Looking through the photographs in her uncle’s house, some stained and blanched from the passage of time, Maarit Kotiranta felt a special connection to them. She and her uncle had shared a love of photography. But now, after his passing, her mother had asked her to help clean up his home in a small Finnish town called Raisio. It felt as if the photographs had become more than mere snapshots of moments, they had become artifacts in the museum of his life, and beyond that, portals to something inside her.
Maarit Kotiranta, photograph by Anna Autio
Many of the photographs were self-portraits, which, now considered retrospectively, seemed to form an album of loneliness. The scene touched Maarit for reasons beyond her own familial connection to the deceased. The work scratched at a theme that had expressed itself through much of her work as an artist. As she looked at her uncle in different pictures, always in the same chair, set against the flotsam and jetsam of life — old newspapers, Christmas trees, books — she could see how the gravity of time pulled on his face and made him visibly older. Confronting, mitigating and sometimes accepting this loneliness would become a project that would occupy decades of her life.
She resolved to make an artwork out of the experience. Beginning by creating drawings of each of the photographs, she subsequently turned them into silkscreen originals and printed them onto Japanese paper. Finally, she mixed 15 different colors, starting from black, moving through several grades of grey and white, ending with a white that exactly matched the paper. The cumulative effect was a fading into the backdrop, expressing the incremental nature of loneliness.
Lonely Man, (silkscreen on japanese paper, veneer)
A Polymath is Born
Maarit’s exploration of the large, existential questions of life began when she was very young. Her education at a school for fine arts meant that she was raised on a rich diet of unusual perspectives and lofty questions. But even in this largely permissive environment, she managed to garner a reputation as being someone who would zig when others tend to zag. She chose to play the accordion when most of the other children opted for the violin and piano, for instance.
Her adventurous spirit eventually gave her parents an uncomfortable jolt when she was 16. On a warm August day, she announced with the clear-eyed optimism of youth that she wanted to be an exchange student in Russia. Why doesn’t she go to Canada, like her friends, her mother would ask. “We had a long war with Russia,” Maarit says, explaining her mother’s reservations, which would later be echoed by her friends. “People were like, ‘Are you crazy?' when they heard I wanted to go to Russia.” The fact that the city she intended to visit, Saint Petersburg, had a population of 7 million people, more than all of Finland, was cause for concern for her mother. Not to mention Russia’s recent history. It was 1996, a time when the nation was still adjusting to market capitalism. But Maarit was undeterred. “When you are young, you don’t think so clearly, so I went.”
The city was overwhelming. In addition to the grandeur of the old buildings, she was also confronted with large-scale poverty for the first time. “I remember seeing kids sniffing glue in the metro.” On the whole, she found the experience to be fulfilling. “There was a hopeful vibe — people believed things were going to change.” The journey gave her a store of vivid impressions to draw from when she returned to Finland and began a career in the arts.
But before she could do that, she had to settle the question of exactly which art she would pursue, a question that would become a recurring theme throughout her life. As an accomplished polymath (a person with knowledge and expertise in many areas) she had a critical mass of talent in both music and the visual arts, such that she could have made a success of either. After some consideration, she opted for the latter. “I thought design would be easier. Little did I know…”
The Big Questions
What followed were six years as an independent artist. In that time she exhibited at prestigious galleries such as the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) in addition to a handful of private galleries. She also managed to secure several grants over the years, allowing her to continue exploring existential conundrums through her artworks.
Breath (pencil drawing on paper and aluminum)
One such work was “Breath,” a piece Maarit completed during a time when her grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “I wanted to do a big drawing. A very anatomical drawing that would also be some kind of a meditative process,” Maarit reflects. “I used my grandmother as a model when she had fallen ill and was dying. She didn't know who she was anymore, but she was still breathing and staring at the camera when I took the original photos. I´m not sure if she knew what was going on.” The result is a portrait that paradoxically expresses its thesis and its antithesis: Her grandmother represents both breath and breathlessness.
The Rhythms of an Artist
Though Maarit really enjoyed making art, a time came when she wanted a change. “I started feeling I wanted some more stability in my life.” The realization came to her in a studio she rented in the Kallio district of Helsinki, surrounded by yellow stone walls and spacious windows. The 150 square meters of space began to feel cavernous and lonely. “If you work as an artist, you constantly are working alone. What was beginning to eat away at me was not being able to collaborate.” Again she found herself at a polymath’s crossroads, this time having to choose between art and strengthening her design career — which she had been nurturing on a small scale parallel to her art. Ultimately she decided to leave the resin and paint-stained floors of her studio to make a committed go of design.
Maarit would spend two and a half years freelancing as a visual designer and illustrator then working for a company called Great Apes where she worked on UX, UI design and illustration. Importantly, she didn’t perceive this step as a compromise of her art. “I find it [UX design] very interesting. When you make art you have to withdraw into your own bubble, then wait for what happens. I got tired of not feeling useful.” She hastens to add: “I respect artists, but I personally wanted something else, I wanted to work on more tangible things and have a greater impact on people, through design.”
In late 2018 she began putting her design talents to work at DK&A. “What I enjoy is the collaborative spirit. I really love it. I’ve been super lucky because I have great colleagues and a community at work.”
Though design and her visual art have obvious similarities, she appreciates the change in mindset that design demands. “You have to understand the people you’re designing for, what are their goals, what kind of help do they need.” Whereas art is often about expressing one’s own thoughts or feelings, design is about losing oneself in aid of the user’s objectives. “I have a research mindset, I want to understand what people need, that’s what I enjoy.”
Given all the paths Maarit could have chosen, she has a remarkable sense of peace about the one she ended up selecting — and by extension, the ones she did not. “You have to choose because you can’t get good unless you choose,” she says. Though that choice has defined her path, each of the other paths continues to shimmer through in her life — a sentiment that is expressed powerfully in her work titled “Doors.”
The work explores the meaning of being and transitioning. “I guess I´ve been always interested in these kinds of topics. For instance, the question: ‘What does consciousness mean?’ fascinates me.” In a construction consisting of 50 pieces of 170 cm plexiglass plates, Maarit placed 50 different images of a human body (her own) in the positions of walking.
Perhaps unconsciously she has recalled her uncle’s photography. After all, her body is also seen here as a series of moments that amalgamate to tell a larger story. But instead of being surrounded by the clutter of life, as was the case with her uncle, she is suspended in a vacuum, almost like a celestial being. Both are transitioning in ways that emphasize their “aloneness” yet, comfortingly, it is that very aloneness that connects them.
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