Interview Antonia Hamberg | Portraits Kaapo Kamu | Artwork images courtesy of Galerie Anhava | English Editor Julie Uusinarkaus

Contained and eruptive, the galvanic impressions that contemporary artist Elina Merenmies meticulously paints and draws seize the viewer with their sense of truth. With a pious dedication to her expression, Merenmies uses alchemist-like skills to portray beauty in difficult, poetic and often twisted forms; she does not shy away from facing the shadowy side of humanity with her masterful technique and devoted approach to material and color. Elina Merenmies is an original, surprising and compellingly forward-thinking artist who pushes her own limits to reach places that not many dare to go.

What influenced you to become a visual artist?

Enchanted by the cartoon Little Simon as a child, I watched with bursting eagerness how the rabbit drew pictures that came to life. I was probably six years old when I fantasized about the profession of an artist, and by the age of eight I painted with oil colors for the first time. When I was young, drawing and painting were somehow ways of staying sane; nowadays they are an inseparable part of normal, happy everyday life as well as what feels like good physical work.

Elina Merenmies captured by Kaapo Kamu at the artist residence Lallukka.
Elina Merenmies, Yötaivas II, 2017, tempera and oil on canvas, 278 x 169 cm.

What interests you as an artist?

As a drawer, the rhythm and the language of the line has always interested me: the idea that you can write, without any sound, an unknown language that people understand. The drawn line always has a relation to music and the strength of the inner world of the painting. With painting I have always been interested in a certain kind of mystery; on the one hand why the painting means something, on the other hand, I strive to create worlds that I can dive into and from where I can narrate something important.

Can you talk about some significant people or experiences that have influenced your expression?

There have been so many. Firstly, when I was young I lived in Czechoslovakia, where I witnessed the horrifyingly destructive effect that industrialization has on the landscape: dead forests where spider webs stuck to the face, flower fields covered by black industrial ash and an endless landscape of destruction spreading sweepingly and hopelessly over vast areas of land. In that moment I knew that our future would be formed by this, that we could not run away from it: soon we would not have enough oxygen, water would be undrinkable, and everyone would have some sort of sickness from environmental poison. It immersed itself in my total being right there and left a lasting impression on my work.

Another thing that has influenced my work and point of view is my health, which has never been good, and at times, incredibly weak. It tends to result in a certain kind of disposition among people and in the world when you know how easily everything could change. This is probably why faith is such an important thing to me; in a way it is a gift — in times of fragility, the only option has been to move forwards and trust that everything will sort itself out.

The third would have to be the numerous artists, writers and composers that I have gotten to know along the years as well as the holy days, the beautiful church buildings and the Bible that I have read every day for the last 18 years. It has worked as a tool toward self-knowledge, but in the end, everything comes down to one thing: one’s own remorse that has not yet been reached, if it has even begun yet—the rectifying of one’s own actions.

Elina Merenmies, Taivaan lintu, 2017, tempera and oil on canvas, 81 x 55 cm.

How do you work? 

I am slow, although sometimes I leap forwards with surprising strides: like trying to trail an ant, with human steps, in a room. Then suddenly when a big fly enters, you speed after that. You might think that I am very systematical, which yes, I am to a certain point, but the end result is always a surprise. Technically, I have arranged things so that almost anything can happen on the canvas when I work. With drawing it is, naturally, pretty much the opposite; everything is irreversible.

Your paintings have a distinct light to them. Does light play a significant role in your work, and if so, what does it mean to you?

Thank you. I have tried to immerse light into the paintings, and in some exhibitions this is more apparent, especially if there is a source of natural light in the space. With light, there has to be the right balance—there cannot be too much or too little of it; light has its own electrifying effect and gives the painting a limitless energy.

Elina Merenmies, Monet kasvot, 2017, ink on handmade paper, 51 x 38 cm. Photo Jussi Tiainen.

You are participating in the group exhibition Förstärkt verklighet/Voimistettu todellisuus at the Norrköping Art Museum from September 9, 2017 to March 3, 2018. What kind of work are you showing there?

The exhibition draws together work from different time periods from the last few years, the majority of which are drawings, and the newest feature more of the theme of focusing on faces formed from three branches. I have thought a lot about the world drawn by threes, paradise, humanity, baroque music, prayer, asceticism—everything that is part of my life right now, or that I would like to be part of it.

In an interview I heard you talk about the importance of being outside one’s comfort zone—can you elaborate a bit about what this means to you and how you challenge yourself as a person and as an artist? 

To avoid letting idleness and indifference tiptoe into me during the day, I will read at breakfast at least a few pages from the saint’s biographies, until my heart warms and I am moved. Then when I am moved and the mind is connected with what has been read, it is easier to begin reading the news, pray and do other chores. Working becomes more efficient, and the mind works. I also try to stay up to date with the news about wars, refugees, politics and environmental questions, navigating the challenging task of interpreting the truth among all the news about world events.

With painting and drawing, I often continuously try new things—and although it is not an intrinsic value in itself—it makes everything interesting. Occasionally I try working with some old theme again, or I force myself to use a brush that pokes or spatters paint here and there. New color pigments that I have gotten to know through learning about and painting religious icon paintings have contributed intriguing new findings. The icons have revolutionized my work in that I feel that I have found one of the origins of painting: something that I had always been looking for.

How do you feel about living and working in the artist residence Lallukka? 

I moved to Lallukka a year ago, and I have enjoyed it immensely; it is very fortunate to live in a place that you never have to leave—a place where working and focusing has felt very natural from the beginning and a space where the possibilities and the sense of the new are likely to keep me here enthusiastically for a long time instead of staying in a residency somewhere. The light of the workspace is exceptional even during the winter because I have invested in good lighting for color.

Do you ever find it difficult to find the energy and motivation to work? And if you do, what do you do to overcome it?

No, I have not experienced this sort of depression that you might be talking about, but occasionally I do get bored with art and myself, and sometimes I am really tired. If this happens it is good to rest and let time pass—maybe go to church a bit more, spend time in nature and perhaps travel, which tends to be very rarely. That is how enthusiasm finds its way back: out of nowhere, so to speak.

Elina Merenmies, Yötaivas I, 2017, tempera and oil on canvas, 278 x 169 cm.

You have had a lot going on in recent years. Do you ever take a break from painting and making art?

As I also draw, that becomes a natural break from painting with turpentine, but I very rarely voluntarily halt all creative work. However, at the end of last summer I spent a week at the Lintula Convent doing different kinds of volunteer work, and even though I did not feel like making art there, I still got so many ideas while in church that I had to sketch after the service.

Now I have new paintings in mind and even some canvases ready. Also, a few works in progress from the 90s are waiting to be taken out from hiding. I have already for a while been using time unscrupulously: working on some pieces for long periods. Let’s see what can be done this time around with the ones dating back 20 years. I will also prepare new canvases, which is a nice process once in a while—a kind of precise, and in many ways routine-like, scientific chore.

More works from Elina Merenmies at www.anhava.com.