How would you describe yourself as a creator?
There is a word in Finnish “vimmainen”, that is probably quite accurate. It means something that is a combination of driven, obsessed or possessed, visceral maybe, impulsive and somewhat high energy or manic. Not necessarily in a bad way. I’m liberated and compulsive in a manner that there is no way around the need to create or creating, and I always pretty much need to do exactly what I do, exactly how I do it.
Penni Vasama, Sonar, 2019, mixed medium (acrylic, gouache, pastel, oil pastel, oil stick, ink, pencil) on paper, 74,5 x 54,5 cm
How do you tune in to your creative channel and get ideas for your work?
Painting is a realm dedicated to freedom and fun for me. Unless I have fallen into severe self doubt or ideas of painting being a means to an end etc, I don’t need to do anything. The channel and the ideas are there like a dog begging for treats, or like a pressure hose just waiting to be opened. Theres just too much inspiration, so painting is a form of release more than something I have to gather ideas or creativity for. Thats why I do it, and I have to let it happen to remain happy or sane.
What does your working process look like?
I often walk to my studio so full of need and wish to paint, that I get in, change in haste (sometimes I forget to change) and go directly to work. I grab whatever material, canvas or paper - fix it, and let my hands grasp whatever color or medium I need to use at that point and I go for it. I listen to music a lot while I paint, so that is something I match to suit my mood, either to support it, or to direct it somewhere else. I have ideas, feelings or concepts, demonic visions, sometimes life events, longings for loved ones etc, that I go to the studio to explore. I allow myself to handle any theme or topic, feeling or mood, in which ever way I want. This applies also throughout the process. Which is the tricky bit. Working on a piece is very much a dialogue of layers, based on different, sometimes contrasting and evolving sentiments, whims and feelings.
Between layers and sessions, I just sit and look. I tidy up the mess I have created, or have a coffee by river Seine or canal Saint-Martin. I feel what the forms and textures I have created invigorate. Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes months, but eventually I have something, that I go back to the painting for and the impulsive actions start again. This goes on until at some point I just see that it is there: both the meaning of what I set out to discuss or explore, and the visual dynamics of a painting that feels true and expressive for me. These elements constitute a finished piece.
Where do you work and what kind of a place is it to you?
I have lived and worked in Paris for two years now. I have been lucky to have a series of incredible studios, in Saint-Denis and now lately in an international artist residency Cité Internationale Des Arts, which is located by the river Seine in the Marais district. My studio, wherever it is, is a kingdom of absolute freedom for me. It is a sacred and essential aspect of my life that feels as important as lungs or stomach for a body, in my everyday existence.
What have been important steps and happenings in your life and artistic path so far?
I actually see everything in my life as that, especially anything that has remotely anything to do with painting. From buying a certain color pastel to having been selected for the artist residencies, it all seems to me as almost equal steps or points that hold everything together. But of course people who support my work, invite me to exhibit like you have, who buy my work, come to my studio and lend a hand etc, who believe that what I do is worthwhile - all of it is incredibly important. I would still paint without it, but it would be a very different thing without the people who make it real. By real I might mean, give it validation, but more importantly all of you, you receive what I express. And since there is an element of communication in art, my work would be lacking that crucial element that gives it life - back and forth, if it was just me alone in the dark. My work is something very very different, because I have been so lucky as to have this sense of what I do having meaning for others, outside of my own nervous system or studio walls.
Penni Vasama, Isä, 2019, mixed medium (acrylic, gouace, aquarelle, pastel) on paper, 110 x 74,5 cm, photo copyright Heli Sorjonen
Do you have any specific people or artists who have influenced your way of doing and seeing things in life and in your artistry? I have many. There are painters but also movie makers, writers and musicians, who all have influenced my art significantly. My big sister Veera Vallittu is very high level in her skills in drawing and painting. So when I was little, I thought that mastery is what painting and drawing is all about, and strived to that myself. Yet I started painting cubist-inspired portraits and still lives at some point, when I was around 10 or 11. I must have encountered Picasso through books in the house or posters I’d seen somewhere, and his work fascinated me enormously. You could follow this transition from realistic (realistic enough) painting to deconstructed images. That leap - from I guess some kind of analytical, logical form of communication, to more abstract, sensual stuff is what has - well, possessed me, in arts generally.
I grew up listening to old heavy metal and punk, then more alternative, jazzy stuff or electro, and I think I have always been looking for this leap from direct manipulation, literal lyrics or storylines, to something where what is being communicated is not, or could could not be communicated in any other form than that piece, or performance of music or art. When what I pick up exceeds the sum total of calculated words or descriptions, I feel like there is something magical happening.
In painting I am moved by a lot of the abstract expressionists, Pollock, Cy Twombly, Klein. In a different way - I am not sure if he is as expressive or as sincere really as Pollock or Twombly, but whose work paralyses me with its magnificence is Willem de Kooning. I also really appreciate Joan Mitchell, her systemic brushstrokes and uneventful seeming subjects that the expression creeps through in an unavoidable way, through her palette, texture and scope of the work. Howard Hodgkins work is marvellous. It is impressive how the strong and beautiful brush strokes feel like they need to be exactly as they are, while they are at the same to me so fantastic and abstract. A more recent painter, Joe Bradley’s paintings inspire me in their seeming sarcastic carelessness and ease, while I find them very strong, sensitive and communicative. Of Finnish artists someone who has had a great impact on me, already since I was little has been Marjatta Tapiola. I think she is my first and biggest idol actually, in painting, to this day.
What would you do if you wouldn't make art?
That’s a tough question. I have worked on film in many different roles and I have a degree in, and a deep passion for philosophy and I also write. Yet I don’t think there’s been much choice for me but arts in a more general sense. I have tried to sway myself to other directions, but it doesn't work, and painting is something I just need to do. I was sick for many years and physically so weak I could not really paint. It was very difficult, yet I think the bottled up need eventually gave me blind courage. When I got better, I made the leap and cut ties with everything else, and moved to Paris where I had no other choice but to focus solely on my visual art. It is so scary that without that drive, I might have not been able to commit the way I am committed to it all now. I am very, very happy I have. I don’t really want to think of the alternatives
What do you dream about right now?
I dream of a really big studio complex, where I would have limitless space to make huge - really huge pieces and use a broader variety of mediums. I wish there would be other people in the same building, so we could also work together. I would not mind doing some stuff also in an art factory kind of way, to support other people in their creation and to be able to just make more and more different forms of art, to materialise more and more ideas. I dream of huge collaborative exhibitions, where I am also a part of the curating team. I hope to see that non-male artist could contribute to the equality between genders, by finding ways to focus on doing, showing and making things happen. To just do it and dig a way out of the margins, where they don’t belong.
What other projects / exhibitions are you working on right now?
At the moment I am in residency at Cité Internationale Des Arts Paris. My residency program includes me working on portraiture right now. That is something I have been doing before, but I am interested in focusing on that a little bit more. I might go back to doing croquis sessions and live model drawing, even though I have a feeling the pieces will still become quite abstract.
I am working to get a lot of my bigger pieces exhibited, hopefully in Paris but also in Helsinki, but theres nothing sure right now. Corona made things complicated. I have a lot of different ideas for projects or themes for exhibitions. Yet my work remains essentially the same - it is so much in the moment. It is just I and the world that maybe changes and that always shows in the pieces I make. There are many different layers of truths and themes in my work, so a collection can be formed by looking at the work from many different perspectives.
Penni Vasama was part of Marcy's Unraveling exhibition in 2020.