Studio Visit and Artist Interview: Jurri Arrak

I first came across the work of Estonian artist Jüri Arrak through friends of Kuriosas 50 Watts in the US who unearth all kinds of beautiful and crazed book illustrations from around the globe.

These images of Arrak’s children book from 1975 entitled Panga-Rehe Jutud (The Swamp Ladies of Estonia) left me completely spellbound with their 70’s psychedelic glory.



 Source:50 Watts

With two days left in Tallinn, it occurred to me that Jüri could still be alive, and perhaps based in the city, maybe still even creating these creatures.  After a bit of research I found he was indeed still around, and actually very highly revered, having recently been commissioned to paint the Estonian president’s portrait.

I emailed the tourist office late at night on a whim and to my suprise, they sent over his phone number the next day at 6am.  At this point I felt I had no choice but to pursue the trail so I dialled it, apprehensively, with no idea what to find.  Happily, after a few rings a merry sounding voice answered; we muddled through the language barrier, I tried and failed to describe my blog and he finally asked if I wanted to visit his studio later that afternoon.  Already cheered by his description of his diary as his ‘paper brain’ and massively intrigued about meeting him, I paced around the city in anticipation with thoughts whirring; willing the day to pass and wondering, based on his psychedelic artwork, what the hell this studio was going to look like.

At 5pm I lingered slightly tentatively near the Soviet era cinema I’d been directed to, admiring the typography of KOSMOS and stark exterior as a way of distracting myself


A lofty smiling man approached and I realised it was Jüri, he immediately hugged me and seemed entertained by my age, laughing that I could be his granddaughter.  I was instantly struck by how youthful and vibrant he seemed, he somehow didn’t fit the mould of a pensioner.  We then walked up to the top floor of an aging nearby apartment block, heading to the studio he has kept since the late 1970’s.  Now 77, Jüri told me with relish how he climbs the 110 steps to his studio at least 3 times every day (in fact I embarrassingly struggled to keep pace with him as he scampered up them)

At the top, I did wonder what his next door neighbours must make of him upon seeing his front door


Once inside it was almost like entering a cave; religious artifacts, photographs, paintings, sculptures, books, old artifacts, archives, masks, keepsakes; an eclectic topsy turvy haven yet also, I sensed, a meticulously run operation.

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Sitting at his desk together, he asked me if it was okay if he kept on organising his slides as we chatted.  I obliged as I found his industriousness amusing, and we started to talk about how he first became an artist.

Born in 1936 in Tallinn (back then in the Soviet Union), he told me how he was sent to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) for the army from 1955 until 1958.  Following this he stayed on in the city and became a taxi driver.  Frequently corresponding with his brother back in Tallinn studying art,  Jüri received regular advice and encouragement from his sibling who urged him to try drawing and taught him via letters, step by step “how to draw Picassos.”  Quickly developing a passion for art,  Jüri was spurred to return to Tallinn and enrolled at the  in 1961, studying Metal Art at the Estonian State Art Institute for the next five years.

Alongside other students from the Institute, and inspired by the pioneering artists they had discovered such as Kandinsky (which must have been tricky, since the Soviet Union had banned abstract art) Jüri formed a group called ANK ’64 who were the first group in the Soviet Union against the style of Socialist Realism; at the time the only permitted artform.  This must have seemed incredibly radical and risky given the strict climate they were operating in at the time, but perhaps it was inevitable that the growing spirit of dissidence in the West at the time started to filter through on some level.



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Upon leaving college, he made jewellery and then also started making miniature paintings.

When asked about his other influences, Jüri answered without hesitation, “The Surrealists” and mentioned artists like Magritte.  This strand of influence in his work seemed very clear to me in this very early painting he showed me.  He told me liked paintings with doors, as they act as “windows to other worlds.”


Jüri joined the Graphic Art society in the Soviet Union in the late 60’s, providing him with the only chance of ever having an exhibition since art shows were only permitted through membership of such groups.

In 1970, the society offered him an exhibition based on their knowledge of his practice as a metal worker.  Jüri then daringly chose to exhibit his abstract paintings instead.


Since it was at the last minute it all still went ahead, but he was reprimanded by the head of the society, stunned at this apparent artistic turnaround and obviously worried by the stark discordance to ‘acceptable’ aesthetics these paintings posed.  Jüri told me how he placated the head by saying he was ‘just a decorative artist,’ cleverly convincing the society that this radically different, challenging and unfamiliar artistic style was completely benign and for the sole purpose of adornment.

I was left feeling quite affected by this tale, realising just how trying it must have been to have had any freedom as a creator of any artistic works in such a climate of censorship and suppresion, but also thoroughly impressed at Jüri’s obvious abundance of chutzpah to attempt something so risky and subversive.


Source: 50 Watts

Jüri’s work moved on to the development of characters in the 1970’s.  He likened his creating of these characters to “like handwriting” since they have such a signature and consistent style, and come so naturally to him.

When we talked more about his work, he explained that he wasn’t drawn to still life or landscapes, for him, creating characters helped him feel closer to human beings, “I like people!” he exclaimed.

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 Source:50 Watts

In 1975, he was commissioned to create the Panga-Rehe Jutud children’s book, which had a print run of 40,000.  To keep the powers that be happy, he insisted that the psychedelic story was ‘just meant to be a dream,’ again, just a whimsical, unthreatening creation, and nothing to concern them.

I was thrilled when he produced an original copy of the book and read it to me


He told me he painted the pictures using gouache and that were all produced at actual size – the book being around an A5 format.

It interested me that some of Jüri’s work seemed to reflect the pagan roots that are still apparent in the Baltic regions through their Midsummer celebrations, beliefs I was intrigued to learn still live on in Estonian pagan religions such as Maausk (despite Estonia apparently being the least religious country in the world).  It also clearly draws on mythology abundant in both the Baltics and Scandinavia centring around the existence of trolls.  All religion would have been suppressed in Soviet times but it’s intriguing how these ancient belief systems and underlying affinity with nature were still seemingly having a subtle (or not so subtle, looking at the image below) influence on creativity.


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Tallinn Russian Market / Soviet Union pin badges


I’ve recently returned from some eye opening adventuring around Estonia and Finland for summer, so much so my head is a bit congested with all the shiny things I saw.  I’ll start with Tallinn in Estonia; my good friend Jaana hails from there so I’ve always been intrigued about seeing her on her home turf, especially after sipping the supreme Estonian vodka she often smuggles back.

This building was my home for the week.  It had a rickety and austere Soviet era lift that slammed shut then made noises that sounded like they came from the Futuristic Zone in the Crystal Maze as it whisked me high speed to the fourth floor.  By the end of the week I’d grown very fond of it’s cantankerous ways.


Tallinn has a beautifully preserved medieval centre which is worth a visit to see some of the buildings but, for me, lacked anything genuine anymore in terms of having many Estonian residents or a semblance of normal working life – it’s simply a gilded land for tourists.  After a day there I didn’t go back, and instead spent my time exploring the diverse Russian neighbourhoods, traditional wooden housing, vibrant creative spaces, and industrial landscapes reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (which was filmed in part in Tallinn).

One brilliant place to get a flavour of the past, as well as the present mix of people who populate the city is the Russian Market (Baalti Jaama), just behind the train station.  I spent hours here rooting through the Soviet memorabilia stalls and junk shop outlets, meeting and photographing some stiking local ladies and sampling some of the technicolour cabbage salad offerings.


 The antique shops there were brimming with enough oddball Soviet toys and artifacts to keep me short on breath for a while, but my favourite finds were these metal pin badges boasting some super psychedelic designs.  After standing in a store for a good stint carefully selecting these ones to take home, I found later that other outlets I came to at the market were selling hundreds more, all with different designs, at which point I had a tiny meltdown and resigned myself to just sticking with the ones I’d chosen.  I’m definitely flying back here and snapping up the lot when I have my lotto win, and I will employ elves to tile my bedroom with them.

 For now, here are the few I chose, in no particular order as I think they work best in a random fashion.  They look to date to the 1970’s, but who knows with Soviet design, their aesthetic was often out of sync with the rest of the world so these could be more recent:


 I also found these energetic Soviet posters in the corner of one second hand outlet, photographed at weird angles as I was sardined against military uniforms. There were lots more but I chose to cease photographing when I caught the Russian owner shooting me a seething look, oops



This chic dame was called Zoya, I was thrilled to meet her and get her photo since something else I enjoy is photographing people over 60 with a sense of individuality and flair (more of my pics are here)


More to come soon anyway – I started interviewing people on the trip and met Estonian artist Jurri Arrak well known for his beautiful and insane 1970’s swamp ladies illustrations, animations, paintings and more; will post the full story shortly!



1930’s boat brooch

I love this 1930’s brooch I found a while back made from very early plastic – I would also love a cruise on this serene pale pink sailboat


I found this in an indoor fleamarket in Arundel, a pretty and very quintessentially English town in West Sussex brimming with tea rooms and enjoyable tweeness.  A few of went on an expedition for my birthday and had a superb day exploring old churches, rummaging in bookshops, trying some of the excellent rustic fodder at The Swan and ending the night with bargain whiskies before jumping on the last train home – much recommended day out from London.81660006Arundel also has this utterly majestic castle – although a walk around it after dark for some reason suddenly gave me the jitters, my overactive imagination made me convinced I was going to see a hooded monk lunge at me from the darkness so I scarpered back to the glow of the high street.  It looks like a fabulous place to visit in daylight hours though (if you can stretch to the killer £20 entry fee)

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1920’s German Silent Film-making book

 I came across this wonderful original film tome from the 1920’s on a recent trip to Berlin


I spotted it nestling at a Kreuzberg fleamarket and was drawn in by it’s cover, finely crafted using delicately cut out paper


With hand drawn ink patterns and letters too

There was no date but some useful fellow had written this inside – 18.2.23

Film Fimmel roughly translates as ‘Film Infatuation,’ so I was intrigued as to what some of the chapters were about.  Because my German only stretches to ordering kaffee und kuchen, I had to take to Google translate with some of these, with limited results – this section below reads as ‘Mysterious Characters,’ which still doesn’t tell me much, although this flat capped ruffian is already a winner

Since it was printed in the silent film era, I’m guessing the rest are probably directions of how best to execute certain types of scene.  I could only translate snippets of the rest, but I think it’s actually quite fun to get lost trying to decipher the weird and amusing goings on.



Since some of the pages were slightly coming away which gets those book collector creatures all ruffled.  I got it for just 5 euros which I felt triumphant about since it’s obviously a unique item with an unmistakable connection to the visual hallmarks of what was a hugely influential era.

The cover made me think straight away of the jagged edges, sharp angles seen in lots of German Expressionist films of the time, but especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  I recently watched it with some excellent visual fiends Jo who also blogs about vintage treasures she finds in grubby lorries, and Jaana, Estonian refugee and clever book designer and we were infatuated with the striking sets and spiky shapes and the superb sense of menace and expertly crafted creepiness throughout.  Made in 1920, it would have been around at the same time as the book’s publication.


I was in Berlin to create an installation with artist Rachael Macarthur.  Thanks to Das Gift for hosting us, a super bar and gallery space in Neukolln with a Scottish slant.  Here are a few pics of what we created:

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1940’s Funghi Book covers

I came across this cheeky duo at the market I run recently and was so charmed by the bold, pop graphics and supreme colour scheme I had to manhandle a customer who’d already bought them and ask if I could grab a few pictures (albeit dreary iPhone ones that don’t do them justice)

 They were both printed in 1945, one of my favourite eras for lively and exciting surface design, but due to the psychedelic subject matter they somehow wouldn’t look out of place amongst the tripped out fabrics of the late 60’s / early 70’s.



 The colours on the cover above made me think of a palette that swelled in popularity across graphics, textiles and ceramics just a few years on in the 1950’s.  This handsome mid century ceramics set by German company Schlossberg used an almost identical colour scheme.



I would love an entire kaftan printed with these marvellous mushrooms, even if this would put me at risk of purchasing a bongo drum at a later date.

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1930’s Portugese Maths Book


One of my favourite recent finds – fantastic magentas on this pretty charming 1930’s illustrated times tables pamphlet.  Found in a junk shop in Porto, Portugal – (if you like this, also worth looking at my other post from there of Vintage Portugese Book Covers)

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Vintage French Illustration

normandyI found this illustrated paper folder at a rural antique shop in Normandy a while back – I think Le Cygne Noir was a grooming product and am guessing this is from the 1940’s perhaps

I loved the print quality up close, although the swan does start to look a bit sly at this proximity…


Bountiful hay bales, slumberous hamlets, handsome thatches, ancient antique shops and brocantes, Normandy bewitched me with it’s idyllic chocolate box charm.

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Happily, there was also a reassuring selection of guesthouses adhering to aggressive floral policies

I was also a bit enchanted by this incredibly quaint fairytale style house overlooking the sea in St Valery En Caux, the lettering on the sign, flowers and overall style are all typically Art Nouveau so date it to the early 1900’s.  I think I’d like to retire here to watch the ocean from that top window whilst surrounded by a supreme selection of cheeses.


All of these pictures were taken on film on my favourite £2.50 1990’s camera.  I’ve noticed it has a curious trick of cloaking nearly every image with a nostalgic wistful haze that somehow tempts you to remember that moment in time as a gilded, glittering sea of euphoria (when in actual fact you had been suffering from severe heartburn after eating a misguided gigantic chocolate croissant followed by a three course lunch…).

I think I am actually totally at ease with this method of sugar coating existence though and believe some form of it is fairly compulsory – so grab one of these lo-fi wonders on eBay and live in your own 70’s Terence Malick film forever.