Interview by Antonia Hamberg | Portraits and studio pictures by Kaapo Kamu | English editor Julie Uusinarkaus | Gallery pictures by Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA
Camilla Vuorenmaa at her studio. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.

Camilla Vuorenmaa‘s work is as rich in contrasts as it is exuberant and unsettling. One easily lingers on the expressive, vibrant and incredibly sensitive, oftentimes sorrow-ridden faces and body language of the eclectic group of characters.

There is something universal and touching about Vuorenmaa’s relentless yet gentle way of portraying people in the moment of something crucial, in her ability to capture the ambiguous emotions of a situation that in its extreme contains everything between life and loss, love and despair, surrender and victory.

In this artist’s work you can see the bold marks of someone with a singular drive, expansive technical ability and uncanny empathetic capacity for diving into big subjects; it is this fearless vision that draws you in and makes you linger over her highly-charged works.

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Practise 1, 2015-2016, 200×180 cm. Picture by Ari Karttunen.

How early in your life did you know that you wanted to be a visual image-maker?
When I was seven years old, our teacher asked us what we will do when we grow up; probably out of coincidence, I replied that I will become an artist. The teacher asked me to be more precise, but I did not understand what she meant – I had not understood that artist could mean various different professions. That being an artist could mean something other than drawing.

In primary school I went to an art-focused class from the 3rd grade onward, continuing to an art-based high school in Tampere. I moved away from home at 17 years old and had very little money, so I had to take material from construction sites for building structures for paintings. The first paints I used were leftovers from wall paints that had been used to repaint the walls of an old church: sky blue and cream-coloured yellow.

Despite everything, I hesitated until the very end of high school to decide if I would apply to study to become a visual artist. At this time I also considered studying literature and psychology as well as graphic design. However, after a gap year, I applied to art school and got into the Art Institute in Kankaanpää. Here, I finally got started with painting, and I found people that were likeminded, friends with whom we painted all evening together. The compulsory subjects felt a bit boring, but then again I was young and immature. During my first year at Kankaanpää, I applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and got in.

Detail of a work in progress at Camilla Vuorenmaa’s studio in Helsinki. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.
Detail of a work in progress at Camilla Vuorenmaa’s studio in Helsinki. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.

How would you describe yourself as a visual artist?
As an artist I am quite physical. My works tend to be large in scale, and recently I have been using wood boards as my main material; I move around the material and think of the idea. I read a lot: novels, all kinds of magazines, comics etc. – what I see and experience personally inspires me. At the moment, my life is quite calm, which balances out the battle that is part of the process of creating. I am social, so working as an artist satisfies my need to be alone in my own world.

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Boltface, 2015, painting and carving on wood, 181x114x3cm. Picture by Ari Karttunen.

You are known for working with carved wood paintings. What is it about this technique that initially fascinated you?
For years I had tried to bring different kinds of sculptural elements to my paintings, but the techniques I used and tried did not give the effect and mood I needed to have in my work. Thus I begun to look at wooden sculptures and porcelain reliefs, with the aim that I might find some new dimension from them. When I got my first year grant for artistic work in 2010, I decided that it was time to try to paint and carve wood boards. In the beginning, I wanted to do more sculptural works, but I soon realised that a line drawn with chisel and combined with painted layers functioned as I wanted.

Can you describe the process of working with this technique?
I begin with painting and then engrave the big lines of the piece – the number of layers always depends on the piece. I use many kinds of paints: mainly water-based ones like acrylics, watercolour, gouache, inks etc.

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Blue, 2014, painting and carving on wood, 150x120x3.5cm. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.
Camilla Vuorenmaa, Blue, 2014, painting and carving on wood, 150x120x3.5cm. Picture by Ari Karttunen.

You are participating in a group exhibition at Galleri Thomassen in Gothenburg from September 16th to October 8th. Can you talk a bit about this show?
Yes, in addition to me, the artists Hannaleena Heiska and Rauha Mäkilä are participating in a group exhibition titled In The Belly Of Painting. Through our ongoing dialogue during studio visits we discovered the name of the exhibition. The title felt like a natural choice as we all are connected by an urge to find the essence in painting: that thing that you feel deep in your stomach, in your belly, in your gut. From my works we have selected six portraits for this show. These works are all made on wood boards. Hannaleena Heiska and Rauha Mäkilä have created new work for the exhibition.

You are also a candidate for the 2017 Art Fennica Award, which includes a joint exhibition presenting individual work by you and the four other nominated visual artists and artist pair opening on October 13th, 2017 and running until February 2nd, 2018. What have you been working on for this exhibition?
For the upcoming exhibition I am at the last stage of finalising a new piece that has been created on wood panels, which together with a distinct lighting is the main focus of my work for this show. I have worked with combining white and black lighting together with my wood carvings, which hopefully will bring a new dimension to the work.

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Boltface, 2015, painting and carving on wood, 181x114x3cm. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.
Camilla Vuorenmaa, Boltface, 2015, painting and carving on wood, 181x114x3cm. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.

Can you tell me about your approach to colour? How do certain colours make their way into your work?

Recently, I have found the colours of sport and work clothes interesting and inspiring; colours that are so-called “attention” colours. When I connect them to soft pastel shades and white, I feel that I find a certain tension that really works. Life reflects and has a full effect on colour choices: for example, when my mother died many years ago, I made an exhibition without almost any colour – I mainly just drew on the canvas with charcoal and painted only some details.

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Surrender, 2014, painting and carving on wood, 120×100 cm. Picture by Kaapo Kamu.

Your workspace here in Helsinki’s Punavuori district is very unique. How did you end up in this place, and how is it to live and work in the same place?
I rent my workspace from the Finnish Artists’ Studio Foundation. It consists of a small bedroom, a walk-through kitchen and a bigger work space. When I moved here a year ago in the summer, I was excited but also nervous about living and working in the same space; before this arrangement I had thought that my home and my workspace should be kept separate. But in fact, this solution has been really pleasant as I don’t have to use time to commute between my home and workspace, and I can cook while working; I am in the midst of a very busy time in my work so it is good that I can move quickly from one task to another. Financially, it also makes a substantial difference that I don’t have to pay two or three rents a month like I have done from time to time. This studio will still be available to me for the next four years, which feels good as I have moved around a great many times. Now I really felt the need for a place where I could settle for a steady period of time.

What have been some important phases or points in your career as an artist?
There are so many! When I got into the Academy of Fine Arts to study in 2000; when I was taking part in the Young Artist Biennale in Taidehalli in 2005; when I got my first year grant for working in 2010; when I won the International Solo Award in a spring exhibition in Copenhagen in 2013; when I won the Finnish Art Academy Prize in 2014. And all the countless times I have been encouraged by my colleagues and loved ones to continue working despite what happens.

Do you have some particular career or life-related wishes at this point?
To keep on working without compromises in the content.

Portrait of Camilla Vuorenmaa by Kaapo Kamu.