Summer 2020

I can’t believe it’s almost Midsummer!  This has not really been the season by the sea I was hoping for, but at least I am lucky to be spending it safe and sound with my husband and the dog, who absolutely loves having both of his parents home with him.  In other news, my furlough continues, and with it, the exploration of different ways of making art:  this cheerful little embroidery below will make up most of my next artwork aiming to combine embroidered and painted motifs.

Embroidery in progress - Mix of different stitches

The intersection of contemporary art and traditional crafts has intrigued me for some time now: most of my life in fact, if you count in the masterpieces I was creating before I could lace up my boots properly.  In fact, one of my earliest art-making memories is about my grandmother and her sewing cards.  These colouring-meets-sewing kits tend to be a bit of a Nordic thing, but basically they are these sturdy printed cards with pre-punched holes for kids to “embroider”.  The concept is pretty straightforward: first you stitched around the outline of your colouring picture with a plastic needle, using any of the multi-coloured threads from the kit or a piece of left over yarn.  Then you were to expertly colour in the image and presented the magnum opus to your Nan, who would immediately call you a very clever little thing and perhaps reward you with a bowl of wild strawberries liberally sprinkled with talkkuna.

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I adored my Nan and I adored her sewing cards.  She spared no expense nor effort in getting me the Moomins kit, tons of nature & farming ones as well as the coveted Disney Pocahontas collection.  Eventually, I had sewn through the whole range available from the mobile shop that visited her secluded farm twice a week, so we started making our own.  This was frankly much more interesting.  Forget about the dull plastic needles for silly little children – the thick utilitarian card we used required a long, sharp adult one from my Nan’s sewing kit she kept in the drawer of her pedal Singer.  I only ever stuck myself once.  Embellishing my sewing-card self-portrait with my freshly-drawn blood remains the most avant-garde event of my art career to date.

My current piece is by no means the only time I have attempted to create combining visual art and embroidery.  During my student years in Edinburgh College of Art, some years earlier, I returned to the subject of embroidery and painting time and time again, frankly, with mixed success.  At that time, I felt a keen pressure to perform as a painter rather than pursuing any mixed media interests and it took me some time to return to carry out these experiments.  Although inspired by a very different strain of research material, my Double Exposure project, begun in late 2018, borrows heavily on the work I did with my Nan’s sewing cards back in the early 90’s.  Two of those pieces are currently on view at Envision Arts’ online exhibition Threaded II.

It is fascinating how I return to this subject matter time and time again, especially when I feel my college-aged experiments were not particularly promising.  In a way it is like an itch I need to scratch.  Now is as good of a time as any – the world has gone mad and I suddenly feel less self-conscious about my work than I have ever been.

All those years ago, each time I finished a sewing card, my Nan would pin in on the wall, adding it to a growing collection of drawings by her grandchildren at the back of her cottage, right above her radio and next a selection of framed family photos.  There was some rotation, but her favourites would remain for years, long after I stopped embroidering, probably long after I grew up and stopped visiting too.  All that yellowed card and faded thread – as far as I can remember they were the only art she ever owned.  Well, besides from those naff tea-towels printed to double up as calendars.

She died of advanced dementia nearly ten years now, my Toini-Mummu, and this one is for her.

Threaded II

I have been so busy with a project that I almost forgot some of my Double Exposure pieces are currently on show at Envision Arts online exhibition Threaded II!  This is a multimedia exhibition, curated around the idea of fibres, and all work submitted needed to consists of 25% fibres of any form.

The two pieces accepted for the show combine found imagery, drawing and embroidered motifs, with an aim to highlight how our knowledge on the personal life of an author affects the way their work is viewed.  I was compelled to create this body of work upon receiving a book of photographs called “Souvenirs” by David Hamilton.  Like a window that gets dirtier and harder to peer through with the passage of time, it is difficult to observe Hamilton’s photography in earnest without the cloud of child abuse accusations obstructing the view.  Following this line of reasoning, I began to draw with a view of obscuring, but not entirely covering the pages of Souvenirs – to physically replicate this effect on paper.  The embroidered inserts, executed using cotton and wool, are an extension of this process.

Double Exposure by Tiina Lilja (2019) mixed media on paper

You can read more about the project and its evolution at my previous blog posts Double Exposure and Double Exposure – Drawing New Narratives.

Tooting my own horn aside, I was blown away by the quality of the pieces on display.  My personal favourite being two tapestries by Jordan Holms, who was rightfully awarded an honourable mention for their contribution.

But why am I rabbiting on about it, you can view the whole exhibition at Envision Arts in June 2020.

Enjoy the show.

1997 – on Seductiveness of Nostalgia

My family, coloured pencil on paper, 1994
My family, coloured pencil on paper, 1994

NHL-cards and Extreme Ghostbusters… that pretty much sums up the year 1997 for me.

Although Nokia was already in the process of forging their mobile-millions in 1997, Finland was far from being the tech-savvy start-up capital of the world it is known as today.  In fact, most people were barely back on their feet following the early 1990’s depression and the subsequent collapse of the Finnish economy.  Between 1992 and 1997 unemployment had hovered between 12-17%, but things were looking up.  Not insignificantly, our boys took home gold at the 1995 Ice Hockey World Championship Games, hoisting the nation’s collective self-esteem to an all-time high.  On a more personal level, I started school a few days short of my seventh birthday in August of 1997, rocking a blond mullet and clothes sewn by my mother, with dreams of being an artist one day.  We were a few years short of moving out of the council flat I was born in, shopping was paid in Finnmarks, calls made on GSM and you needed to wait two weeks for your selfies to be developed and delivered to your door.

"1997" by Tiina Lilja, work in progress

Time works in strange ways during those early years of your lives.  Indian summers and white Christmases; the full Monty.  Most people remember but an idealised version of their formative years.  I certainly wasn’t aware of the archaic economic and socio-political structures unravelling around me.  For a child such as myself growing up in a sleepy regional town in the South West of Finland, the winds of change blowing through my small nation were easily drowned out by the gentle sway of its ancient forests.  Kids are like that I suppose, adaptable.  My dad was home a lot when I was small and I loved it.  It took me years to figure out he’d been on furlough or had lost yet again another job alongside tens of thousands of young men like him.  The average unemployment figure might have been around 15% in 1994, but for builders like my dad, it was over 36%.

So much for the good old days.

Why is it then that we turn to nostalgia when times are hard?  Is it really a coincidence that Christian Dior struck gold with his “New Look” featuring ultra-feminine, conservative looks reminiscent of La Belle Époque in 1947?  Just ask George Taylor, he introduced us to the Hemline Index as far back as in 1926.  For the lockdown season of 2020, whether you are shopping at Primani or Prada, there’s a new look in town:  Long floral dresses and puff sleeves.  Comfortingly feminine, non-threatening – nostalgic.  And it’s not just the fashion you need to look out for.  Retro has been big news in graphic design for some time now, but when the big multinationals like Unilever or Nestle’ whip out their heritage packaging, buckle up Bucky you’re in for a ride.  A sure way to spot the economy is in the toilet is knowing you are being tempted to buy biscuits by enrobing them in the warm fuzzy happiness of nostalgia.

"1997" by Tiina Lilja, 2020, oil on board - work in progress
“1997” by Tiina Lilja, 2020, oil on board – work in progress

I am not saying nostalgia is inherently bad for you.  It is, however, incredibly seductive to remember only an idealised, simpler version of the past.  Jamie Windsor talks about the problems of nostalgia in much more elegant terms in his video essay simply titled “Avoiding Nostalgia”.  This yearning to recall an ideal past void of modern evils is a powerful marketing tool and harnessed so sell us things as well as influence our political decisions.  “Make America Great Again”, remember.

The art I have been making lately is riddled with nostalgia, but I did not set out to paint nostalgic imagery just to introduce you to my mullet, circa 1997.  People do not yearn for simpler, happier times in a vacuum.  I am talking about the mother of all nostalgia, the cardinal reason why we so crave that idealised past: fear.  Fear of uncertainty, fear of change and fear for what the future will hold.  He has been my constant companion in the studio for these past few months.

"1997" by Tiina Lilja (2020) oil on board
“1997” by Tiina Lilja (2020) oil on board

No filter more powerful is yet invented as that of the perspective of a child.  Somewhere between the Pogs and Dr. Bombay, I do remember the recession of my childhood: from the bread-ques (the Finnish expression for foodbanks) hand-me-downs and the evictions.  I suppose those were the things my parents would have called the new normal at the time.  It must have been a balancing act of royal proportions, but they pulled it off.  Out of many wants and withouts, we always had a roof above us, food and each other.  Although it took me years to stop feeling inferior in the company of those more affluent, I started school in the August of 1997 confident in my ability to achieve anything my heart may desire and largely unafraid.  A sparkling new cog eager to take their place in a machine being built on top of the old.  The fear of uncertainty, rejection and loss crept in much later, alongside the responsibilities of an adult and a need to find my place in this world.

As a painter, I need to make sense of my surroundings through the images I create.  If ever there was a constant I wish to cling on to when our world has turned upside down, it is art.  And I hope the art I am making gives even a fraction of the solace it has awarded me, to you and others stuck in the twilight zone of the new normal.

Keep calm and create,

Tx

Work in Progress

I don’t know about you, but I am really struggling to get anything finished these days.

So, in the spirit of keeping calm and carrying on, I thought I’d give you a few work-in progress-snaps.  Y’know, in case you too are browsing the underbelly of internet rather than getting back to work.  I would know… after all, I am writing this to actively avoid getting any painting done.

Lots of little paintings needing to be finished in my studio

As you can see, my little family of portraits is steadily growing and I do promise to get on with it all.

Tomorrow, maybe.

In general, I do find working on multiple paintings pretty useful.  Mainly, as it stops me from getting bored of my own work.  Also, when using oil paints, this will give you something dry enough to paint on each day.  That is the theory anyway.  Right now I have a studio full of little paintings, like a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear.

The latest additions are my wee sister (left) and me (right), captured around 1996-1997 or so, and my husband’s dad (centre).  I never got to meet John, which makes rendering a likeness quite difficult, but we are getting there.  Painting a portrait from a photograph alone can be a bit tricky, but luckily I have my hubby to guide me through it.  As silly as it sounds, sometimes you can paint the most perfect copy of a photograph, yet as a portrait it looks nothing like the person photographed.  This wasn’t a problem when I was painting my dad, for example, as I know his features better than my own.  I loved being able to spot any rogue brush strokes immediately, but here I am not quite so sure of myself.

We’ll just going to have to wait and see how this portrait develops.

The other thing I’ve been working on is the vibrant rainbow swirl pictured above.  It started out as a colour test for another project, really, but could mature into a piece of its own.  I am currently waiting for the paint to dry on this one so I could start adding new elements on top of the oil painted base-layer.

So stay tuned – how long can it take to find inspiration locked in a small cottage in the middle of a pandemic?  Right!?

Oh, and allow me to toot my own horn a bit.  If you fancy more of these work in progress type of posts, head over to my Instagram;  you’ll get your fix there.

Cheerio.

Tx

Double Exposure – drawing new narratives

In these past few weeks I have been continuing my “Double Exposure” project; using white paint markers of varying thicknesses as well as standard black fine-liners in lieu of embroidery.  With this relatively limited palette, I wish to add a second layer on the pages from David Hamilton’s Souvenirs and replicate in drawing what it feels to be distracted by negative information about an author when viewing a piece of art.

The first time I remember being in a situation where learning unsavoury details about an artist stopped me fully enjoying their work was in secondary school.  Like any budding painter, around the age of 13 or 14, I idolised Picasso.  Sure, I thought the Guernica was great, but what I was really obsessed about was his blue period.  Learning about his chauvinism and the questionable treatment of the women in his life, made me both angry and embarrassed.  How his behaviour was tolerated if not fully expected from a successful male painter was beyond me.  I replaced him in my heart with the drinking-with-the-boys Frida Kahlo.  How much did that really change the expectation my teenage-self had about painters is open to interpretation.

With age and a bit of experience I have learned to accept that idolising as well as detesting a stereotype of a person is not productive.  By ignoring the whole production of Picasso, for the sake of argument, because he was a royal self-obsessed arse, would not do you any favours.  On the flip side, sweeping any problem under a rug hardly makes it disappear.  Perhaps we ought to be more mindful about past prejudices and negative attitudes embedded in creative work, have it be visual art, music, drama or literature… and strive to do better in the future?  Besides, by choosing to appreciate artwork only from the “Greatest Hits” shelf of art history leaves you missing out on not just great art, but great stories of artists less know than Picasso or Kahlo.

To return to “Double Exposure”, pretending the sexual abuse allegations against David Hamilton do not affect the way his work is perceived would be an understatement.  This is partly explained by the subject matter itself – what was seen acceptable in the 1970’s is more widely condemned and disapproved today, even when suggestively posed pre-pubescent children are not involved.  What intrigues me is how difficult it is to separate the art from the person who created it.  Like a window that gets dirtier and harder to peer through with the passage of time, it is difficult observe Hamilton’s photography in earnest without the cloud of accusations obstructing the view.  Following this line of reasoning, I begun to draw with a view of obscuring, but not entirely covering the pages of Souvenirs – to physically replicate this effect on paper.

These drawing attached in today’s blog are just a few examples of my progress so far.  With over a hundred photographs to choose from, my biggest challenge will be selecting the most successful pieces and curating them into a coherent work of art.

Until then,

Tiina x