, foolish, bad or even evil.

At first, at a very young age, perhaps six or seven years old, entering my feminine side was simply no issue at all. In hindsight I don’t think that there was any distinction – there were no two sides. Gradually, society “taught” me that one side of me was “wrong” and I therefore hid that side of me. But everything about me  felt forbidden, wrong and out of place, so for me being a female me, was not that really an issue.  I always experienced myself as something wrong, a burden and out of place, so the thought that I was a girl in a boy’s body made a lot of sense. Eureka! Yes, that’s it, I am merely born in the wrong gender. Enters the stage: TORA Victoria.

Tora Victoria by Thor Stiefel
Tora Victoria

I discreetly, gradually, got myself a wardrobe that would be considered a woman’s style wardrobe. I simply went into the women’s clothing section and was shopping for my “girlfriend” – and in a sense that was the case. I won’t lie: I got something sexual out of it for a period. I felt so alive! It was like I was making love with myself – two parts in one body; a male and a female. It felt so right and yet so wrong at the same time. Outwardly, I portrayed a tough guy, oozing with masculinity; somebody who definitely had no sissiness in him. TORA Victoria was my secret and no–one was to find out.

Being unable to be open about this side of me, catapulted into an outlet in artistic expressions. I drew and painted girls and women in all kinds of situations, often in gorgeous garments with garter belts, stockings and in peaceful contenting situations and poses. I was portraying myself as her: TORA Victoria – my alter ego. She was the part of me that was confident and relaxed, compassioned, lovely, fun and joyful, a complete opposite of my daily self. Realizing TORA Victoria, both in my art and in my physique, was a magical and a mystical experience. But it was a fierce battle with my unconsciousness. Between what I wanted and felt and what was acceptable by society and what I had learned to be right and wrong. For years I struggled to reconcile these contrasts in my existence. This conflict nagged me from the inside out for a very long time in my life. On several occasions I took TORA’s whole wardrobe and all the artworks related to her and burned it ceremoniously. I was torn apart and especially when it came to partnerships, who always were heterosexual, I just could not cope properly.

It took some serious mental exploration and time before I was able to realize that TORA Victoria, this side of me, is a healthy part of me, nothing to be ashamed of and in fact a logical solution to all I had been through. Those women in my art were really me. I was TORA Victoria. It was not just part of me. The separation was my self loathing stemming from my upbringing and from the social norms suppressed upon me.

It was much later, when I was studying at the Iceland University of the arts that it all accumulated in my art philosophy: SNART. 

My father 

Literally everybody around me, except the person who matters the most – my mother, discouraged me to follow my heart and become an artist. Even my father, himself an artist, disheartened me about following my passion. Yes, I had searched for and found my father when I was seventeen years old. 

The thing is that I had increasingly been itching about the fact that I didn’t know anything about my father – not a single thing. Who was I? What was from my mother and what from my father? And what was just me? I had to find out. As a seventeen year old, I was traveling Europe on an interrail trip and had as one of the objectives with the trip, to try to locate my father. I had no clue where he lived: No contact info, no address, no phone number – nothing. My mother and I thought he still lived in Paris. Mom had been a president of the Alliance Française in Iceland for some time and through that she had made some friends from the French embassy in Iceland. One of them had later begun a career in the French foreign office. Mom contacted the fellow and asked if he could help locate my father. This was before the Internet and tracking down people was not at all easy in those days. But as it turned out the Alliance Française connection paid off, and my father was located. I was in the south of Italy when I, for some reason, decided to call my mother and let her know I was alright and alive. She was very excited when she told me that her friend had located my father and I was to call him and he would give me the info I needed about my father. 

It was one of those stings in the chest that followed. I have had several of those, but this one was one of the all time high. My mother’s friend answered the phone. I introduced myself and – yes he had the information I wanted. Only one thing: Was I aware that my father was a prominent and respectable artist and did I realize that he could of course think that I was just after some money? What a thing to say! I just hated that man after that – how dared he? Who the fuck did he think he was? My motives were way above the thought processes this petty little weasel could conjure! Anyways, I got from him what I wanted, my dad’s phone number. After I hung up I immediately phoned the number he had provided and at the other end a “hello” in a french accent . My father actually sounded happy and excited when I called. Yes, he wanted to meet me of course. The only thing was that he was going with his theater group to represent France at the summer olympic games in Los Angeles in a few days, so this was the summer of 1984. If I came right away I could meet him before he left. I changed my traveling plans in an instance and was in Paris two days later. 

My parents the year I was born

It was spectacular to meet him – my father. We have the same hands and I could see a lot of myself in him. I began to see what in me was my mother, what was my father and what really was I. We had a wonderful time together in Paris. He introduced me to his city and I stayed in his studio. I visited him several times after that and he came to my wedding a few years later. 

Gradually, our connection became sour though. I think he really did not like me. It could have to do with my incredibly low self-esteem, or perhaps I always resented the fact that he wasn’t there for me and never contacted me – not even to see if I was alright and alive. I also felt bitter about the fact that he had abandoned my mother when she had just given birth to his only child. Quite frankly, I thought – and still think – that he is a selfish egoistic man. But he has his issues and I hold no grudges. I am free of him, wish him well and am ready if he wishes to reunite.

A son and a wife 

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
La femme. Oil on canvas 60x50cm. 1989

It was at the Hamrahlid college where I met my soon to become wife. I chose her simply because she was just as disturbed as I. She was the turbulent party girl, a real punk rock princess. Definitely not the ideal wife material nor the daughter-in-law, I would wish for myself. I did not love her. I liked her and we could drink and party together – so why not? She was witty, smart and dark, a troubled soul just like me. After a while we moved in together and soon after that we married and Elias, our son, was born.

I have thought about that countless times why nobody around us ever tried the slightest to stop us kids from marrying at the age of just over twenty. I guess on both sides, our relatives were just happy we were starting a family and hoped for the best for those miserable troubled youngsters. I was twenty-one, she was twenty-two, when our son was born. 

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Elias. Aquarelle 1994

Elías, my son was born in autumn of 1988 and a month later I began studying at the Icelandic Art and Handcraft College – a school that was the predecessor of the Icelandic University of the arts and a quite prestigious school to get into. When I graduated from the Hamrahlið College that spring I took the entrance exam to the art school and passed of course with flying colors. A dream was coming true for me and the future seemed bright. But of course life isn’t about being able to achieve one’s dreams and living happily ever after – is it? Picture this: Two alcoholics, basically still teenagers, both with very disturbed backgrounds, raising a child, starting a family. She was a stay at home mom. I provided for the family with my earnings as a fisherman that summer and by taking student loans. 

I had become close to my father–in–law during that summer when my wife and I stayed at their house while she was pregnant and I pretty much stayed at sea the whole summer. He was as close to a father figure to me as anyone had been in my life and I looked up to him. He was on the same page as my grandmother and pretty much all of their generation in Iceland: art was at best a hobby – nothing one did for a living. I recall him telling me on various occasions with an authoritative vigor, only a father–in–law can have, to give up this art nonsense and enlist rather at the University and become something useful like a lawyer or a doctor. His other children beside my wife all were doctors or high achievers – my wife was the black sheep of course. 

I thought over this long and hard. To become an artist was for sure never a safe bet financially. Very few in Iceland could make a living from art; was I making a mistake pursuing my dream, shouldn’t I just face the harsh reality and skip this artistic nonsense? After a year of studying art at the art school I decided to enlist rather at the University of Iceland at the Economic department. I quit art school – something that had been my goal for as long as I could remember. I decided to let go of my dream. My thought was If I could not become an artist, I was to become a successful businessman or an accountant, make tons of money and settle for art as a hobby. I could make money and have the world’s best hobby – how bad could that be? I did this for my family and because outside pressure claimed it was the only sensible thing to do.

Divorce and a crash 

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Trapped. Oil on canvas 1991

My business study at the University of Iceland started well enough. But things soon took a turn for the worse. It was simply not me, I did not feel I was in my element. I felt I was wasting my talent. I began to have second thoughts about quitting art school and abandoning my dreams. In the meantime, at home things became sour. If I was to forfeit my dreams, those people at home should support me and play the happy family we were supposed to become. During the pregnancy and after our son was born, my wife and I stopped using drugs and alcohol. All of my happy places were gone: My art, my cannabis – and TORA Victoria was packed away, deep into my mental dungeon. I was oppressing myself with brute force and increasingly, I became bitter, irritable, discontented and angry. Being a mom was not the role my wife was any good at either – and a housewife was even further away from her mentality. It was only a question of time before everything blew up and ended in an inevitable divorce. Our marriage should never have been. We were simply too young, too disturbed individuals, too far apart and neither of us could handle having a child. Two immature, strong minded individuals, coming from troubled backgrounds and not at all in love to begin with. Well, it was a crash bound to happen.

After the divorce – and it was a messy one I quit the University. My aim was to resume my study at the art school the following autumn. In those days the custody of the child automatically went to the mother; the fact that she was a raging alcoholic, didn’t even change that. The failed father was just to pay the alimony, be a babysitter every other weekend and play ball. This I did. Well, way more than that actually. Following the divorce, I moved out of our apartment and I left everything to her and my son. 

Single dad 

Exhibition opening, Elías and I in front of one of my works “Iman” in 1995

I had taken a job at the post office after the divorce and dropping out of the University. I rented a place where I lived and had my studio and I took up painting again. I was able to do my art and have my son with me and the postal job paid the bills. I was getting back on track and mentally ready to become a single dad. It was relatively rare in those days although not unheard of. The divorce came through after the mandatory evaluation year and consultations with a priest. My ex resumed her partying and drinking and then some, after our divorce. We had bitter disputes about our son and I felt she only wanted him for the alimony and the government support single moms were eligible to. She was the parent with the custody and I was to be the babysitter I felt. One day after I had moved out of our apartment I was picking up the rest of my stuff. When I was approaching the apartment I could hear a frantic baby cry out to the street. When I entered the apartment, my former home was a mess. Liquor bottles everywhere, used baby diapers covered the floor and my son crying in his crib, the crip as well as my son, wet with urine. Beside my son’s crib, in my bed was a drunken dead fellow. My ex wife was nowhere to be found. She had just gone away from our infant baby! My heart froze with anger. I came for some things but of course I took my son and he stayed with me more or less the next two years while his mother was in a drunken stupor and later in a rehab.

I deeply love my son. I gave him all the love and care  I could muster. My mother was there as well to help me out. But I was broken and scarred by the marriage experience. My life was in disarray. I was not accepted again into my old art school that following autumn. I guess that supervisor teacher did not give me good recommendations, someone I had really not gotten along with. My artist dream seemed to be going down the drain. Shattered with total lack of self esteem I gradually succumbed to self loathing. I tried but I failed: As a father, a husband, an artist and a human being. 

First solo exhibition and Early Career

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Me myself. Acryl on canvas 1994

All my plans were gone. No art school, no University – no future. Well I still had some fight in me. I was to follow my ambitions and become an artist damn them all. Who needs art school anyway? Making art was my destiny, I felt. This was a test to demonstrate my determination; how badly did I want this? I began a systematic self study in painting techniques, after all one learns by doing and practice makes master. Reading anything I could get my hands on about art and artists I educated myself and I was painting like crazy. Still working at the post office I could manage financially and I could hurry up my route and get off around two or three in the afternoon and still get paid for the whole day. After the route was over I went straight to my studio to work long into the night. I worked like my life depended on it – and in a sense it did. I had my first solo exhibition that year. It was 1991. I rented a space at the women’s house in downtown Reykjavik. The women’s movement, which was very active at the time, had established a political party and got candidates in the Reykjavik municipality and in parliament. The movement had acquired a large building in the city center where they had their headquarters. A beautiful large wooden building called Hlaðvarpinn. There was a hall there where they had their meetings and was also used for happenings and exhibitions. 

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Face. Aquarell on paper, 21x30cm. 1990

I exhibited yearly, sometimes twice a year in the following period. I learned a lot and was growing as an artist. I was serious about educating myself in art. I had some wonderful girlfriends in this period. None of the relationships lasted long however. Burned from the marriage experience, a year and a half was the norm. I also did not want anything to come in my way as an artist again.

Gradually I loosened up and became more secure about myself, not the least about my other self – TORA Victoria. The real me was still in the closet, but TORA Victoria was always at home, just waiting for me, absolutely every man’s dream girl. I was not fully a self–employed artist, but I managed quite well from the art. I did sell in a local gallery and usually I could sell some of my works when I had a show. In this life you are defined by the way you earn a living. Was I an artist working a day job – or was I a day time worker, making art on the site? This became a struggle and to some extent remains so to this day. At the moment I am confident calling myself an artist and I can distinguish between being an artist and a financially successful artist which I honestly can admit I am not. 

After two years I quit the post office and worked hard labor jobs that paid better for the following period. Usually, I worked long hours for months to be able to sustain myself doing only art for several months. Often, I was working daytime jobs for six months, following a six month period only working on my art. I chose work that was hard physical labor but paid relatively good. First of all those jobs were easy to get and I used it as a way to stay in shape. It was on one of those jobs – on the pier, working servicing the fishing boats – I met one of my best friends, Gerhard Zeller. 

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Gerhard Zeller. Charcoal 1997

Zeller was a German who’d been living in Iceland for some years. A few years older than I. He, like me, had been discouraged to follow his artistic ambitions. Pushed by a dominating father, Zeller became a mechanic. He met his fiance, an Icelandic girl, in Germany and they had later settled in Reykjavik. He had since been working various jobs, never really giving up on his artistic ambitions. We connected immediately. We used to talk for hours, many winter nights about art, politics and philosophy. I valued his opinion – he was a truly good friend. We respected each other. Zeller was a devoted communist – I, always the hard–core anarchist. We became involved in the workers union and were active for a while – we wanted to change the world, not only talk about it. Although never wanting to become fully involved in either politics nor labor struggle, after all we were artists first and foremost; but what is art but a way to experience the world, expressing it and eventually shaping it? Our approach was the one of the artist, the intellectual, analyzing social structure and real political motives according to Karl Marks, Lenin, Freud and Reich. There were some heated debates in those years and I know we were lights for each other, in an otherwise hostile and non–understanding, unsupportive world. In 1997 we exhibited together in the Nordic house in Reykjavik. Zeller was dear to me. I lost him to the next world in 2013. He died of a stroke, only 54 years old. 

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Abstract oil on canvas from my Nordic House Exhibition

Struggling young artist 

I was doing alright as an artist, exhibiting at least once a year, working constantly in my studio, mostly on paintings. In 1992 I became part of a group of young artists who established a youth independent art festival in Reykjavik we called “Loftárás á Seyðisfjörð”; a name one of us came up with that literally means “Airstrike on Seydisfjordur”. All over Reykjavik we had venues: Art exhibitions, theater performances, concerts and fashion shows. It was a big event in Reykjavik’s cultural life and the festival lived for a couple of years.

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Red-Rose. Oil on canvas, 75x100cm. 1992

I also got involved in a theater group named “Bandamenn”. It was established by an Icelandic theater mogul Sveinn Einarsson, the former director of the National Theater. The group focused on portraying the Icelandic Sagas and the name – Bandamenn, stems from one of them and basically means brothers in arms. The group and they traveled around art festivals all over the world. I made some publishing posters for the group, I made the group’s logo and painted some props used in some of the productions.

I was active in the art scene in Reykjavik in those years, working on my art and making my name as a young artist. For a while I was working at the Living Art Museum in Iceland as an assistant. It is an important cultural institution in Icelandic contemporary visual art history and one of the main venues for contemporary art in Iceland. However, I could not sustain myself on art alone. I didn’t have the guts or self esteem to just go all the way and rely solely on art as a way of living. Always the day–time worker, taking on various jobs; being distracted from doing my thing – making art. And not having a diploma was not helping. I could hear people in the cultural circles – the people with authority whisper: “He is not educated in art, he is not a real artist”. Probably all just in my head but it bugged me and kept me from really being able to declare to the world that I was an artist. 


For the second time in my life I decided to drop art as a means to earn a living. art making wasn’t paying the bills anyway. I had no intentions of becoming a day time worker earning a low wage, hardly making ends meet and desperately trying to make art on the side. I needed a change and I decided to move to Iceland’s old capital Copenhagen. I went there with no particular objective other than I wanted a change. At the beginning taking any job I could get. I got a cleaning job, was an employee at a transportation company for a while, a telemarketer and worked in a laundry. Moving away from Reykjavik was good for me but being a daytime worker earning some low wages and hardly making any art at all wasn’t what I aimed for. I decided it would be wise to get a practical education and enrolled in a business college and began studying International Marketing. It was kind of a rerun from my University time from before. I was determined, this time I would finish something for once. It was essential for me to prove to myself that I could hold out and finish something and at the millennium shift, in the spring 2000, I graduated as a Market Economist from the Lyngby Business College.

One really good thing came out of my business study besides my degree; I met the love of my life – Ida. She was the one. I couldn’t get enough of her, I was madly in love. After I graduated we rented a flat in the center of Copenhagen. She was studying to become a teacher and our future seemed bright. Something in my nature however will not allow things to just fall into place. I didn’t get any job as a Market Economist in Denmark. I really felt at home in Copenhagen, but the Danes are a prejudiced bunch and since I was not Danish and it could be heard in my accent, getting a decent position was practically out of the question. But, I loved living in Copenhagen and although not painting at the time, I went to the museums and galleries and the art scene was much bigger and more interesting than in little Reykjavik. Ideas were brewing in my mind and instead of painting in oil and aquarelle I started moving into the arena of digital art. The computer and the internet were incessantly entering the scene and it would soon change, not only the way I created art but the whole world. 

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Copenhagen. Aquarelle on paper

It is said that love conquers all. It certainly takes away the grief and depression for a while but eventually the harsh reality of daily life creeps in. Being madly in love didn’t change me and not being able to get a business career going with my newly acquired degree was depressing. I was in a limbo between my art, my business degree and of course TORA Victoria was locked in the dungeons of my deep inner self.  I started drinking and using cannabis a lot and eventually Ida and I parted ways. This was a huge fallback for me. After Ida I went deep into self pity. The depression was overwhelming and I wished for this all to end. My grandmother had bought a house in Florida and she invited me to stay with her following the breakup which I did. It was nice just being with her in the sunny state and I needed the change and calamity of just being there taking in the sun and evading all worries and future plans. I painted in the garden and even gave the old lady some painting lessons that I know she loved. It was a time of contemplation, painting, reading, thinking and healing. 

Ida and I in Copenhagen 1999

After Florida I decided to go to Iceland and do something for myself and I got into rehab. Ida was everything a guy could ask for and more. I was madly in love with her and yet I managed to fuck it up. Quite frankly most, if not all, my girlfriends have been beautiful and wonderful human beings, yet I could not stay in a relationship. They weren’t the problem, I had figured that out for long.  

When I returned to Copenhagen I felt I had to try something fresh, something to heal myself. I was still hurting from the divorce with Ida and had lost almost all contact with my son. Art or no art, I had to face my inner demon and get rid of this melancholy and depression. I found a Yoga school, operated by a Danish yogi in the south of Sweden. I decided to give it a try. Yoga has been a part of my life since teenagehood. I discovered Yoga in my religious search when I was beginning to think seriously about life and its meaning. I would not label myself as a Christian, although brought up in a Christian society, but I believe in God. I have always thought much about religion and spiritual matters. As a kid I had found out that in Iceland religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. I therefore refused to be confirmed into the Church of Iceland, something that was almost unheard of. Just telling you this to establish that I have been thinking about religion and spiritual matters at least since teenagehood. The Yoga school lasted four months, one of which was spent in total silence. It was good for me and I came from there refreshed and ready to face life again.

Scott and Mark 

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
More Bang for your Buck. Oil, newspaper on canvas. 2002

Art is my life whether I like it or not. It is the thread that binds my existence together. This time it presented itself in the form of an American gallerist from New York. Enter Mr. Scott and gallery Boreas. Scott was retiring from a successful career in the hotel industry and had recently fulfilled his dream of opening a gallery in New York. He had been traveling in Iceland for some reason a few years back and fell in love with the country. That had resulted in him wanting to introduce Icelandic and Nordic artists in his gallery. Scott and his husband Mark were fond of antiques and coincidentally my mother had recently retired from the theater and taken over my grandmas’ antique business. Scott and Mark shopped quite a lot from my moms antique store and eventually they got to know each other. Scott saw some of my artworks on my mother’s walls and liked it. Well, to cut a long story short, they were on their way to Copenhagen to scout for some artists there and if I could not meet them to introduce myself? 

I met Scott at hotel Marriot in Copenhagen and a year later I exhibited in his gallery in Brooklyn New York. I had my opening at Gallery Boreas 2002, when the one year anniversary of the twin tower attacks was held. In a way that was deeply symbolic to my own turning point: An old world shattered and something new unknown brewing in the horizon.

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Preparing a show at Gallery Boreas in 2002

There is a twist to this story. Scott and Mark invited me into a residency program, associated with the gallery to work on the show. I was working on my art and enjoying New England, where the residency and their summer home was located. During my stay Mark fell in love with me. I had only once before had sex with a man. Mark and Scott are in an open relationship, but I wasn’t ready for Mark – not yet.

Art as a way of living

It gradually dawned on me that despite all my shortcomings, pitfalls and flaws, I had one thing going for me all along – my art. My insecurity had erroneously judged that art was the thing I had to get away from, that art was somehow the source for my unhappiness and misgivings. The more I tried to get away, the more stubbornly I suppressed it, the harder it pressed my psyche and the result was ever increasing self loathing, depression and exasperation. This conflict manifested itself ever so clearly in TORA Victoria. Unleashing her was therefore not only essential to my development and growth as an artist – it was frankly a requisite for my vitality. I am an artist. I can’t escape it. After all those years I began to realize that  me not being able to move forward, had nothing to do with you – but all to do with me. You weren’t holding me down – I was. It doesn’t matter what you think but it matters all – what I think. If I suppress TORA Victoria, I am suppressing myself and I will consequently get nowhere. Not as an artist, not as an individual – I will simply wither and die angry, bitter and miserable. Art and artmaking has nothing to do with technique or art school degree – it is all about giving one self the freedom of being. In my case it is all about daring to be TORA Victoria.

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Wrapped. 2004

I am TORA Victoria. TORA is my alter Ego, my inner self, representing the courage to be myself as I am, fearless of what others think. TORA is therefore the artist, the fearless warrior who faces the world. The name is not arbitrary. TORA is related to my name Thor, that can also be written Tor. The female version of my name is Thora with an –a ending and consequently can be written Tora. A is the first letter of the Alphabet and there are two a’s in my name – TORA Victoria. AA is an acronym that has a significance for me and countless others who have succumbed to alcoholism. Torah can also be written as Tora in English and that stands for religious scripts of some serious significance. TORA is a four letter word written in capitals. Four, is a complete number: 2 + 2 and represents wholeness and completion: two halves twice together. In numerology TORA adds to the number fourteen which again results in the number five. It is associated with Mercury and has the traits of fast movement, versatility, communication skills and multi talent. Victoria means Victory  – the act of defeating an enemy or opponent in a battle, game, or other competition, has the number seven which refers to spiritual investigator and a seeker. TORA Victoria is exactly that for me – a Victory of an opponent; a Victory of Life. The opponent is myself or my environment, depending on how you look at it. In fact it is the same thing, just as TORA Victoria and Thor Stiefel are the same thing. As a decorative twist the abbreviation T.V. is used to annotate a transvestite; but it is also an abbreviation for television; representing a show, a projection of an image that is an illusion of something that seems to be real. I also use TORA Stiefel and then the abbreviation is T.S. which of course is the same abbreviation as Thor Stiefel. T.S.  can be read as Trans Sexual; something I can relate to.

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
TE-A-TER. 2010

Finally, I was coming around. I was going to re–create myself; use my body as a canvas – become an artwork myself. My life became my art. My life was my art. My body was my canvas, the medium my soul. It all accumulated in an appearance manifested in TORA Victoria that was to encompass my life in the following decade. I was not to succumb to self suppression any more. Finally, I was ready to come out; be me, to be free and become the artist I was destined to be: The artist Thor Stiefel TORA Victoria.

The living performance 

I sold my flat in Copenhagen and bought a place in Reykjavik. My mother was also on the lookout for a new place to live so we decided to buy a house together in the center of Reykjavik. We found a place that suited our needs – an old nordic house with two apartments: One for her and one for me. The house was in bad shape so a lot of renovation was needed. I had some experience renovating old houses, so I did most of the work myself. A new roof, new electrical wiring, new kitchen, new windows; incredible amount of work. I made my flat into living quarters and a studio to work. My mother got to know TORA Victoria and I was happy and getting stronger in my new harmony. Elias, my son, however could not cope with my new identity.

Art by Thor Stiefel
TORA Victoria 2010

When I had moved to Copenhagen, I had of course withdrawn from his life a bit since he stayed in Iceland with his mother. He was with me most summers in Denmark of course and I saw him when I came to visit Iceland, but we grew apart. After the move to Iceland, one good day I thought it was time and came to the door as I was dressed, literally speaking and revealed myself to him as TORA Victoria. He was shocked. In hindsight, probably not the best way to go about it. He shut me off after this. He was also bearing a huge resentment against me for leaving him when I moved to Denmark. Plus of course now a teenager in the typical revolting stage against his parents.

After I settled in Reykjavik, I got involved with a small group called Trans–Iceland. It encompassed a bunch of male-to-female trans individuals, who met once a month. It was really a support group for individuals that were seeking to get support concerning sexual transition surgery. I was not there however, never was, and never will be. TORA Victoria was certainly my female persona in a sense, but I did not seek to hide or reject my masculinity, nor did I want to become a woman – whatever that may entail for a person born and raised as a male. Most of the individuals in Trans–Iceland were, what was called stealth, i.e. they obscured the fact that they had been born males and were somewhat ashamed of their past. The goal for most of them was to “pass” as a woman. In a way they were my complete opposite from before: They guarded the secret that they were born males as much as I used to hide TORA Victoria. I advocated openness and pride in being who I am and it took me a long time to get there, so I was certainly not going to hide anymore. 

Artist Þór Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Embracing the Universe performance at Þingvellir Iceland 2018

I spoke for the notion that sexuality was a spectrum – not black or white. We are all somewhat masculine and feminine. Men have nipples and the clit is just a tiny penis; some men have wide hips and some women have facial hair – we are just humans. After I arrived and was seen walking the streets of Reykjavik, in high heels, a skirt with painted fingernails and a make–up, it is safe to say that the scene in little Reykjavik exploded. Who was this guy that openly went about his business dressed like that? You get noticed when you are at odds in a little city. I met some hostilities at first and even got into fights on occasions, but I persisted and the media started showing me interest and interviews were published in the newspapers and on the TV. I had arrived and slowly but surely the attitude towards me changed.

TORA Victoria is my personal art project and a life performance. It came about as a result of  my own artistic and existential struggle. As a side note I actually contributed to changing the attitude towards trans people in Iceland with my performance. I became the president of Trans–Iceland and the little group grew to become an advisory body to the government on the issues of transgenderism and the membership grew. There was I – TORA Victoria, an individual who not only was not ashamed of being a trans, but actually proud of it! The fact of the matter is that gender equality and the legal rights of trans people in Iceland, are among the best in the world today. Other countries are looking towards little Iceland as an example, that is a fact. So in a way one can say that I have contributed towards transgender rights and hence human rights in the world. It is easier to change a little society than a large one. But, it is also easier to change a large one, after a change has been done in a little one. 

But this was not my battleground. I am not an activist. I am an artist and my battle is with my inner self and art is my outlet – that is why TORA Victoria exists. I retired from the Trans–Iceland, my venue was elsewhere. My aim was never to become anything other than I am – quite the contrary. Certainly, my path was not to become a woman. Above all, TORA Victoria is a manifestation, a proclamation; a statement, manifesting itself as an art project. TORA Victoria is a living art performance.

Sexuality and gender in art

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Phallus. 2013

Predominantly the TORA Victoria project preoccupied my art during the good decade it lasted and gave birth to the SNART, my art philosophy. SNART amalgamates my art today. SNART is the mirror script of the word TRANS. I had realized early on that I was in fact mirroring myself in my artwork: Thor Stiefel looked into the picture and saw TORA Victoria look back at him. My subconsciousness was trying to reveal itself. SNART is based on the principle of reflection. The mirror, unlike a photograph, mirrors the reflection – the right side becomes the left side etc. It is a picture of one self, but another self, almost like the other half, like the left brain hemisphere seeing the right one. For me art is a narration. SNART is also an acronym for Self Narrative ART. The story of our true self, an imprint and a footprint in time. Exploring oneself as the opposite sex must have to do with sexuality. Gradually, realizing TORA Victoria as an artistic approach and as such, a method of sustenance in my art, I began to shamelessly explore sex and sexuality through my art and the ever forbidden fruit of homosexuality. Intermittent advances became a systematic study and something to celebrate in the open. Making countless sketches and digital paintings, oils and aquarelles, exploring erotic art, was my main artistic focus in this period. 

Parallel to working with sexuality and erotism in my art, the involvement with Trans–Iceland affected my art in a distinct way. A significant turn of event artistically for me, was when I was on an occasion as the president of Trans–Iceland a member of a panel discussion following a screening of the Swedish movie “The Regret”. With me on the panel was, among others, a psychiatrist who was the head of the medical team at the national hospital who oversaw the treatment of transgender people and their sexual surgery treatment. What struck me most from that panel discussion, was the psychiatrist’s remarks about the definition of transgenderism and accordingly, who was eligible to receive medical treatment. According to the official guidelines in Iceland at that time and  the principal part of a diagnosis of a trans gendered person, was if an individual had contempt for his or her genitalia. That was something that really obsessed me for years afterwards. Did I hate my penis? No, in fact I did not. I actually enjoy my penis as I do the rest of my body. This medical definition and the fact that someone could hate a part of their body became a source of artistic study for the next period. My self loathing had always exclusively to do with something mental, never anything physical. When I present as TORA Victoria, I tuck away my penis. Aesthetically I don’t want it to bulge out. But, I was and am very fascinated with shemales or trans persons with penises. I have been using them in my art for a long time and it is totally coherent with TORA Victoria, who one can say is a girl with a penis. Women with penises are actually also a well known phenomenon. Shemales in the porn industry are a hugely popular phenomenon and of course there are intersexual individuals who are hermaphrodites. In other cultures, like in Thailand, the phenomenon of a girl–boy combination has prevailed for ages. There the term “Kathoey’’ is used to designate a trans person usually a boy–to–girl transition often referred to as Laydyboys. 

Artist Þór Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
“Zena” Mixed media 2014

Through my research, I had found that women with dicks are nothing new and occur in all cultures and probably have been a part of humanity since it began. In North America for example, some indigenous tribes had many gender definitions and certainly many cultures talk about the third sex. The “Hermaphrodite” is of course a well known phenomenon. All of this can be, but is not exclusively, associated with homosexuality. In one of my researches, I stumbled upon interviews with professional shemale pornstars, where they referred to their penises as a “lady–sticks” or “big–clits” while some simply talked about their dicks. They were gorgeous, feminine and proud, with absolutely no issue with their genitals. Quite the contrary, it was an asset for them. 

I had for years looked at female Hollywood stars like for example Marilyn Monroe as trans individuals, with their plastic surgery, silicone breasts, dyed hair and make–up. In fact, make–up is a transformation of oneself and every woman or a man, who puts on make–up, is transforming him or herself and therefore a trans person in a sense. For me, being a trans person is exactly that: To transform into something that one is mentally and manifesting it in the physical realm. Marilyn Monroe was a trans: She was born a poor redhead and christened Norma Jeane Mortenson, but the image the world has of her was of a blond Hollywood wealthy megastar named Marilyn Monroe.

TORA, SNART, Stiefel, art, erotica, Iceland, Reykjavik, Þór Ludwig,
Monroe. Oil on canvas, 105x120cm. 1992

In this period I pictured kathoeys, shemales, women with dicks and myself as TORA Victoria in my art. I projected penises and phalluses. I represented imagery of transsexuality and girls with penises as something proud, beautiful and normal; sometimes sexual and sometimes not. The penis is a fascinating subject and touches upon the stigma we have about nudity, sex and of course gender roles. The phallus is a symbol of not only masculinity but of fertility and prosperity. It engulfs good luck in some cultures. This artistic research study resulted in a show in 2016, I had in connection with the Reykjavik Pride. 

The Iceland University of the arts 

Artist Thor Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
From the Mær-Mæri-Mæra installation 2017

After nearly two decades of operation my New York gallerist Scott had retired from the gallery business and closed the gallery. He and his husband Mark decided to move to Iceland. They had already had an apartment in Reykjavik for years. Scott however wasn’t quite content in Iceland and had his eyes on something new – Vietnam. He wanted to move there and so he did. Mark was not so anxious. This is when Mark and I became involved. It was a beautiful time for me. Mark and I traveled around Iceland and then we traveled to Thailand together. He said it was our honeymoon. We enjoyed two months traveling in Thailand and Myanmar. I loved every minute of it. 

In Thailand I finally found the courage I needed to face an old nemesis and heal an old wound. Embraced with Mark’s love, I gradually became ready to take a step I had dreaded for so long: I decided to apply for the Iceland University of the arts. I needed to get that closure and finally get my art degree and finish the journey I started over two decades ago. What if they would reject me? Me, who was an artist with decades of artistic practice on my back? Wouldn’t that finally crush me? One thing is certain: Mark’s love gave me the courage to apply and of course I was accepted. This was the year 2015. Three years later, I graduated with a Bachelor degree in fine arts; with an average grade of 9.2; one of the best grades ever in the University’s history. Yes, I was dedicated to study and get the most out of my stay there. It was a privileged time and this time I really got the most out of it. Finally I got my degree in art and finished the journey I had embarked upon all those years ago. I was content, satisfied and ready to face my future with pride and self confidence.

Artist Þór Ludwig Stiefel - TORA
Psychomanteum. SNART Installation Performance, various media duration 15. min 2016

Chapter 4


Abstract art by Thor Stiefel
Abstract oil on canvas 2020

Currently I am creating art full time, well almost. I do have something on the side. I manage and create websites for clients and counsel on marketing issues, particularly regarding online marketing and social media and I took a position counseling the elderly on various issues. Most of my time is dedicated to artmaking though and studying for various projects, writing and simply learning. I love learning new things. That can be something concerning my profession or it can be simply about life. The Internet can be this wonderful thing. I regularly take University courses on subjects like biology, psychology, history, physics, game theory, the occult and just about anything imaginable. I am and always have been a curious person and I honestly think we are here in this life to learn and educate ourselves.  

Connect the dots by artist Thor Stiefel
From “Connecting the Dots” series, 2023

After graduating from the University I felt it was time to get back to my roots and I started painting again. Mostly big abstract works in oil, but also some figurative works in Nerdrum style. The thing about painting is that it has much to do with craftsmanship and pure talent. Anybody can splatter some paint on a canvas and arbitrarily make it look somewhat good, even call it art. It is perhaps more difficult to pass as an art when it comes to the figurative but still most people can master some techniques and present a decent figurative painting. But I like to use the musical analogy here. Most people can handle a fiddle and get some sound out of it, but not many can make music with a fiddle and just a very few can make music so that it is pleasing to hear and enjoy. It takes talent and dedication for decades to make that work. It really is the same with painting. I have studied painting, with emphasis on abstract painting for decades. It is a speciality of mine. I enjoy doing it and I excel at it. I will continue to make abstract paintings as long as I can yield a brush. It is a combination of technique, design, harmony and the moment, with the emphasis on the emotional realm. Abstract art is a feeling – not logic. It has to do with poetry and intuition. To read Abstract Art one has to get into a certain state of mind, like meditation and obviously to make it you have to get into that realm as well. It is way more challenging, at least for me, to make Abstract painting than figurative painting. Sure, it is easy to splatter paint on a canvas but that is not what makes Abstract Art; it can resemble it at best. 

"The Lavaman from Iceland" artwork by Thor Stiefel 2024
The Lavaman from Iceland. 2024

During my University years I deliberately gave painting a rest. I wanted to explore the newest trends in Art and to focus on the concept of Art making, time–based art, installations, video and soundscapes. For me it was a time of Academic study of why we humans make Art and what Art is as a phenomenon. The label Multi Media Artist could describe me well today. I paint, but my canvas is just as much digital as it is linen. I utilize 3D programs, vectors, animations, videos and sounds in my work; basically use whatever serves the purpose of the narrative I am conjuring. I also write quite a bit and this story is a good example of how I use words to express myself. I would never call myself a writer, but for me it is still another handy tool in my artistic toolbox. 

My pace has changed. I wouldn’t necessarily say it has slowed down, although I guess you could say that. I don’t need to exhibit my art anymore. I don’t mind if I do, but I also don’t mind if I skip it. The world has changed and increasingly the venue for art sharing and consuming is on the web. I regularly display my works online and increasingly am working on Augmented Reality as an art form. How wonderful is it that one can simply create Art and press Enter on the keyboard and voilà, it is out there for everybody to enjoy. I create art for art’s sake and mostly for myself. This is the right motive and has pretty much been so for me for my entire career. I don’t strive for monetary success. In the past I did try that route and found myself cornered in practically being an interior designer. Nothing wrong in that profession except it is not for me. I am pretty lousy at painting by the numbers and being a rented brush for some clients needing a “large painting to match their red sofa”. I am getting better at dealing with rejections, both when it comes to art but also in general. Currently I enjoy stepping back and observing the rat race from a distance. Yes, fame and fortune slipped me by, but I see that as a good thing now. I am pretty sure I could not have handled it well. Being famous and rich is not for everybody and it sure can ruin a person. Making Art and making it has nothing to do with each other.making it has nothing to do with each other. 

"The Monk" artwork by Thor Stiefel 2024
The Monk 2024

I recently moved. I sold my flat in downtown Reykjavík and moved to the suburbs. It is much quieter here and I have a huge garden that I love spending time in, growing things or just enjoying my presence, nature and the moment.

As these writings demonstrate I am contemplating my life, lookin over it and learning from it. I guess you can say I am wiser now, although I am not necessarily wise. Writing this story, reading it and rewriting it, has taught me so much about myself. I am getting closer to knowing myself; discovering who I AM. I can see that I have been a prick sometimes (too often for sure). Sometimes I acted in the best possible way. I can also see that I have had my misfortunes and my life could have been so much better, but who couldn’t say the same? I realized that my life wasn’t as bad as I sometimes imagined in my mind and gratitude is coming to me ever so surely but slowly. I can see now what I have – before I mostly saw what I didn’t have.

Oil painting by Thor Stiefel
Oil on canvas, 30x35cm 2020

Post Script

In the heart of a bustling city, amidst the towering buildings and ceaseless hum of traffic, there lived a clown named Thor Stiefel. Thor wasn’t your average clown, however; he was a dreamer, a dreamer who saw magic in the mundane, laughter in the ordinary.

Thor’s world was a canvas painted with vibrant hues of joy and mischief. His oversized shoes were capable of traversing the chasms of sorrow, his oversized red nose a beacon of hope in the midst of despair. His oversized heart, brimming with compassion and kindness, was the engine that propelled his performances, transforming even the most cynical souls into wide-eyed children.

Thor’s performances were not mere acts of juggling and pratfalls; they were symphonies of laughter, orchestrated by a maestro of whimsy. He could coax laughter from the sternest faces, transform tears into smiles, and paint a world of wonder in the eyes of those who had forgotten to dream.

But Thor’s dreams extended beyond the confines of his performances. He dreamed of a world where every day was a celebration, where laughter was the universal language, and where the power of joy could conquer any darkness. He dreamed of a world where every child could feel the magic he so effortlessly conjured, where every adult could recapture the innocence of childhood laughter.

Gemini – conversational AI