- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

It’s water and ice Mats Widbom is talking about this week at the House of Sweden, the new Swedish Embassy and events center along the Georgetown Waterfront.

There’s the cascading water sculpture that greets visitors at the front door of the building, the paintings of sea gulls standing in water on the exhibition floor, the glass vases made to look like ice. In a display downstairs, a moving image of a woman’s face and mouth emerge through a screen of bubbles.

The theme of this spring’s program activities at House of Sweden is water and the environment.

“I would say Swedes have a very close relationship with nature,” said Mr. Widbom, cultural counselor for the Embassy of Sweden.

His job is to put forth the best of Swedish arts, culture and science to visitors and the American public, using House of Sweden as the launching pad for his ventures.

On Wednesday of this week, he guided 12 visitors on a tour of House of Sweden, where large windows and white Canadian pine on the floors and walls are supposed to convey the transparency and openness of Swedish society.

He stopped to point out pictures on a wall of Ice Hotel, a seasonal hotel built from ice each November in Sweden’s far north and torn down in April during the spring thaw.

Even the stairs and drinking glasses are sculpted from ice.

Outside, the temperature sometimes drops to 35 degrees below zero. Inside, the hotel stays about 6 degrees below zero.

“It seemed warm,” Mr. Widbom said about the night he stayed at the hotel, sleeping on a reindeer-hide blanket.

One of the visitors asked whether anyone else ever stayed at such a cold hotel. Mr. Widbom told him it maintained about a 99 percent occupancy.

Mr. Widbom typically arrives at work about 8 a.m. after parking his Volvo at the embassy parking lot.

From his second-floor office, he answers e-mail and makes phone calls to Sweden, where a six-hour time difference gives him only a few hours before his European counterparts go home for the evening.

Afterward, he often meets with Gunnar Lund, the Swedish ambassador, and other embassy executives to discuss budgets, work schedules and official government visits.

Later, staff meetings can take him until noon. Mr. Widbom likes to take lunch at Bangkok Joe’s, a restaurant near the embassy.

His afternoons often are taken up with tours, meetings with artists about exhibitions and cultural events.

On this day, he meets with Kerry Boyd, assistant director for exhibitions and public spaces at the National Museum of the American Indian.

They discuss proposals for a traveling exhibition on indigenous people in the United States and Samis in Sweden.

Samis refer to an ethnic group that usually lives around the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia.

They share “quite a similar history,” Mr. Boyd said. “They were forced into living in exile in their own homelands.”

Exhibitions arranged by Mr. Widbom at House of Sweden have included ice sculptures made from 20 tons of crystal-clear ice from Sweden’s Torne River. On June 15, House of Sweden will host the Nordic Jazz Festival on the rooftop terrace overlooking the Potomac River.

Mr. Widbom became acquainted with the United States first as a tourist in 1978 and later as an architecture student in 1982 and 1983 at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York.

“We were using New York as our library,” Mr. Widbom said. “I liked it a lot, and that was one reason I wanted to come back and work here.”

Before taking his cultural counselor’s job in October, he worked as artistic director for Swedish Traveling Exhibitions and as president of Sweden’s committee to the International Council of Museums.

In addition to walking his dog and dinners with family and friends, he likes to vacation in the summer on the Swedish southern archipelago of Smaland.

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