As if I am perched above on a watchtower, I am peering out the window of Café Java in the Lasipalatsi plaza with my friend and Finnish translator, Marjukka. The second story window affords a panoramic view of pedestrians on the street below. Ironically, I am skipping my Finnish language course today to spend the afternoon interviewing the inimitable artist, Miina Äkkijyrkkä .
When she arrives, Miina Äkkijyrkkä is dressed head to toe in animal fur. She is wearing a dark brown floor-length fur coat and a bright red fur hat. Bypassing introductions, Miina tells Marjukka in Finnish that the café is too loud. Within seconds we are whisked away, down the street to Kosmos, an elegant restaurant designed by the architect Alvar Aalto in 1924. The restaurant, formerly a popular haunt among artists and writers, today proudly showcases an Äkkijyrkkä sculpture called Bisse Baby, 2002 in the front window.
As we talked in a quiet corner booth, Miina gesticulated grandly. She pulled at our tablecloth and circled her hands in the air, making amusing sound effects such as a flushing toilet. Her face was expressive, her voice, distinct—low and gravelly. One time, she whispered to us and once, she nearly cried. With one watch on each hand and her wild white hair, I began to understand her reputation as one of Finland’s most colorful personalities in the art world.
There are many reasons why I wanted to meet with Miina Äkkijyrkkä (b. 1949, néé Riitta Loiva, though she has also used the alias Liina Lång). For nearly four decades, Miina has made a career almost exclusively based on the image of the cow. Her love for the cows is the foundation for her work as a sculptor and a cattle-raiser. Her steadfast commitment to Finnish cattle at once evinces her sincerity, validates her work,—and frequently, spins a web of controversy around her.
Despite controversial depictions of Äkkijyrkkä’s uncompromising nature in Finnish media, she was awarded the highly coveted State Award in 2002. She graduated from the Finnish Academy of Fine Art in Helsinki in 1973; however, she also attended the Dairy Farming School of North-Savo and the Equine College in Ypäjä. Äkkijyrkkä has public works located around the city of Helsinki as well as many other cities in Finland. Additionally, Äkkijyrkkä has collaborated with the Finnish textile and fashion company, Marimekko. In 2007, she created the popular print Iltavilli, meaning “From the Wild,” for this company. Throughout her successful career as an artist, she has remained faithful to her beliefs, often voicing her divisive opinions.
Jacquelyn A. Gleisner: To start, let’s talk about your experiences in the Finnish educational system. Did you seek your Master’s degree? Did you continue with Postdoctoral studies? Why or why not?
Miina Äkkijyrkkä: Artists can do wild stuff and research wild things, but I don’t believe education is necessary for an artist’s career. I believe in intuition and a genetic necessity. What is inside, the inner fire of creativity–that is the most precious thing for a creative person.
Education could help with marketing, media and technical things—maybe how to file your taxes, paper work, contracts—but in Finland, they don’t teach those things. There is much to repair in the education of artists. If we want to put value in education, we have to do new things and open all the doors of this modern time. Electronic communication and the fast flow of media are tools that artists should be able to use. But always remember the inner fire. That is the most important thing. Without it, you are an amateur.
JAG: Who were your mentors or influences when you were in school?
MA: Who has influenced me? The very first influence was the Finnish artist Wäinö Aaltonen. When I started grammar school and I heard about him, I felt that he had something that I wanted. Also, Henry Moore—I wanted to get to know him but Henry Moore shrunk when I got to know him, shrunk almost to nothing. So that was the end of that love story.
JAG: Are there contemporary artists whose work you respect either in Finland or abroad?
MA: No, there are not, but I am really good. I’ve seen too many museums…
JAG: Do you teach or have any relationship with the academic system here in Finland?
MA: This is a very interesting question. I would like to influence art education and the teaching methods here but I, myself, am incapable of being a teacher. I can do a quick lecture, if that is needed. But to teach every day, I have tried that in an adult education center. I can’t tolerate the whole thing. It is better that I don’t spoil the minds of other artists. I don’t know how to encourage others; I only know how to step on them.
JAG: Do you think it is necessary for an artist need to seek higher education?
MA: It helps a little but it’s not essential. In some systems, it is kind of a stepping stone or spring board. It helped me to go to school in the middle of Helsinki, but the teaching methods in schools are nothing special. I learned new techniques in school but I would have learned them anyway.
It should be much more difficult to get into art schools here in Helsinki. Students graduate and they don’t have the right skills to work in this profession. Training to become an international artist is non-existent. Also, different materials for sculpture, for example, are important—how to control and use different materials. Engineers and architects are farther ahead of sculptors in the use of materials. Sculptors need more material training.
Personal limits should be considered—how much an individual can tolerate the media and how much one can give of oneself to the public. At least, these things should be explained to the artist. It is all very personal but interesting artists know to attract others.
JAG: Can you talk about your development as an artist?
MA: As long as I understood anything, maybe even as a two-year-old, I knew I wanted to be an artist. From my first memories, I knew that I wanted to be an artist. For me it has always been self-evident. I have whispered my whole childhood, “I am an artist.” It was also self-evident that I am a sculptor. Even before I was in grammar school, I went behind the woodshed with my little knife. I am born for sculpting. My vision was not so clear in the beginning. Always, with time comes self-reflection. How many times does a person ask, what will I be when I grow up? Who am I? What will I become?
JAG: Do you feel that you have been supported as an artist here by your community and by Finland?
MA: Not really, but I have also thought that sometimes being completed supported is not a good thing for artists. In the countryside 500 kilometers away in Eastern Finland, there was not much interest in art in any direction. There were only cows and farming and small houses. Higher culture was nonexistent. Maybe it was good for me that I grew up in the wild forest.
JAG: Do you think it’s important for artists to have a political agenda with their work? Do you think it is important use your work as an artist to communicate a message about a specific cause?
MA: The core of art is in material. It’s not theory. It’s emotion which is built on systems and impulses as sensitive as the wind. In all cultures and in all cultural societies on different continents, all things happen naturally. Artists don’t need anything except feelings. The most important thing for an artist is to affect people’s subconscious.
JAG: Are there any experiences or non-traditional forms of education that have been meaningful to you as an artist?
MA: Experiences I do have, but they have nothing to do with school. To mention education, it was important to meet other artists because I noticed how talented I am. If my children were here, they would put their hands in front of their faces. They find it so funny that I praise myself so often but one must learn to love oneself! If not naturally, then by force—to say to oneself, I am good. Praise yourself, especially for the things that you are good at. In school, there were many others students and I observed them. I said to myself, I am not like them and that is not how I should work.
You shouldn’t support artists too much. Too much pampering suffocates an artist. Hard times make creativity pop like an abscess. If you put your money aside, you can travel. Then the world open ups—opens your old, molded, rusty heart. And when the scenery flows by you from the train window, it gives you a fresh feeling. Changing places is very important, one of the most important things. It is also important sometimes to put a blanket over your ears and try to hide from the world. I have done both.
JAG: How long have you been working with the cattle?
MA: I don’t really exactly know what you mean by cattle. My feelings for the cows are deeper than a mother’s feelings for her children, stronger than any feeling I have ever had for a lover, more than any other thing on earth; it’s like blood vessels. I share a placenta with cows. We share the same blood. I look at the world through a cow’s telescope. I have a tiny piece of macaroni through which I look at the world from a cow’s point of view.
JAG: Has it always been so?
MA: No, not at all. My feelings for the cows have developed over time, but this feeling that I share an umbilical cord with the cows was born because of a tragedy—out of sensitivity, out of loneliness, and out of the need to find my own focus. I have also loathed the cows at times and hoped to be rid of them. When you have cows, you have to take care of them and arrange places for them to live and you have to shovel their shit and you have to feed them and you have money problems. You have all of that and you also have to deal with people’s laughter and mockery. Although I have such a strong tie to the cows, it has been one year since I have been taking care of them. I can tell you in one year I have lost a clear image of a cow.
The cows have been such a bubbling source of inspiration for me. I spent all my time with them and even knew their thoughts. Sixty-one years of watching the cows is not enough! It’s just the beginning, in the middle or as long as there is life, it is somewhere in the middle. It’s not over yet.
JAG: Do you have any advice for young artists?
MA: No, I can only tell about my own spirit and my own difficulty. There is no recipe for being an artist, but there are methods for grasping your inner secrets that I can tell you. It’s simple! Don’t buy a TV and don’t watch TV because you need your eyes. Don’t touch the computer. Go to the forest and to the middle of mountains and go swimming in the sea. You can listen to your own voice there. This hectic life, there’s so much happening—how the hell do you know who you are? If you really want to find your focus, you have to stay quiet.
JAG: Have you found that focus?
MA: Yeah, and when you find it, there’s nothing else. Education can’t help you find your focus. Focus is so important to create art that is meaningful. Well-made crafts can be art too but art, as it is defined by art history, affects our time: it illuminates human values. Intuition is only found inside the artist. You can’t find in any group and you can’t lift it up with any kind of education. To find oneself, walk in the forest. Think there, feel hunger and find answers. That is good practice for what is to come.
JAG: In your career, you have often been depicted in the Finnish media in both positive and negative lights. How do you deal with the criticism?
MA: I am on the borderline of madness, nearly psychosis. I am afraid of people. I only want to stay quiet. I can’t work; there is no reason. Making art is so special. It’s a complicated process.
There has been great tragedy in my life. I had children so I couldn’t consider my career as my ultimate goal. Maria Wiik, Helene Schjerbeck and Ellen Thesleff—these three women did not marry because of their careers. A man can have many women like Albert Edelfert. Playboys can keep many women and they don’t care. But in 1940 Helene Schjerfbeck had to share a tiny room with her ninety year old mother in Hyvinkää. They had no money, only a very simple life. Once I was walking down the street near the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, I saw a poster for an exhibition of Helene Schjerfbeck. I started to cry thinking about how painful Helene Schjerfbeck’s life was. Helene sure knew that when she made a mark with paint that something great would become of her, but there was not enough time. Now millionaires buy Helene Schjerfbeck’s paintings. This disparity seemed so concrete that it tore me open. That is destiny. It is not so different from that of Helene Schjerfbeck but I am still alive. I have become very shy, but it is not my true nature. My most valuable asset through it all has been my courage and my bravery. If artists are put into another mold, they are not the same anymore. They lose their focus. And the flame is quenched. Life is heavy.
The interview was performed mostly in Finnish and later translated with the generous help of Marjukka Vuorisalo, a Doctoral student in the Department of Textile Design at Aalto University.