What do you picture when you think of “Finnishness”? If you’re Finnish, you might imagine birch forests, sauna, and the Kalevala—cultural markers that are a vital part of Finnish life. And yet, many Finns are surprised to learn that not only have these markers of Finnishness found their way out of Suomi, but they’re still going strong. Descendants of Finnish immigrants in the United States use many of the same cultural markers to define the Finnish American identity, in both culture and art. Finlandia University’s Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series helps to illustrate what Finnishness in America means through its support of Finnish American artists.
Finlandia University is an American university that was founded in 1896 by Finnish immigrants. Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the part of the country that claims the highest concentration of Finnish Americans, Finlandia University was created as a means to help preserve Finnish culture in the United States. These days, the university carries on its original purpose in a number of ways that celebrate the heritage of Finnish Americans. One such way is the Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series, which showcases the work of successful Finnish American artists.
We spoke with Carrie Flaspohler, who has been Finlandia University’s Art Gallery Director for the past 13 years. The Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series, which reached its 25th anniversary in December, was initiated by former Finlandia University president Dr. Robert Ubbelohde and former Gallery Director Phyllis Fredendall, “as a way to celebrate and promote Finnish American culture, and as an opportunity to educate Finlandia students in the International School of Art & Design” Flaspohler says. “By bringing this caliber of artist to Finlandia University’s campus, our art students are afforded unparalleled access to professional artists, including individual critiques and mentoring with visiting artists.” Finnish artists who have taken part in the exhibit within the past few years include Mikko Kallio, Marco Casagrande, Ilkka Väätti, Anna Alapuro, Tatu Vuorio, Aino Kajaniemi and Riitta Ikonen.
In Finland, art has played an important role in defining and claiming the Finnish identity, particularly in opposition to Russification in the 19th and 20th centuries, when art and literature helped to shape a distinctly Finnish culture that contributed to the push for independence. During that time, many artists incorporated nationalistic and cultural symbols into their work, many of which are still strong symbols in contemporary Finnish art and Finnish culture as a whole.
Finnish art historian Tuula Karjalainen has written about the concept of kantakuvat, or cultural symbols, describing them as images that have communal value and are easily recognized by community members. The symbols help to unite a community through shared knowledge and experiences, defining cultural identity in the process.
For many Finnish-American artists, the use of cultural symbols are one way of honoring their heritage. “By exhibiting the work of Finnish American artists, we are honoring our roots, addressing our contemporary connections and seeking relevance in our broader world,” Flaspohler says. Just as in Finnish art, a close connection to nature and the Kalevala are common themes in Finnish American artwork. Finnishness, however, is only one aspect of the artists’ work. As Flaspohler says, “Finnish American artists have a unique voice that is both distinctive and universal. Their stories are revelatory of our common human experience.”
The Art Series benefits everyone involved. It helps Finlandia University accomplish its goal of preserving Finnishness, it gives artists an opportunity to both share and grow, and it unites Finnish Americans through their heritage. “Part of Finlandia University’s mission is to educate the whole learner— mind, body and heart. As Gallery Director, I have had the opportunity to advance this mission through the arts. For the past 13 years, I have witnessed in others and personally experienced tremendous enrichment and growth with each visit from our outstanding artists,” Flaspohler says.