Nothing small nor black-and-white
Tuula Lehtinen has a passionate relationship with graphics and the techniques of making them. In her work, implementation and content are inseparably bound to each other. Tuula is a well-known and recognised graphic artist, whose creations are anything but traditional. In the technical sense they are a virtuosic blend of art and handicraft skill.
Tuula is not an artist in the way that most people conceive. She is a tall, slim blonde, subdued in manner and dress, with no hint of affected artistry. She talks about her work in a down-to-earth and straightforward manner, just like any other housewife and mother who goes out to work. Not a single word about the creative process, no philosophising on the nature of art nor incisive analyses of her own development as an artist.
"I lack many of the features associated with an artist's image, such as a Bohemian lifestyle," she admits. "I have always been home a lot and worked. I have not had terribly much of the time, energy nor inclination to sit in taverns pondering such matters. It may be that some people see this as not so intellectual.
"For me work itself is essential. Creating visual art is so closely linked to the material that one cannot squeeze a philosophical essence - containing everything that matters - out of it. After all, doing graphics is very physical work: polishing, tidying and rubbing - quite simply bending the material to make it match your idea."
Art is for looking at
Tuula was born in Tampere and returned to her home city as soon as she graduated from the Fine Arts Academy in 1980. "I did not enjoy myself at all in Helsinki nor at the academy. The atmosphere at the latter was oppressive and there were strong pressures to conform. It was only when I left that I was able to do what I wanted."
Tuula has gone her own way ever since and put her own visions into practice by smashing the traditional boundaries of graphic art. A message driven home at the academy is that graphics are small in size and black-and-white in colour. Her prints, by contrast, are large and colourful, combining a variety of techniques.
"I have the feeling that changing is one element in my work. I'm pretty restless and unable to stick with the same theme for very long. Right now I have many ideas - quite different from each other - that I want to realise. When doing graphics I am always able to enjoy the materials and processes and everything to do with how different matters react with each other."
Tuula is not one of those artists who explain their work. "What the eyes see is what matters most; art is meant to be looked at. Looking at it should be enjoyable and produce some kind of aesthetic experience. Explanations are of secondary relevance; the work in itself should be able to cope without them."
Technique and work one and the same
Tuula's profound interest in the techniques of making graphics is reflected in her work. Sometimes the plate - a tool and indispensable technical intermediate stage - has been made part of the work itself. Something that engages her mind a lot is the relationship between the original and replicability, and the artist's role between the two.
She often traverses the borderlands of originality by using graphic techniques to make unique creations. The starting point can be an old photo or picture, from which she makes a gum bichromate proof, colouring and exposing it as many as dozens of times as thought painting with light.
"The use of different techniques influences the picture itself. If the technique dates from the 19th century, the theme can likewise be from that period. Perhaps that is a way of reflecting on history and instruments. There is a certain indirectness in graphics and it interests me. When a work is first put onto a plate and then onto paper, the artist is in between and can influence the final result by intervening in the process."
The ballast of copying
Tuula has studied the history of graphical methods in great depth, and has even written a textbook on metal graphics. The history of art graphics is the history of reproduction and printing skills, techniques have been developed to enable pictures to be distributed. The copying-related ballast that still clings assiduously to art graphics bothers Tuula. "One has to keep on pointing out that what is involved is not copying, not a cheap print, but rather an original graphic," she says.
"One way in which you see it is that graphic artists are not invited to take part in major exhibitions and their works do not end up on the walls of museums of modern art. There is quite an incomprehensible paradox in this: the item on sale must not be purchasable at a moderate price. It seems that art must be quite expensive and there must be only one copy of it so that the buyer can acquire the shining aura of unique ownership."
Against that background, Tuula is rather astonished to have been given quite a few public commissions, despite being "only" a graphic artist. Her latest big public work is for a school complex in one of Tampere's neighbouring municipalities and is due for completion in summer 2000. "Public commissions have been my idea of dream work, because I can create something big and permanent. A work of art gains a completely new kind of social significance when it is made for a particular place."
Art graphics have been criticised not only for having the nature of copies, but also for being overly decorative. These are themes that Tuula has addressed in her creations with floral motifs. A work can contain, for example, a picture taken from cheap wrapping paper and copied by hand in oils onto canvas countless times. The end result is an original work of art - a genuine oil painting.
Small children set the pace of work
Tuula lives and works on the upper floor of an old building in the heart of Tampere. The youngest of her three children, 13-year-old Varpu-Sisko, is the only one still living at home. Only a few works of art - pieces by Tuula herself, her Swedish-born husband Tomas Byström and several of their friends - hang on the walls of their spacious home.
Being a mother-of-three has accustomed Tuula to balancing between work and the time she devotes to her family. When her first daughter Laura was born, she was only 22. Her son Ossi was born only a couple of years later.
"Being a woman artist with small children was not by any means easy. Everyday life was quite hard and rigid. Work had to be done when there was a chance to do it, and I adopted the attitude that when I worked I did it one hundred per cent. Since I am at home, I also have household chores to take care of. I've probably programmed my time too much, to the extent that I'm always fully occupied."
Tuula mostly works in her study at home when she is preparing for exhibitions. She also spends a lot of time at Grafiikanpaja Himmelblau (Blue Sky Graphic Workshop), which she and a friend founded ten years ago.
Own workshop born of a dream
Finland's first commercial metal graphics workshop was both the product of a dream and a response to a need. Visits to Italian and French graphics workshops, where she found an "enchanting atmosphere", gave her the idea of establishing one in Finland. In any case, she was about to lose the person who had been doing her proofs for years. She found the premises she needed in the magnificent old Finlayson factory building. There, the Tammerkoski Rapids foam just underneath the two-stories-tall windows.
To its founders' surprise, Himmelblau enjoyed almost immediate success. Four skilled proofers work there now and about 40 graphic artists - including some of the leading names in Finland and the Nordic region - have worked there. Himmelblau has also arranged numerous exhibitions in various parts of Europe.
"An artist's work is terribly lonely and Himmelblau has been a pleasant way of making the acquaintance of others. When several people are working with the same thing, ideas that individuals would never conceive on their own likewise tend to flow."