Towards no man's land
"The way I see the matter, there are two different sides to my lifework. At base, it is a question of how I cope with my life rather than how I handle my two occupations."
Those are the words of Osmo Rauhala, who spends half the year tilling the land in the tiny village of Siuro in the middle of Finland, but devotes the winter to quite another job. It happens that farmer Rauhala is also one of the most internationally respected members of the current generation of Finnish painters. He has maintained a second home and a studio in New York since 1988. Now he is as well-known in SoHo art circles as in Finland.
Osmo Rauhala is wearing denims, rubber boots and a peaked cap bearing an advertisement for a combine harvester company. He is sitting on a tractor, and one has no difficulty taking him for what he is: a farmer, lik e his father, grandfather and ancestors for centuries before him. The tractor is a red Massey Ferguson, which Rauhala pronounces phonetically as though it were a Finnish name. "Finnish fields were broken into shape with these machines in the 1950s," he says. The old tractor is till working well, and Rauhala obviously has a fondness for it. Like the Fordson Major in the shed, it reminds him of the days when his father taught him how to till the land.
Osmo Rauhala was born in 1957. The home farm was not big and the children had to help out according to their abilities and strength from an early age on. For the boy attending vocational school in a nearby town, farm work was a natural part of life. "You learn from it that this work belongs to us, that it should be done in full," he reminisces. It is clear that he intends to complete his contribution to the work of a long chain of generations.
The boy began painting at the age of twelve. He found his first paints in the workshop of his father, who also worked as a carpenter. The workshop provided other materials as well, such as material for frames. "My first canvases were made from grain sacks," he says. His talent soon showed itself, and 16-year-old Rauhala was accepted as a member of the art society in the nearby town.
In one newspaper article, Rauhala recalls his earliest years as a student at the small school in his home village. There were three classes and only one teacher. One class always had to be put drawing. "I had stacks of sketches. Whatsoever the subject was, there was always an animal in the picture. Even a competitive skier had a squirrel sitting on his shoulder."
Osmo Rauhala was seven when the Nobel prizewinning author Frans Emil Sillanpää died in 1964. The writer was born, lived most of his life and died on the opposite shore of the lake beside the Rauhala farm. When Sillanpää was awarded t he Nobel Prize in 1939, the stated reasons for the decision included the following: "For the profound understanding and refined sense of style with which he has described the interaction between the rural life of his native country and nature."
Now comments on Rauhala's painting include the following: "Rauhala's combinations of images and signs immediately evoke the tenuous relationship between the natural world and the rational one human beings keep trying to superimpose upon their surroundings." (John Yau, 1992.)
The conversation deals with the same subject as we sit in the large parlour of the Rauhala farmhouse. He says the decor has not changed much in his lifetime. "Only by living here can I keep in touch with nature the way I want to," he says.
Osmo Rauhala does not romanticise, not does he talk of nature in the polemical terms that environmentalists use. He believes that we should be able to listen to "nature speaking" and willing to understand what she is saying. That contact is extremely delicate and largely instinctive, something that we have inherited in our genes. The "commotion" of modern urbanism can and has deprived most people of this sensitivity. That also has the effect of closing one channel for interpreting the reality that we know exists, but which our language and concepts are inadequate to explain.
Rauhala explains that relationship though his experiences. He tells about shepherds' resting places in the forest, places were it feels good to be, and how he has many time found an ancient well just as it was drying up. Mysticism should not be mixed into the matter. What is involved is knowledge, which comes from something.
Rauhala also has the ability to approach the truth in a strictly analytical way, on the basis of the means and criteria that his scientific training gave him. Since his teens, he has been studying philosophy in both fiction and scientific literature. He has three university degrees and is working on his thesis for a PhD in Fine Arts.
Given Rauhala's training and talent, it is not surprising to discover that he is a gifted essayist. His intellectual approach and especially his analyses of his own works tend to draw criticism from those art circles which respect only "free-flowing torrents of emotions".
Rauhala is made of different stuff. He writes: "My whole life has been a cross-reference between nature, science and art, to the point that they have begun to grow together."
There is an area in between different approaches that is a challenge to Rauhala. "I paint to understand myself and my environment," he says at the beginning of one essay and concludes it as follows: "What is most interesting is to explore no man's land... It is there that something new can happen and a space can be created to be hived off for one's own."
It may be that no man's land will be the source of new information about the limits that nature imposes on human existence, i.e. what Rauhala calls "missing information".