Ellington: I made this interview a few days ago with Katja Tukiainen, artist painter, whose blazingly pink exhibition I saw recently at the Museum of Drawings in Laholm, Sweden. Katja, who lives in Helsinki, is a prolific artist, painting, drawing and writing on a serious happy note. Since 1995, her art is on exhibitions world-wide. I’m glad to introduce her and some of her thoughts on art and life to our readers. Katja has kindly let me use pictures from her homepage for this interview. My first question was about an interesting thought she mentioned in a film on the homepage of the museum in Laholm.
I’ve heard you say that ”Art is wiser than the artist” – I like that! Could you develop this thought a bit?
Katja: Art is loaded with different meanings. The meaning depends on the audience. I try not to make fixed meanings, because then I would kill the art. The audience must feel free to make associations. This freedom of interpretations might sometimes be frightening for the artist though – we come to this later.
What memories from your childhood have been important to your life and to your art?
Katja: My childhood was full of art and fairytales. Just yesterday, in the opening of a group exhibition, I met some people of my age, who didn’t know what is ”will-o’-the-wisp”. I sure know. If I hadn’t seen them in the old beautiful fairytale books from the 1950s, which belong to my mom, I would know it through my granny’s stories. The mother of my mother lived with us and we made long walks in the woods. I also saw magic glowworms with her. The ”will-o’-the-wisp” is one theme in my latest paintings, and I had one of those in this group show in Helsinki. It made people google the term with their smart phones!
And the art. Almost every summer my mom and dad packed a tent, me and later also my little brother into our old 1969 Ford Escort. Many times we drove all the way from Finland to Italy to see museums, galleries, architecture and Etruscan excavations. When I was a teenager, they bought a bigger car, a hippie surfing style blue Kleinbus. So I got my dear friend Sonja with us. My little bro had a crush on her. That time me and Sonja skipped some art days though, because we were too tired after nights in Rome’s discotheques.
In my review of the Laholm exhibition, I described your part there as ”innocent sweetness combined with a tough imagination and uninhibited playfulness”. Your imagery has also been described as ”very girlie”. How would you yourself describe your art?
Katja: For me girlie is not something near to foul language, but a strength. You described my art perfectly, thank you.
How would you describe the themes of your paintings? Others have described them as a ”cute and naive kitsch”.
Katja: My themes can be anything from the daily politics to people’s need to dream and be happy. In the end all we need is peace and love and all we want is happiness. Those things move people.
My visual language has its roots in both high brow and low brow, as I grew up seeing old great art pieces in museums and reading comics. I refer to cute toys and historical masterpieces.
What do Japanese art, micropop, Gilles Deleuze mean to your art?
Katja: Art curators and art critics are very talented in finding meanings, references and sub texts I never thought would be there in my works. It’s fascinating to hear and read those. All I can say is that there’s a huge amount of intuition in artists’ way of work, and we sure have the subconscious.
How does your art relate to society and politics?
Katja: I read the newspaper every morning. Art is a powerful tool to tell one’s opinion. Sometimes the girls of my art do shout loud and sometimes they escape to the paradises. I call these girls in my art My Girl Army.
You have been to India a lot. What has that meant to you? Personally. Artistically.
Katja: I travelled to India first time 1999 to run a human rights comics workshop. I saw the poorest of the poor people in slums and then taught outcast women to make wall posters about their problems. I felt I could help a tiny bit and returned next year and many years after. I would not be a same person without those experiences, I really felt we can help. I have always been a person who wants to fix and solve the problems. I believe in the action, positive action.
You have met with expressions of Indian vernacular art. How have you experienced that?
Katja: I ran the human rights comics workshops in India with the founder of World Comics Finland, Mr Leif Packalen and also with my husband, comic artist Matti Hagelberg. We had an Indian colleague Mr Sharad Sharma working with us and some interpreters also, but the participants were mainly local people without any art education. So it was a big learning experience for us too. We had to trust the local people’s visual language, because their messages were drawn by them for the other local people in the same village or same town. So very quickly, during the first workshop I learned there is no idea in teaching western visual language for them, but to strengthen the local. So we did.
You’ve said about color that a color is not just a color but also a kind of spirit. Could you tell me what relations you see between color and spirit?
Katja: I have been practicing yoga and meditation since my second journey to India in the year 2000. Through that I got the knowledge of chakras and their colors. But long before that, when I was an art student in the beginning of the 1990s, I started to study the colors. It was my intuition which led me to work with pink. The first pink landscape I painted is from my first studying year 1990, when I moved to Helsinki. It looks like a normal landscape seen through pink glasses.
Later I learned through my artistic practice, that this color of universal love can be anything from soft and innocent to wild and strong. All depends on the tone and hue of it. From soft rose to strong magenta and neon pink. I cannot get tired of that.
Now that there has been some time since the residency and exhibition in Laholm – what does that experience mean to you?
Katja: The Laholm residency was, in a one word, awesome. First, the museum staff Frida Talik and Jonas Heintz had chosen me and Sigga Björg Sigurdardottir with their knowledge and we made a great match. We found our working habits and living habits too, very similar, so we found it very fruitful to work and live three weeks together. It might sound funny, but our energy levels were so similar and still we both respected each other’s personal space very naturally. I used my mornings to bicycle to the seashore and swim there, Sigga went earlier to the museum, and then we worked and worked until evening. Sometimes we found a little time for cooking and washing clothes in the really beautiful house where we lived.
Second, exploring the local nature and taking it into my artworks during the residency helped to build up the themes of mine. For example, during my cycling and swimming trips I saw a dead porpoise, and drew it immediately after. I made a big drawing of a girl meditating on the back of a porpoise. I sprayed a pink text there which says: ”Think like a GIRL”. In another large scale drawing which I made, there is a happy rabbit running with an acrobat girl on his back. The pink spray paint text says: ”Ride like a GIRL”. I also made the rabbit alive again, I saw a dead rabbit too. It’s an evident part of nature – death.
What is the most surprising reaction you’ve had from your audience. I mean ever?
Katja: I was thinking when writing the last sentence that oh, now we get deep. But this question leads us even deeper. Many years back, in 1999, I had a solo show called Crochet hook. I had three big and long painting series there, all pink, red and white. One of them told a visual story about a girl who made a cocoon for herself, with a crochet hook and red thick thread. In the end of the story someone came and slowly dismantled the cocoon and the girl got out. She had grown. It was a symbolic story about growing. Inside of the ball of wool was a small baby doll, painted in the same relaxed way as the whole piece. The baby doll symbolized something new for me.
Then, in the opening of my show one lady, the age of my mother, asked me suddenly: ”Have you experienced an abortion. Done with a crochet hook maybe?” I was shocked. ”No” I said. I have not experienced any kind of abortion, but many women have. But these women might not be glad to be asked about it suddenly and publicly like in an exhibition opening.
In this way I learned two things. First, the piece of art can be analyzed and interpreted in many ways and you cannot anticipate how many. Second, if you tell something general in your art there will be always someone who thinks the story is about you, your life story. That’s the strength of art.
Finally (I asked her) what are your plans for the future?
Katja: Oh wow, work hard, be with my family, be happy.
Here’s a youtube clip about the residency in 2016 of Katja Tukiainen and Sigga Björg Sigurdardottir at the Museum of Drawings, Laholm