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Where are they now? Last years SOFA participants re-visit the Chicago art scene.

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Artists Riikka Latva-Somppi and Maarit Makela of Helsinki, Finland returned to Chicago the week of October 4th through 8th to participate in the 7th International Conference on Design and Emotion presented by IIT Institute of Design & the Design & Emotion Society. These talented sculptors first appeared in my November 2009 article on SOFA, the Sculptural Objects and Functional Art Fair, at Navy Pier. During that exhibition, the artists were represented by Finland’s Gallery Norsu. This trip to the city of big shoulders was for a different purpose. As a follow-up to their recent exhibit, the Power of Everyday, which was curated by Maarit and featured the work of ten artists including Riikka Latva-Sompii, the pair collaborated on a research paper and lecture with slides of the exhibit for this conference. The lecture, Crafting Connections between Emotions and Materiality, by M. Makela and R. Latva-Somppi was presented as part of October 6th session on the Craft of Design and Emotions. Both presenters represent Aalto University’s School of Art and Design in Finland, where they teach in the art and design department.

The Design and Emotion program was sponsored by collaboration partners: Toyota, MacSpecialist of Chicago and Villa Park, and McDonalds, and organization partners: Interaction Design Association (IXDA) of Chicago, the Japanese Society for the Science of Design, the Japanese Society of Kansei Engineering and the Korean Society of Design Science.

When last we spoke, Maarit and Riikka were preparing for the Power of Everyday exhibit. Recently, I inquired about how that was progressing and suggested a follow-up exhibit with the artists. The timing could not have been better as Riikka replied that the pair would soon be in Chicago. We met near the Spertus Institute at Grant Park on a crisp afternoon.

J: How did you coordinate the presentation of this lecture at the Spertus Institute?

M: Working at the …University in association with the design department, I regularly attend conferences and seminars on art and design developments. The portion we participated in at this conference really approaches the context of the exhibit. For the Craft and Emotion panel, I got a special invitation to present on the topic. I invited Riikka to be the co-author to the paper presenting her perspective as an artist in the exhibit.Within this session, I found that of our peer speakers, three were on a similar context, although we were very much a minority as art and craft based, rather than commercial design based in nature.

M & R: The University supported our attendance and presentation here at the IIT conference with a grant.

J: Reflecting on the lecture presentation and discussion afterward, what are your thoughts and responses?

M: I have ideas for expanding the angles covered in the paper, the exhibit displays of the collection, and the artistic and expressive process. I would like to develop these links to the research.

J: Will the works be exhibited anywhere else as a cohesive group?

R: We have discussed an idea of touring the exhibit in countries where Gallen-Kallela worked and lived but have no fixed plans.

M: I look forward to including installations of this type in future exhibits. The interaction between the Gallen-Kalla collection and the artist’s works set up a tableau that is innovative and can be expanded up on. We would like to continue with the group of artists and to take the exhibition abroad to the places Akseli visited. He also lived in Chicago three years in the beginning of 1920's and exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago.We are looking now into sites for the show and continue negotiations with some partners also in Chicago. At that point, should we continue the Power of Everyday as a traveling exhibit, I am looking forward to making more art works. I would like to include the smoke fumes used in previous installations of the boxes.

J: What links do you see between the various artists’s works?

R: The themes of the exhibition provided a mutual platform on which [each] artist could build their [own] narratives. It was interesting to see how the same material (artist family's history through museum artefacts, written and told stories and slide shows) evoked different points of view and emotional connections for each artist. This also proved early in the process, that every artist's viewpoint and work provided a unique approach that contributed to the exhibition. All works were linked through well framed themes.

M: The shared platform was material-based art (e.g. the intersection between art, craft and design) - a place where contemporary art meets craft oriented expression. The process led [to]the selection of three-dimensional works, which were shown as site-specific works or installations.

Jessica: Can you tell me a bit about the process and experience of working with the other 9 artists in the space?

Maarit: The collaboration with the museum was very good. The museum staff were really happy about the project, expressed that they were impressed with the projects depth in terms of investigating the Akseli Gallen-Kallela collection and the contributions and the works of the artists. The museum staff really involved themselves in all levels of the development for the exhibit. A telling result of the interaction was the new perspectives brought by the new art and the alternative displays of collection in context with the theme. Akseli is famous as a painter, but he also worked in the applied arts, that fact is not as well known, nor have those aspects been the focus of practical arts research before. The director found the exhibit a totally new way to look at the collection, as it built dialogues with the works in new directions. In specific, the numerous three-dimensional installations created a new use of the whole space. Some of the works, including Nithikul Nimkulrat’s paper sculpture, used Gallen-Kallela’s work at the heart of the installation, such as the reframing with paper frames, of Akseli’s Madonna.

Riikka: I used a child’s shoe and one of the mother’s handkerchiefs floating in a plexi-glass box in my display, to relate the grief of the mother for her child to my work on grieving the loss of my mother.

R: Maarit discussed the project all along its development with the artists in her role as curator. We had a videographer record the artist’s progress and how each one dealt with the process, interacted with the collection, and included sketches, drawings, and installations.

R: A unique aspect of the project was that we got to roam the collection and select works to exhibit. Finland was under Russian rule during Akseli’s life, and he was an active nationalist and it shows in some of his work. We were given a thorough history and slide show. Seeing the narratives of each artist in concert with the museum collection and a superficial awareness of other artist’s projects and installations during the process informed the works.

J: How did you respond to the other artists work and what did they make?

M: It was a kind of flow - we all found our own way to response to this shared process.

J: Regarding Niran Baibulat’s work, how did visitors to the exhibit respond to her organization and patterns in clothing in the bathroom space?

R: I think an installation in an artist's bathroom is most likely to [give rise to] good humour - if the installation is such. Deeper responses lie under the viewer’s skin. At least the museum personnel were happy that…the bathroom was occupied by site specific work in this exhibit.

M: It was not easy, but at the same time humorous work. One elemental feature of art is that it raises questions, often so complex that they cannot be easily answered.

J: Regarding Silja Puranen’s work, did visitors participate in the sewing of Seductress? Does the artist plan to complete the work?

Riikka: As you can see in the picture, visitors have already participated with various different kinds of stitches.

Maarit: I think that the meaning in this work lies in the process. It is not [intended that] the work to be finished - if the exhibition visitors do not finish it.

J: Riikka’s work Eternal Bond was situated in a tall round hallway, on the lower level of the tower near the studio and living room of the museum. The installation has a sacred feel, activated by the light that comes from tall windows. Latva-Sompii’s mother died shortly after the first group meeting about the exhibit. Her choice of crafting a response to the death of the Gallen-Kallela’s first born child has a relation to higher infant mortality rate of the times. Riikka muses on the fact that so many families lived with that sorrow.

J: Riikka, within your work you examine the experience of grief, after the loss of a loved one. How does the act of honoring memory with time consuming labor intensive work affect you? Did you find that this labor was cathartic or healing?

R: The sensation of being left behind when someone dies… Missing that loved one, and my awareness of the strong bond to my mother led me to make this work. I materialized the time, with the slow medium of crocheting silk. It was important for me to to think about it, as catharsis, but also as a journey through grief.

J: How did you interact with the other participating artists and works during the process? Did you find the other perspectives brought you any particular insights into the life of Akseli and his wife and child? … to the grief process, and crafting in general?

R: There were two graphics I responded to by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The Flower of Death, made the year after child’s death depicts a child reaching for a white flower, and a small graphic of the first-born daughter in the coffin, which was likely directly from a photo of the actual event. The space was one room, round, white, and a separate unit from the nearby rooms. I was able to control the distractions. My installation was one room dedicated to the theme of sorrow.

J: Tell me about the process of shaping the glass tears, crocheting the silk, forming the pond.

R: The experience was time consuming, physical and heavy. It requires repetition, and allows time for the mind to dwell on the grieving process. It felt really good to me as an artist… my personal process… a way to physically devote myself to the act of making and mourning.

J: How do these works interact with your other works, in terms of continuing the dialogues of works like your glass in pots and pans, doilies and plates, and the gilded bottles?

R: Regarding the relation to my public art work, and art as an experience, this new work shows process but also brings the idea to the eyes of the viewer. During the exhibit we had artist talks. Mine occurred on Mother’s Day. The audience was quite touched by the subject. Another visitor began crying in response to the installation and what it brought out of her own emotions.

R: I also included a work based on my own child. His six year old face was cast in glass and placed inside of a wash basin to achieve an image in water. When you lose somebody, the everyday tasks are fraught with the recollection, the body memory, of those things like washing a child’s face. This experience of mine draws parallels to Mary Gallen-Kallela losing her child.

J: Maarit, how did the process of curating and participating as an artist in this exhibit influence each other?

M: My first role was as curator. I took the time to frame the project and then contacted theGallen-Kallela Museum. They accepted the project. Then I worked on the article, book, and editing… [Each step of the way] was discussed with the artists for the chapter in the book. I let making art for the exhibit be as time allowed. If I had only been participating as an artist and not as curator, I would have done more. As curator I coordinated the setting up of the exhibition, sometimes also negotiating optional spaces with the artists.

J: Maarit, regarding your broken and reassembled Pain Girl vessel boxes, did you work from photographs as in your earlier box works?

M: My sources were the Pain Girl gouache painting and studies for a box with this image by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The naked female is prevalent in my work. This one was striking and mysterious. I wondered, what is the mythology behind the figure? I discovered that it is based on old Finnish mythology, and inspired Akseli to create an unfinished box and a sketch of the design. The sketch and the box are obviously related. I took the same task...to translate a sketch to a box, and hoped to complete it. My box is very much based on that first painting. Then I let my new works lean towards my own inclinations. They depict faces full of expressive emotion, and lines in the curves of the hair that translate the linear qualities of the original boxes. The faces of pain, referenced from other images, that were made to question: Is this about a kissing face or a pamp barbaras… blow up doll? Should we continue the Power of Everyday as a traveling exhibit, I am looking forward to making more art works. I would like to include the smoke fumes used in previous installations of the boxes.

J: There is a level of humor and irony as well as the layers of pain uncovered in the images upon the glazed ceramic boxes. Do these pieces involve printmaking processes or serigraphy?

M: I used glazes and scoring, a method now so spread. I am experimenting but not so much in print but now am working in glass, clay, and painting.

J: Did you approach this concept, the pain of growth and becoming a woman from a perspective within Akseli’s family or from reaction to his art? Is there a personal parallel that the pain girl interprets beyond the general context?

M: My perspective is not linked strictly to the Gallen-Kallela family, but more closely to period nude females for a starting point. Akseli studied in Paris, parallels to the stereotypes within that arena and my feminine reaction to this inform the work. By interpeting a more complex look at the location in time of the works then and now, I create works that converse with the museum collection.

J: What are some of the insights you have as an art researcher after concluding the project?

M: In the field of practice led artistic research, we are interested in contributions to the field of knowledge via making art. There are three angles to leap from, that of the artist him or herself, the process, and the artifacts…and what the paper has achieved. The second angle is that the writers are artists, they made the project, positioned the artifacts, interpreted them, and given them a voice to speak their own language. Yet to achieve the process, we were asked about the process, at which steps do we collaborate and learn from each other? The video, sketches, documentation and reflection on the process will give valuable perspectives.

J: Perfecting the project through collaboration, process, emotional and rational dialogues are potent tools and develop a catalogue of references for further projects with material based art and emotional elements of craft.

J: How has the work created furthered your understanding of the experience?

R: … I see art as a possibility to irrationally perceive and share emotions and the world around us.…Participating in the project, I think that artist's perceptions could be useful in providing new viewpoints in [historical contexts for example].

M: When I was doing my own work for the exhibition, I really tried to understand the historical context from [which] Akseli has driven his inspiration for his artistic work. I felt I was really driven deep [into] the topic and in this way also understood the historical [context] surrounding where he [was] working (e.g. why he was using such a figure when expressing femininity.)

J: So, do you either of you have other ongoing exhibits or upcoming events?

R: In the summer of 2010, I created a mask of my son blowing bubble gum. The transient moment which this documents, is made of applied art material including craft glass and bronze. A smaller exhibit is planned and next year in the Fall I will have a solo exhibit. I plan to continue to work with Maarit on where this paper will take us. I also have published a public art book with two other artists.

M: I have a similar approach, letting what seems most promising to lead me. At the moment, I work in the University; all of my skills are empowered within my position. I utilize my research, art, material based art, and teaching. In the future, I think I will remain situated at this intersection. I was recently asked to curate an exhibit with three other curators. Next year, in South Korea, Cheung Chu Finland has been appointed the visiting country. One hundred and fifty artists have been asked to set up an academic seminar, organize the artists and design and curate the exhibit. I am planning to devote plenty of time to make works. The Power of the Everyday projects may lead to working more on research and process. I was fortunate to attend an artist residency last month, which my employer let me do on full salary. The residency took place in a ceramic factory, where I made a huge coiling piece with painted roses and females. I will participate in two exhibits opening at the 46th symposium in November at Bolaslaweic and Mayin Vroslav. When I work with ceramic, I will continue with works like this, employing big brushes and large gestures in the round.

Since these artists’s work appeared in my articles on SOFA in 2009, Riikka’s unique public artwork, Nightingale has received the Foundation for Environmental Art’s (Finland) Certificateof Honor for Environmental Art. The Foundation specified that “the multidimensionality and close connection to the architecture and users of the building,” which houses a Swedish-language school and kindergarten, as well as Forbundet Finlands Svenska Synskadade r.f., the association for the visually impaired and the school for visually impaired children. In addition, Riikka’s public art works have been published in a small book, Art in Public Spaces along with the works of fellow artists and collaborators, Jaana Brink and Outi Turpeninen. This group of artists together work with a variety of contemporary materials and applications, including glass, ceramic, photographic, light and printmaking processes.

For more information:

The Design & Emotion Society: http://www.designandemotion.org/

Riikka Latva-Sompii: http://www.finnishdesigners.fi/index.php?article_id=5681&__user_id__=2205

www.latvasomppi.com

http://www.viapori.fi/~hytti/?photo (Photos of the artist working glass)

Maarit Makela: http://128.214.123.83/blogs/anmakela/

The Power of Everyday Exhibit: http://www.gallen-kallela.fi/arjenvoima/english.html

Akseli Gallen-Kallela Museum: http://www.gallen-kallela.fi/english.html

Gallery Norsu: http://www.norsu.info/eng_exhibitions.html

SOFA Chicago: http://www.sofaexpo.com/chicago/2010/index.htm

SOFA 2009 Article: http://www.examiner.com/fine-arts-in-chicago/art-from-finland-visits-sofa-2009-ceramic-and-glass-with-theory

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