Red Hot Machines in cool Helsinki: an interview with artist James Iles

Red Hot Machines by artist James Iles

When Welsh artist and illustrator James Iles was little, his teachers were worried about him drawing too many monsters. Even back then, he wanted to draw for a living. Today, based in Helsinki, Finland, he’s worked as a storyboard artist for British TV series like Sherlock and Doctor Who, and he has paintings in private and public collections in the UK, Finland, USA, France and Spain. Iles’s latest exhibition, Red Hot Machines at Helsinki’s Konst Gallery features a robot called Mister Tinny struggling through an industrial landscape. We had a talk with him about his art, his first children’s book and, last but not least, Finland.

Industry meets nature

Portrait of James Iles, the artist behind Red Hot MachinesOriginally from Swansea in south Wales, James Iles was brought to Finland by the usual reason: his Finnish wife.

“I speak to foreign guys and they all have the same reason,” he laughs. Since first visiting in 2008, he’s now spent about half of the last eight years in Helsinki.

“I think Helsinki’s a beautiful city. I think it has the right balance of things to do, whilst it also seems so quiet compared to cities in the UK. I don’t think you lose your quality of life in Helsinki like you lose in some other cities, with things like commuting and dense population. I like that in Helsinki.”

While Iles is fascinated with Finnish nature and its seasons, which change so much more dramatically than in the UK, the industrial landscapes of Swansea are still his biggest inspiration.

“If I’m painting landscapes, they seem to focus on industrial areas. I grew up at the edge of this huge steelworks… it’s the size of a town, over a mile. When it’s lit up at night and there’s flames and smoke coming out of the towers, it really is quite an amazing landscape. There’s actually rumours that films like Bladerunner and Brazil were inspired by it.”

Space for the imagination

While in Wales it was dangerous and forbidden to access the steelworks, in Helsinki you can walk right amongst the machinery. That makes Iles a very happy man.

“It’s why I love this city. Places like Hietalahti are fantastic, because you can get to industrial areas that in Wales would be for employees only. It gives your imagination more to work with.”

Last year, while working on a film project, Iles finally got to access some restricted areas of the Swansea steelworks, too. His exhibition at the Konst Gallery is based on this experience.

“I took a lot of photos and used them for sketches for the 18 original illustrations in the exhibition. These illustrations also served as developmental designs for my children’s book, for which I’m currently looking for a publisher. As they’re based on a real industrial area, the bridge in them, for example, is an actual bridge.”


From Steeltown to the sea

Besides the original illustrations, the exhibition features the first 10 pages of Iles’s children’s book, Mister Tinny and the Red Hot Machines. The book, a story of friendship and overcoming your fear, takes Mister Tinny the robot on a journey through a rundown city to rescue a friend.

“Mister Tinny, he lives underneath this old rusty bridge on the edge of Tintown. He likes it there because it’s safe, but he’s lonely. One night Brian, a little goldfish in a bowl, falls out of the train that crosses the bridge every night. To get his new friend Brian back to the sea, Mr. Tinny has to go through Steeltown, a place that he finds terribly scary.”

Though Iles has no children himself, he wanted to write the book for his friends’ children, as well as to take on the challenge of simplifying things.

“That’s what I try to do with my work anyway – simplify it to the essential forms and shapes and create an image that’s pleasing to the eye but also abstract enough for people to draw their own conclusions. I hope that allows everyone to see something a little bit different.”

The toilet with a view

Besides the Hietalahti docks, a place that inspires Iles in Helsinki is the rooftop toilet of Hotel Torni’s Ateljee Bar.

“It’s really popular with people in the UK. I can never seem to get people interested in it in Finland, but when people come to visit me, that bar is one the first places I take them. You can see pretty much the whole city from the toilet, and you can point out everything people should do when you’re up there on the terrace. You also get a clear idea of how small Helsinki is… it’s pretty cool how you can walk from one end of the city to the other in just 20 minutes. That’s another thing I like about Helsinki, you don’t have to really drive too much.”

The Helsinki art scene gets the thumbs up from Iles, too.

“I think it’s really thriving. A lot of the galleries seem to organise events on the same night. So you find out about an exhibition you want to go to, and then you find out that there are five more openings, and you end up seeing a lot of art in one night. I recently discovered the Kerava Art Museum as well, and that was brilliant. So there’s also some great stuff to discover when you venture outside Helsinki.”

James Iles Finnish art facts:

Favourite Finnish artists: Marjatta Tapiola and Matti Kujasalo
Favourite Helsinki art museum: Galerie Forsblom
Current exhibition: Red Hot Machines at Konst Gallery, Uudenmaankatu 7, until May 21st.

Red Hot Machines

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