Interview by Katja Räisänen | Pictures by Paavo Lehtonen | English Editor Julie Uusinarkaus

Inka Bell (b. 1981) was selected as Grafia’s Graphic Designer of the Year 2018. Bell works open-mindedly in-between design and art, concentrating specially on serigraphy. In her current prize exhibition Zanni at ARTEK textures, structures and the sense of different materials have an apparent role. Her approach to the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms is intriguing. “I mostly work with paper, and I try to find new ways to utilize this mundane material. Quite often we see and use paper as a two-dimensional surface, and I am interested in studying how we can use it in a new way.”

Inka Bell, Z-13, 2017, screen print, 19,8 x 23,8 cm, edition 16.

Congratulations, Inka, for being selected as Grafia’s Graphic Designer of the Year 2018. You work open-mindedly in-between design and art, concentrating specially on serigraphy. How did you find your way of working of merging and blurring the borders between commercial designing and traditional printmaking?

Thank you!! I think I’ve always been drawn a bit more to the non-commercial side, and I think even my commercial work is quite often not the most commercial, at least in the traditional sense. I have always preferred working with print more than digital, which plays a big role in the graphic design field today.

The change of focus from being a graphic designer to a printmaker happened almost by accident, but after being away from the commercial world for few years (do to a working grant and maternity leave), I just couldn’t go back. Focusing on printmaking feels so right and makes me happy. I still sometimes work with graphic design when an interesting project comes along and sometimes incorporate printmaking in it.

You did unique and exceptional work as a graphic designer at Tsto until 2015, and you were also one of the founders. Your courageous approach to playing with the relationship of typography and image is still visible in Tsto’s philosophy. What did you learn and what were your insights from those times?

That there is no single solution. I got to work with the most talented and inspiring people, who all have their own unique approach to things.

The prize exhibition Zanni at ARTEK refers among other things to social issues, to the individual’s relation to society. Also the term “zanni” refers to an astute servant from the countryside, to a typical character of Commedia dell’arte. The term associates strongly with the social classes. Why did you choose to underline this theme? Where does the image evolve from visually, and what is your starting point?

The theme originally initiated from somewhere between circus and harlequin imagery, and then it started to move more towards the people and individuals performing. I was interested in the roles described, and it started to remind me of society today and where we are heading. I also had a strong feeling about colors and textures. I saw heavy dark red velvet curtains in an old theatre and the roofs of circus tents, and it all started developing from that.

Inka Bell, Z-1, 2017, colored paper, three dimensional, 21 x 26 x 5,5 cm.
Inka Bell, Z-1, 2017, colored paper, three dimensional, 21 x 26 x 5,5 cm.

What kind of relationship do you have with colors and lines?

My approach to line is very analytical. I always try to justify to myself why a line exists and if it is really necessary. I try to express as much as possible with as little as possible. I find this minimalistic approach somehow extremely satisfying, especially when our lives are filled with so much stuff.

I usually work under a certain color theme, when it comes to bigger entities. Quite often black and white play a big role, but otherwise everything else changes. With Zanni, for the first time, colored paper played a big role throughout the works.

Inka Bell, Z-16, 2017, screen print, 14,7 x 21 cm, edition 24.
Inka Bell, Z-5, 2017, screen print, colored paper, three dimensional.

How do you find your materials? In the Zanni exhibition it seems that textures, structures and the sense of different materials also have an apparent role. You also seem to have an interesting approach to the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms. Can you tell us something about the body of the exhibition?

I mostly work with paper, and I try to find new ways to utilize this mundane material. Quite often we see and use paper as a two-dimensional surface, and I am interested in studying how we can use it in a new way. For example, first screen printing and cutting, and then assembling it in a way that reveals new surfaces and forms.

Texture plays a bigger and bigger role in my work. I work mainly with screen printing where texture (in the way that I am interested in seeing it) is almost nonexistent, compared to some other techniques such as stone lithography or painting, and of course, sculpture. I have this urge to create surfaces and textures and even recently started oil painting because of it.

I started working with more three-dimensional forms with my last exhibition, Synchronicity, held at Sinne in spring 2017. I wanted to develop this technique further for this show. I knew the exhibition space for Zanni was relatively small, so I started to work on a small scale right away. With most of the work, there is only cut out shapes and textures and the visual language is very minimal. In some works, I used old left over material or prints that didn’t make it to the series as a starting point, which I had been collecting for this purpose for a while. For Synchronicity I machine cut all the material and used bright white paper as a starting point, which gave everything really sleek look. For Zanni I have hand cut everything, leaving a more lively surface on the works.

I also try to maximize the handcraft part as much as possible and the fact that I don’t have everything planned. If I create traditional fine art prints, I usually create the images on a computer. Working this way, the end result is almost identical to the starting point on the computer. The material brings a whole new dimension to my way of working, something that I cannot predict, and I find that really interesting.

Even when the exhibition space itself is small, I like creating a unified space that goes beyond the walls. This is why I like creating works that hang from the ceiling. At Artek, they asked me to utilize the window ledge in a way that some artworks can be seen from outside, too. This is how I came to work with combining three-dimensional paper sculptures with epoxy in a few different ways.

Inka Bell, Z-20, 2017, screen print, 16 x 29,7 cm, edition 18.
Inka Bell, Z-3, 2017, screen print, colored paper, three dimensional.

You work experimentally and courageously in the crossroads of art and design, and also in the crossroads of the newest technology and traditional techniques. Can you tell us something about what kind of ‘touch’ these baselines give you?

I think my working method, including my tools, come from my background as a graphic designer, where I mostly work with a computer. For me, combining this contemporary way of creating an image with a traditional printmaking method feels really natural.

This has a lot of advantages, but I have also had to work hard to let go of the idea that everything I do needs to be perfect, at least technique-wise. When a book or even a business card comes out from the print house, you need it to be flawless, but when you do fine art prints by hand, these “flaws” many times bring the works to life, and for most people the ones with “mistakes” are the most interesting. With my next exhibition, I am trying to free myself from the computer as much as possible.

How did printmaking become your medium?

Before studying graphic design, I studied fashion design and noticed that I was more interested in making prints rather than the actual clothing. So I was first printing on fabric, and when studying graphic design, I switched to paper. I have always felt really happy in print studios, and for a long time, when I didn’t have access to one, I really missed it.

For me, printmaking – especially screen printing – is a really natural part of graphic design. Although I now use it mainly for creating my own artistic work, screen printing plays a role in the history of the graphic design industry and even in our understanding about colors and printing in general.

Inka Bell, Z-22, 2017, screen print, 21 x 29,7 cm, edition 17.
Inka Bell, Z-12, 2017, screen print, collage.

You are also one of the founders of the serigraphy workshop at Kalasatama, and with that have strongly proclaimed the values of traditions and stimulated the public’s interest in the traditional serigraphy technique. The pedagogical path seems to be important to you as well, am I right? What does teaching give to your own creative thinking and work?

We founded Kalasataman seripaja because there hasn’t been an open access screen printing studio in Helsinki for many decades. So when people are not in school, they don’t have the chance to print their own stuff, which happened to me too. We want to keep this technique alive, and even more importantly, develop it. Also, quite many schools are shutting down their printmaking facilities, which I find really unfortunate.

I never imagined myself enjoying teaching, but after doing it for quite many years, I have really started to enjoy it. I think teaching gives me perspective and definitely new ways to think about and see things, whether it comes to teaching screen printing or graphic design. I really like sharing my knowledge.

I also enjoy meeting new people, and I find it extremely interesting to see people from different backgrounds get interested in new things. It inspires me to see that there are so many different ways to end up doing what you do.

Inka Bell, Z-6, 2017, screen print, colored paper, three dimensional.

What inspires you?

I think my biggest inspiration has always been sci-fi and architecture. Also the colors and textures that can be found anywhere on the street, such as the huge building site next to my studio.

Inka Bell

Kalasataman seripaja