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Pekka Jylhä was the most celebrated figure in Finnish fine arts in autumn 2000 after a monument to Finland's longest-serving president, Urho Kekkonen, had been unveiled in Helsinki at the beginning of September. Jyhlä's creation is a refreshing contrast to the city's traditional granite monuments. It is a work of environmental art composed of several parts and has been lavishly praised by both critics and ordinary citizens.

The Finns do not see Kekkonen, who was in office for 25 years, as just any old president. Even now, 15 years after his death, Kekkonen still arouses great passions from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other. For the young sculptor, winning the design competition for the monument four years ago was a much bigger thing than he would ever have been able to guess.

"I was a year old when Kekkonen took office. I have never been interested in politics and did not fully realise all the things he represents to the Finns. I did a monument to a person and I was glad I won the competition. Only gradually did it dawn on me just how important this particular monument was," explains Jylhä.

The monument blends well with its surroundings in a park in the centre of the city. It comprises a steel basin, four bronze hands on the tops of poles and a two-part memorial stone on a rock outcrop on the other side of the path. The water in the eye- shaped basin is in constant movement all year round. Above the basin, the bronze hands are in a posture of blessing.

"I wanted people to be able to step into a space where there is dramatism and also mysticism, and to get a proper sense of the influence of the various elements. Symbols of power are difficult to depict, and might be found even in things of secondary importance," explains Jylhä.

Storyteller

Pekka Jylhä, born 1955

University of Industrial Art and Design, Helsinki (1980-85)
Fine Arts Academy, Helsinki (1984-87)
Royal Art School, Stockholm (1987-88)

Numerous private and group exhibitions in Finland, Sweden, France, Norway, Italy, USA, Germany, Estonia and Denmark.

Public sculptures in Helsinki, Kokkola, Vantaa, Järvenpää, Kuopio and several other places.

Jylhä uses a broad diversity of materials in his works. Stainless steel, bronze, gold, concrete, glass, stuffed animals, aquaria with fish - the list could go on and on. Light has quite an essential role, and another important element in his creations is often water. Complex technical solutions and machines, which require the help of engineers, are likewise a typical feature of Jylhä works.

"Every work has some story or other in it. When I know the story I begin looking into which material would be the best to use in telling it. That is what is exciting in this work."

His storytelling began in the early 90s with a work associated with his mother. Jylhä was 9 when he came home from school one day to find his mother dead in a rocking chair. The chair was still rocking gently. The passing of his irreplaceable mother left the boy with severe scars, which healed gradually only late in his adult years. The birth of Jylhä's first son Otso, now 7, brought back vivid memories of his mother's death. He executed a sculpture, or actually a whole room, in memory of his mother in Helsinki's Galleria Sculptor.

The creation contains a wooden, lead-coated rocking chair with a motor that rocks it back and forth extremely slowly. It was exhibited together with an aquarium with real carp swimming in it. The aquarium was positioned in such a way that centuries-old gravestones in a nearby park, which once served as a cemetery for plague victims, could be seen through its water. "The message of this work went across well. All visitors got the feeling that someone had just left the room."

Through writing to pictures

Jylhä believes that his mother's death was one reason why he became an artist. His home was in Ostrobothnia, where his father was a shopkeeper and, as Jylhä recalls, mostly working. The five children in the family were generally with their mother.

"After my mother died, I began writing very unclearly; perhaps I was a little dyslexic. Finally, I gave up dabbling with writing and turned to pictures. I found my own language in them. I believe they give me a very important thread of thought."

His home was beside a river, where he used to go to sketch. He also did sketches of customers in his father's village shop and received both encouraging feedback and sometimes money. There were plenty of animals in the surroundings in which he grew up: cats, dogs, pet rabbits and the cattle on his grandmother's farm. Life was very practical.

The elements from his childhood landscapes that are still to be found in Jylhä's works are water and, often, animals. "I get stuffed animals from the Zoological Museum; not a single one has had to be killed on my account. It is a good idea to say things through animals, because everyone relates to them in some way or other. They give my works a certain humanity, but are also a reminder of people's cruelty and how they relate to nature."

An environmental sculpture keeps you breathing

Jylhä draws on his childhood and nature also to find inspiration for his environmental sculptures, which he has been planning ever since his student days.

"It is an artist's duty to play a part in building the urban environment and making it more humane. Environmental sculptures are breathing holes on a human scale and they bring harmony. Beauty and harmony are quite central things to me. Harmony can be found also through opposites and contradictions."

A love of the countryside and a simple life is very strong in Jylhä. He found it difficult to adjust to life in Helsinki during his years at the Fine Arts Academy. Nowadays he lives with his family just outside Helsinki in the part of Espoo known as Tapiola Garden City. The house in which he lives is one of a row specially designed for artists by Aulis Blomstedt. Every house comes with a spacious studio.

Jylhä spends a lot of time outdoors and camps with his elder son. "I'm terribly fond of a simple cabin life. I want to pass on my own 'countryness' to my children so that they don't become terribly urbanised."

Slow and thorough

For Jylhä, making art is pretty hard everyday work. "I start in the morning like everyone else and put in a full day's work. I am not especially systematic in my life otherwise, but I do follow a certain pattern in my work. I do things slowly and thoroughly. I give a lot of thought to a job before I start doing it. I sketch and make exact scale models, then I make them in the right size and finish them carefully. The work is usually better after every stage. I often leave a job to one side for as much as a month. Time easily reveals what shape is an enduring one, and which one isn't," he says.

"It often happens that a work is displayed in an exhibition, after which I continue developing it until I find its final form."

His children, Otso (7), Martta (5) and Ilmari (2) often rush in to where Jylhä is working. He loves discussing his work, also with the children. "Kids have a good and open relationship with things. Unlike adults, they do not yet have a conception of what art is supposed to be like. Whenever they see something interesting, children start wondering what they could do with it."

Helsinki City Art Museum: Pekka Jylhä