Kaija Savinainen —A Brush with a Gifted Environmental Activist - theHumm February 2021
Kaija Savinainen —A Brush with a Gifted Environmental Activist - theHumm February 2021
By Sally Hansen
Art… and Soul
When theHumm first featured oil painter Kaija Savinainen Mountain (her married name) in 2007, she responded to my inevitable question as to why she created her art with this statement: “I have a terrible need to create. It chases me.” She has continued her race to the top of her creative powers, but she has raised the bar on her ambitions. Today her answer is: “Nature needs our respect and care more than ever these days, and I challenge us all to be mindful of this through my art.”
Savinainen’s powerful and glorious oil landscapes do that and more. They are a testament to her Finnish sisu — a concept she defines as a Finlander’s inner strength, tenacity and determination, something they rely on during times of difficulty. Kaija is Finnish at her roots and in her heart. She is determined to capture the essence — the basic, singular, and invariable nature — of each scene she paints.
Nature is her chosen subject, and she pursues its essence in each painting with her whole being. She has taught herself to look — how to see the soul of the scene before her. It bewilders her when she walks or runs or skis with others and her companions seem oblivious to the wonders that mesmerize her — the fantastic winter light, the colours in the snow, the stunning composition of the drooping sunflowers against the darkening sky… Savinainen has a special and carefully cultivated talent for portraying the essential being of her subjects, breathing life into what is usually perceived as inanimate.
In her blog she writes: “Less is more — had I forgotten that? No need to look for the grandeur and beauty when the small and insignificant is right under your nose. Yes, a good lesson in humbleness. Lesson learned that I had put into practice from my years of observing and painting horses. I paint the broken down, the aged, the ones who do not have perfect conformation. Artists such as Kathe Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Emily Carr to name a few, paint beyond the ‘surfaceness’ of a subject. They delve deeper to find its essence, the truth of what is. And so I painted these courageous little sunflowers.” Savinainen’s stunning paintings of this familiar subject showcase her ability to elevate the commonplace to the extraordinary.
Kaija paints in her studio at their country home at the edge of Almonte, where she lives with her supportive husband Jim, a variety of barnyard species, pets, and wildlife. Her ever-expanding gardens attract orioles, hummingbirds, butterflies and a constant stream of other grateful guests. Her love of horses is immediately apparent in her paintings. On her website at kaijasavinainen.com she writes: “…horses have been with me all my life. Caring for them and understanding their personalities has inspired my work no matter what the subject is.”
She tunes out the world with a background of classical music that stirs her emotions and focuses her attention. She frequently starts a painting by rendering a fast, spontaneous, intense sketch. She no longer uses black paint, preferring to create her own blacks, and recently began applying a reddish-orange gesso to her canvases before drawing in her basic shapes. Often her paintings are large.
Even her florals, celebrating her own lovingly tended plants that she describes as her “living palette,” can be four feet tall. To deliver the intensity of colour and the durability that her aesthetic and ethical standards dictate, she uses top-of-the-line oil paints. For years she forced herself to paint with her left hand to slow herself down and tap into the instinctive, subconscious, non-rational energies that supposedly emanate from the right brain.
Savinainen’s Finnish (Karelian) descent is central to her sense of herself and her art. Her grandfather had to flee to Sweden with his family just after WW2. He was wanted by Stalin for his resistance and espionage for Finland when Russia tried to take over this small resilient country. Her family moved to Canada when she was twelve years old, and she spent her adolescent years as a new immigrant in Thunder Bay. Art became her specialty and mainstay as she adapted to her new environment — so much so that she garnered the President’s Gold Medal as top student when she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Lethbridge. After her move to the Ottawa Valley in the late 1980s, she completed a B.Ed. at the University of Ottawa and has taught art and art history to students of all ages.
She credits a life marked by geographic displacement as the origin of her strong connectedness to nature. “Being uprooted, I so very much value what surrounds me. From these feelings, I am driven to make art that reflects the layers of nature, and the spirit of the places I am immersed into.” In 2016 Kaija visited her daughter Lara in Yellowknife and participated in the 50K Frostbite Ski Race, racing the last half on her own. The experience stays with her and illuminates her mesmerizing winter scenes. She spoke to me of the northern light, the crispness of the air, the connection to Finland: “bloody cold, but nobody complains because of the raw, intense beauty.”
In 2017 a trip back to Finland with Lara revitalized her connection to her roots. Savinainen is a founding member of the Valley’s prestigious The Ten Collective, and on her blog of Dec. 29, 2019, at thetencollective.com , she introduces the body of Finnish art that so influenced Canada’s revered Group of Seven artists. She writes: “The winter landscapes from the turn of the last century painted by Eero Järnefelt moved me deeply. The colours, shapes, forms describing a rugged land was another revelation.” Other paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kalella and Pekka Halonen leave no doubt that Canadian landscape art owes a debt to their Nordic sensibilities. Somehow Kaija manages to both honour and extend these rich artistic inheritances with her energetic, exuberant interpretations of our Canadian Nature.
Like the eponymous activist in The Lorax (Dr. Seuss’s favourite among his 60+ books), Savinainen speaks for the environment. Her recent reconnections with ancestral origins in Sweden and Finland, and visits to previous lives in Lake Superior country and the Northwest Territories, have “reinforced my drive to show nature’s vulnerability, her beauty, her complexities and subtleties through my paintings.” She succeeds admirably in adding her powerful artistic voice to the Lorax’s plea: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
By Sally Hansen
Art… and Soul
When theHumm first featured oil painter Kaija Savinainen Mountain (her married name) in 2007, she responded to my inevitable question as to why she created her art with this statement: “I have a terrible need to create. It chases me.” She has continued her race to the top of her creative powers, but she has raised the bar on her ambitions. Today her answer is: “Nature needs our respect and care more than ever these days, and I challenge us all to be mindful of......
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