Interview with Korka

Elegant, gory, fantastical: Lead Designer Korka on Ritual to Break My Spell

by Awing Peece

In 2008, Melkorka Helgadóttir, aka Korka, left her hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland to study sculpture in San Francisco. Three years later, she is the lead costume designer for Ritual to Break my Spell (, a project centered 6700 kilometers away—back in her hometown. I caught up with her in Oakland, just across the bay from her San Francisco home, a couple weeks before her return home.

You and Michelle [creator and director of RTBMS] met at the San Francisco Art Institute when you were both students—you getting an MFA in Sculpture and she was studying New Genres.

I was actually Michelle’s tutor! We definitelly didn’t get any work done. We talked about Iceland, art and everything else on our minds except whatever it was that needed tutoring.

When did you get involved in this project?

I knew about her project since early this year when she was thinking about involving as many Icelandic designers as possible. Honestly, when she asked me if I’d be Lead Designer, it felt like someone was asking to marry me. I immediately knew I wanted to do it. It felt like such a blessing and a great push in the direction artistically I wanted to be going.

So you came to San Francisco to be a sculpture. Now you are making costumes.

I have always loved fashion. My mom was a fashion designer for a time. When I was young I’d have an idea for a dress and try to make it. Without her help, they’d come out all crap. I started sewing really out of a homesickness for Iceland and it has just grown from there. Sculpture still has a big impact on me. I see fashion as making sculptures in the form of clothing. I start with a flat object, a panel of a pattern for a garmet. This has to drape over an intricate 3 dimensional object and the body is not static. It has to flow. It’s challenging because it requires me to use the mathematical part of my brain. I enjoy the learning process—its so difficult and rewarding to see it come together.

How has being in SF shaped you as an artist?

In so many ways. Being homesick really influenced my work for a while. I created an alter ego for the part of me that felt lonely and isolated—a duck modeled after the Donald Duck Magazines I used to read as a kid. Ironically, for me Donald Duck is more Iceland than America. But more than creating something out of homesickness, in San Francisco I’ve learned discipline–To work hard, to make art a practice, something that needs to be exercized every day. There are many artrists who do this in Iceland but I really learned this at SFAI, to get up in the morning and go to the studio—the studio being a place of work and work only.

What is your vision for the costumes?

Michelle has the concept, the fairy tale vision. So I have been able to focus on the aesthetic, which has been very liberating. I’ll create a sketch then we’ll shop for fabric. I am a very tactile person so I also get inspriration from the fabrics themselves. We haven’t followed any traditional fabric or color combinations. Some might even seem silly—mixing silks with inexpensive raincoat fabric for instance. But I liked the technical fabric of the raincoats—it seemed catching, unexpected, alive. I thought I might have to sell Michelle on it but she liked it.

It sounds like you two make a good team. How has it been working together?

Michelle is inspiring. I like keeping things contained and package—having a sturdy framework. But Michelle is constantly thinking outside of the box. She is constantly bringing in fresh ideas. I originally thought we’d work on one design then go on to the next. But with the two of us together, it is less linear, more intuitive. Each costume seems to evolve in unexpected ways as we discover some new fabric or get a new idea. A few days ago, we dreamt up a cape to wear when its cold and raining. Now people are going to love this cape. It’s a privilege to be able to play around like that. Michelle is open to experiments, things that are funny, punky, weird.

And what about these miraculous fabric discoveries I’ve heard about?

To go shopping for fabric with Michelle… [Korka smiles and laughs]… This is a treat. We share a similar aesthetic. We get so excited and passionate oohing and ahhing, saying “gross” or “yes”. We both see a fabric at the same time and say “oh my god this fabric has to be part of our creation.”

Michelle wrote an original fairytale and all the costumes are based on characters within it. What attracts or repels you about the story?

I like that it is both a personal story and something that a lot of people can relate to: Transformation, not feeling right in your body, going through some sort of rite of passage, becoming “yourself”, whatever that may mean. I also like that it’s a bit gory, and in that way, a lot like tales of the brothers Grimm, for e.g., that used to be gruesome, before they became “Disneyfied”. It’s modern in that it isn’t about morals, but rather being true to who you are.

Can you tell us about any of the nine costumes?

Well each costume tells the story of each character in the fairy tale or the stage of one of the characters. So we have four stages of the walrus’s transformation back into being a horse. At first, he is all tusks and blubber so the costume has no softeness. It’s sharp and jagged. One of my favorites so far is the last walrus—it’s lost its skin and there’s nothing left. The dress we made is gorgeous and elegant yet gory—we used bright red and pink fabric with shapes that evoke muscles and bones and a long train like remnants of the body. Then the triumphant horse is colorful, intricate, regal—with bulk and a hint of punk. You’ll also meet a puffin, reindeer and a very playful fox of diamonds, triangles and trapezoids.

What’s been your greatest challenge so far?

I am just so lucky that we have a seamstress! I could not do all the sewing—9 costumes and two capes–we need in the time we have.

What have you not done that you’d like to do?

Paint and draw or spray paint on fabric. I’d also would have liked to put fabric in washing machines with fabric coloring and see what comes out

How do you imagine people will react to these costumes?

I want people to gasp and think they are fantastic. To even get jealous and go use it—steal from us, be inspired. There may be a handful of people who think they are ghastly or just don’t get it. We wanted to create something new and exciting and push aesthetic boundaries. And there’s a certain amount of humor in it. It’s not dead serious high fashion. The fox has a little green tale. The horses have big hooves.

You’re Icelandic. You’re working and traveling back to your home with an American artist who has far more than an ordinary fascination with your country and culture. What’s that like?

I’m romantic about Iceland because it’s my home, Michelle because she sees it as a magical place, so we both love it, each in our own way. It’s something we can share from such completely different perspectives. It’s also exciting for me to go back and present an art pieced that is created about Iceland, but from a distance that I have gained over the last few years. I get to share with friends, family and colleagues all that I’ve been up to since I left.

Anything special you are going to do in Reykjavik?

I am going to my Grandma’s house, my bestfriend’s and my mom’s. I am definitely going to get my grandma to fix her greek lamb. And I will go swimming. In Reykjavik there are public swimming pools everywhere—they are cheap and everybody goes to the pool. The water is very healing. I’ll watch my fingers get wrinkly while my pores open and my worries slip away.

Special shout out to Carissa Potter who created the logo of the walrus tusks. xxoxo

For more from Korka, visit her blog at For more about Michelle Morby and Ritual to Break My Spell, visit


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