Words of wisdom: Artist Riitta Nelimarkka on art, business, and creative conflict

Artist Riitta Nelimarkka is renowned for her strong style and doctoral dissertation that caused a scandal in its day.

Photo: Touko Hujanen

Ville Blåfield, 21.03.2016

Long Forms

Lue artikkeli suomeksi.

Journalist Ville Blåfield met with the artist at her unique atelier, discovering how the artist’s voice emerges through conflict.

What a peculiar place.

Bonga Castle stands in the historic center of the small town of Loviisa, about a hundred kilometers east of Helsinki.

Situated next to a church and enclosed by a grand garden, the building’s façade is nothing short of striking; the colonnade and steps that revolve outside the main entrance exemplify classical architecture, while the towers represent the more pared-down Art Nouveau style. An extensive glass veranda was added to the back of the building a few decades later.

Stepping inside, the quirky feel continues. The castle walls and the floors of the grand hall are draped with artist Riitta Nelimarkka’s colorful works of art. Paintings, graphic art, and enormous tapestries - vibrant colors and characters that have come to epitomize her style. Eyes and motion, no matter where one looks.

A large antelope stares down from the lobby wall – well, the head of an antelope to be exact. The creature was captured by Nelimarkka herself while she was in Africa.

Self-analysis is terribly difficult”, she begins. “All of the answers are sort of wrong.”

The lady of the castle, however, doesn’t seem strange at all. She swerves to the castle grounds in her jeep before ushering her guests in through the kitchen, where she puts the coffee on and digs out some cakes she’s picked up at a nearby bakery. “You have to taste the apple tart. The bakery is famous for those”, Riitta Nelimarkka exclaims.

She then sits down, ready to talk. We have arrived to meet with the artist behind her work at Bonga Castle, which houses Nelimarkka’s studio and gallery.

“Self-analysis is terribly difficult”, she begins. “All of the answers are sort of wrong.”

Riitta Nelimarkka, 67, has had a lengthy and impressive career as an artist, holding close to 100 private exhibitions in Finland and abroad.

In Finland, she’s particularly famous for her paintings and tapestries – and her doctoral dissertation, which we’ll return to a little later. Over the decades, she has also delved into graphic art,
poetry, and animation, among other things.

“I want to be free. I don’t want to be tied down in any way”, states Nelimarkka. “Perhaps that’s an aspect I share with my grandfather.”

I don’t want to be tied down in any way.”

Riitta Nelimarkka is the granddaughter of professor Eero Nelimarkka (1891-1977), one of the most prominent Finnish painters in the early 1900s. He was a modernist, who studied in Paris and elsewhere abroad, reviving the Finnish art scene. Renowned especially for his landscapes and portraits, Eero Nelimarkka left an even greater legacy to his granddaughter.

“His life’s work was extremely versatile and extensive. In addition to painting, he wrote, spoke out politically, had an active social life, and was quite a wild one as a youngster. He was fierce. He was also a bit of a dreamer – completely devoted to his thing.”

Riitta Nelimarkka reminisces on how at the age of seven she went up to her grandfather to show a watercolor she had painted. “He tilted his head and said it should have some depth. That I should remember both the light and the shadow.”

I should remember both the light and the shadow.”

Versatility, fanatically focusing on the creative process, determination. In the course of just a few sentences, Riitta Nelimarkka touches on several characteristics that bind together the two artists of different generations.

“He retained a certain independence as far as the rest of the art world is concerned, which has always been important to me as well. I want to be as independent as possible. There’s no other choice. Even if I’d like to be mediating, it doesn’t always happen – if I’m being honest.” 

And just like that – in the space of a cup of coffee and an apple tart – we’ve already arrived at the heart of Riitta Nelimarkka’s art. The impetus behind the art that also overflows in this castle.

"For me, freedom lies at the heart of everything”, explains Riitta Nelimarkka. “And constant conflict, also with myself.”

Riitta Nelimarkka herself doesn’t hail from an artist home. Both of her parents were engineers; her father also a successful businessman and inventor.

“My parents weren’t exactly bohemians. Since my childhood, I’ve had to lead different lives and spend time in different circles. Throughout my career, I’ve had an active role in the academia and business life in addition to the art world. My true self is in a basic state of conflict in all of these realms.”

In addition to her art sales, Nelimarkka engages in business life through the Nelimarkka Foundation, which she has chaired since 1987. In the academic world, Nelimarkka has progressed to doctor and professor (2008).

"Navigating in different circles has taught me to be sociable, but also distant." In addition to art circles, university, and business life, Nelimarkka mentions the church and religions. Four distinct worlds, bubbles, social groups, institutions, where the artist remains and constantly argues.

Understanding the distinct worlds, these small universes, and living among their conflicts is enriching."

“I’m genuinely interested and gladly dwell in all of these worlds, but certain anarchy is constant and alive. It’s fruitful for me as an artist. Understanding the distinct worlds, these small universes, and living among their conflicts is enriching. After all, art isn’t born in a vacuum, but through interaction.”

This is the dilemma underpinning Riitta Nelimarkka’s art: her works emerge through interaction as well as alone. “Very alone”, she states.

In relation to and in conflict with the community. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to convey one’s identity as an artist in words. There’s no way to be sure whether others will understand the oddities that feel natural to oneself.

One conflict follows the other in Nelimarkka’s language. Growing up to be a diplomat, but reluctant to mediate. Wanting to live in a community despite it creating a constant rub. She speaks about the absolute freedom of art – while successfully churning out substantial commissioned work with customer needs in mind. 

“So far, my commissioners have pretty much given me free reign. I create sketches, which we look through together. People are smart and without preconceptions. They come to me already knowing my art. That’s an easy and inspiring starting point.”

Nelimarkka compares her identity as an artist to two acrobats balancing on a trapeze. “On the one hand, I value knowledge and have a huge thirst for it. On the other hand, I’m aware there’s also another way based on intuition. I may see things beforehand that later turn out to be true. Without knowledge or analytical research. Intuition is a gift, just like the thirst for knowledge is. They don’t rule each other out in any way.”

As an artist, Nelimarkka relies on intuition. “Although intuition can let you down sometimes.” As a businesswoman and Doctor of Arts, she dares to put her trust in knowledge.

This leads us to Nelimarkka’s famous doctoral dissertation in 2000.

Riitta Nelimarkka worked on her doctoral dissertation Self Portrait,

Elise’s Dissertation, Variation of a Variation for the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at the end of the 1990s, exploring the relationship of an artist with her own production.

The dissertation consisted of art exhibitions and a written publication.

Permission was granted to print the dissertation, and the opponents were in favor of approval. However, things took on a dramatic turn, as the school’s degree council announced its rejection of the work. Apparently the dissertation, which merged art and research, didn’t fulfill the then developing criteria for dissertations at universities. What made the case particularly dramatic was the fact that the degree council didn’t make its decision until after the actual public examination. 

The incident was a scandal among the art world and academic circles alike. It seemed as if Neli­markka’s self-portrait served as a collision point for arts and sciences. Nelimarkka ended up in the middle, as the requirements for an artistic dissertation were being defined.

Nelimarkka appealed the decision of the degree council of the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, and it was accepted. Self Portrait was approved, and Nelimarkka became a doctor the following year.

Fifteen years down the line, Riitta Nelimarkka reminisces on the scandal with humor and an air of warmth. She does, however, deny that the doctoral dissertation would have served only as a battleground for drawing the line between art and science.

“In fact, the examiners representing science were in favor of approving my dissertation. Objection came from the third examiner, who came from the field of art. But that’s just the way it goes. If a festival is arranged in Jyväskylä, it’s the locals who won’t attend. For some reason recognition hardly ever arises from within.”

The dissertation grew from pure joy of research."

In hindsight, Nelimarkka claims that provocation wasn’t the starting point for her doctoral dissertation or research. Despite seeking out conflict with institutions in her art, it wasn’t the reason for her dissertation. The dissertation grew from pure joy of research, she says.

“It brought me in touch with a more conventional, somewhat dull academic world, and perhaps my way of doing things brought aggravation. The same kind of mentality was offered to me – they way things should be – and it irritated me. It irritated me in my 20s and it irritated me in my 50s.”

“Perhaps it’s just the way things were supposed to go. Maybe the farce was unavoidable.”

Riitta Nelimarkka bought Bonga Castle together with her husband Jaakko Seeck in 1987.

The building had been left in dire straits, and the couple has gradually restored it back to glory.

The cellar serves as a weaving facility, allowing the artist to take part in creating her large-scale tapestries. To supervise and steer each stage, make changes and remake. “The original pictures need to be drawn in actual size. Then the weaving process is a collaboration with weaver Nils Neu­vonen.”

“Sometimes the speed of creating different draft versions feels almost embarrassing. I may come up with a constant stream of new variations at such an intensity and pace that it makes me wonder whether any concentration has really gone into it”, the artist admits.

“In reality, processes are always slow. Works of art mature over a lengthy subconscious thought process before suddenly activating. People are often keen to know how long it took to create a particular piece. From very early on, I haven’t considered it a particularly interesting criterion.”

Nelimarkka’s strong, half abstract, playful signature style is just one of her forms of expression."

Nelimarkka’s strong, half abstract, playful signature style is just one of her forms of expression. Behind her swift lines lies a mastery of precise, classical drawing. For Nelimarkka, it’s important to master traditions and know the rules before they can be broken.

“For a long time in the world and history of art, attention has been paid to meticulous activities that require patience and skill. I guess for example harmony is a value in itself in those types of works, but it’s nothing new anymore. These types of works of art can be valid in that they have been created so well. They may be undeniably masterpieces, but they’re nothing new. And to turn this around: something new isn’t necessarily good. But without stepping into the unknown, you can’t find something new, ingenious, that’s also good.”

It’s clear that Nelimarkka identifies herself with the latter. She’s not interested in copying classical skills, but seeks out something new through her individual expression instead.

"That’s when you also make mistakes.”

Here – in the realm of an artist’s professional skills and ethics – Riitta Nelimarkka finds she has more in common with her father the engineer than with her grandfather the painter.

“My father could tell me to stop doing the same thing and make something new. Once he confided in me in a state of dissatisfaction how an engineer at work had shown him a draft. One draft! My father taught me you have to show at least five. I think I was about fifteen when we had this conversation. It was an important mental testament for me.”

Riitta Nelimarkka talks a lot, yet considers her words, sometimes quietly mulling over her answers. She comes up with a constant stream of new threads of thought.

“Usually it’s good to contemplate things over for a little longer. The first version may well turn out the best, but still.”

Nelimarkka has assembled her books to help our conversation along: 

in addition to her dissertation, her published works include: Elisen epämuistelmat (Engl. transl. Elise’s unmemoir), a biography of sorts; and Giovanna Idiaatta Pallo Medissi, a book of poetry and images telling the fictional story of a young artist girl living in Florence during the era of the Medicis in the 1400s, which, too, is a type of self-portrait.

“It’s an important book to me for some reason. Many others have enjoyed it as well.”

Nelimarkka recounts how her publisher insisted on having the manuscript of her poetry book assessed by independent experts before publication without disclosing the author’s name. That’s how questionable it was for a visual artist to jump into the shoes of an author. The experts chose the manuscript for publication from among many others. “It did make me snigger.”

Once again, a hint of warmth can be traced in the artist’s voice, as she reminisces on the minor conflict. The social dance. The test she had to take.

“I don’t feel like an outsider, but neither do I feel the need to be an insider in artist circles – or any circles for that matter. I enjoy talking with all sorts of people, but I’ve never had the urge to belong. Perhaps I speak a slightly different language to many others. I’m odd to myself, too!”

Here, in the tiny kitchen of a small, quirky castle, among expansive, colorful works of art, under the gaze of an hartebeest antelope caught by the artist herself, this self-analysis feels befitting.

Riitta Nelimarkka is a dilemma herself. Politely, in the warmest of ways, staring openly in the eye, in a state of constant conflict with her surroundings.

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