A little post about my time in the Finnish wilderness. After Helsinki in my last post, my companion, artist Rachael Macarthur and I set off for an arts residency Haihatus based in the remote lakeland region of Finland in a small town surrounded by forest called Joutsa.
Finland is 73% forest (the most tree-laden country in Europe) and a lot of the rest is water, the landscapes were stunning en route and the lakes overlapped so much that it felt like we were at sea. The picture below was taken from the bus – unnervingly, the water came right up to the edge of the road but it was quite an enjoyable and strange experience!
Haihatus is based in what was previously a residential home on the fringes of infinite Scandinavian forest. And when I say infinite, I mean it – the nearest settlement was an hour’s drive from our local town of Joutsa, and according to a panicky late night Googlemaps investigation, we found it was indeed just trees and lakes around us for a gazillion miles.
Run by artists Merja Metsänen and Raimo Auvinen, Haihatus is now home to quirky outhouses, sculptures and rooms to house a number of international artists, as well as a gallery space and studios to work in.
We spent our days creating paintings and collages ready for an exhibition at Kaantopaikka, a community space in Helsinki where we were due to exhibit and run workshops as part of the annual Night of the Arts festival.
Finns seem to love dogs, we met all kinds of unusual guys visiting Haihatus during our time there, including some arctic beasts too. Rachael bonded with this wee man
Sharing our Scandi wilderness were Rose Dickson, a fantastic visual artist from Portland Oregon and Alexander Anchia, a writer from Costa Rica. We spent some fun nights in the TV room watching weirdo films while it was still light outside towards midnight, leaving eerie silhouettes which I wasted loads of time trying to photograph at 1am most nights
The long days, short nights, odd skies and sheer number of trees gave rise to all sorts of mysterious forest based dreams most nights, which also seemed to gradually spill over into what we were creating
When we weren’t creating, we wandered around the tiny town of Joutsa. It had 4000 residents but we rarely saw many of them. There were four lakes around the town, a church, supermarket, school, no pubs and a general sense of sleepiness.
We also did a lot of posing by signage to pass the time in the evenings
The town at times had an eerie Twin Peaks kind of feel (we once found a pair of red high heels on a gatepost….)
We also developed an obsession with Finnish charity shops or Kirpiis, where we fought over all kinds of kitsch memorabilia and cute ceramics.
A market also came to town one day and this was the highlight of our social calendar for that week. All kinds of foraged fancies came with it, as well as the staple licorice that Finns (and their other Scandi neighbours) all seem mad on.
The one tea room option in town was housed in a beautiful building from the 1800’s
Aside from this, we tried to make the most of the opportunity to be so immersed in nature. I did a lot of walking, sitting and drawing in nearby meadows with derelict summer houses and old windmills nestled in the corners, whilst pretending to be on 1970’s folk album covers
A lot of the landscape felt quite unchanged, and made me think about Russian novels and Tarkovsky films – especially as where we were was once part of Russia, and only maybe 100 miles from the current border.
Me on a fence pondering (haa not really – this is a still from The Mirror by Tarkovsky which I think looks so similar to the picture above and is also a gorgeous film brimming with beautiful meditative pastoral scenes)
The rest of the time was spent wild lake swimming and exploring forests that were straight out of Nordic noir – spanning for miles and miles without a soul in sight, this was definitely a good place to conceal a body.
During our stay, a bear was spotted under 15km away, which did lend an extra unnerving edge to my solo forest ambles. I felt I was squaring up for my own Grizzly Man experience but thankfully he didn’t emerge from the shadows.
Rachael braved the murky depths of many lonely lakes whilst I lurked near the shore
We also stumbled upon some lovely bits of folk art down some of the sleepy lanes
Aside from one exhilarating day trip to Jyvaskyla (in the next post, and don’t ask me to say it) we’d been confined to one small town with no nightlife, or really any day-life, for about 18 days and were beginning to feel some low level cabin fever insanity emerging, plus had taken to hanging around a donut stand (or munkki – still my favourite Finnish word) with teenagers in the evenings in an attempt to find some kind of illicit excitement. After some creative respite, we were ready for the noise and mess of the real world again. Bidding farewell to Merja, we set off back on the bus to Helsinki.
Back in the city, we loved being at the Kaantopiakka venue, a community arts space. As well as setting up our little installation for the Night of the Arts Festival, we ran workshops for parents and children to make their own forest creatures. We had a great turn-out from families in the area, called Arabianranta and famed for its beautiful and iconic Arabia ceramics it is quite a progressive, bohemian part of the city and, like most of Scandinavia, very child friendly.
I highly recommend rural Finland if you really want to get away from it all – nobody is going to find you in those forests and the wild swimming opportunities are endless. Prepare for cabin fever to creep in though.
It was a great place for an intensive creative retreat however and I still think about sitting in those serene Tarkovsky-esque meadows. I did have one day during this period where there was some palpable excitement, with serendipitous meetings and fortuitous connections though – more in the next post!