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Tommi Toija

Visiting Tommi Toija in his airy studio in the legendary Laukka artist's residence in Töölö is a pleasure every time. Tommi is welcoming, calm and has a great sense of humour. The space itself is like a treasure cove filled with expressive big and small figures, many tools and beautiful books.

Tommi Toija's studio, Lallukka, Helsinki

What has been your path to doing what you do?

I have always been interested in everything visual and in making things with my hands. After high school I studied in Vapaa Taidekoulu and in Taidekoulu Maa, whereafter I got into the University of Art and Design to study interior architecture and furniture design. There, I found the scope of the reality of being a designer to be too restrictive, which took me back to getting my master's degree at the Academy of Fine Art's Sculpture Department. But, I could have ended up being an artisan working as a carpenter or a blacksmith because I like to work with my hands. This is also how I approach what I do; I like to do create things with my hands. Finding my place has been about coincidence and getting the right feedback, at the right time. For instance, if the first "Pikku Pelkuri" piece would not have gotten such a good response at the Mäntän Kuvataideviikot, things might look different now. The funny thing is, I wasn't intending on showing the small "Pikku Pelkuri" work - I made it right before the exhibition - but when we were hanging the work, it just worked in the space and it resonated with the audience as well.

Have you always worked with clay?

Since school, clay has felt like a natural material for me: It feels right in my hand — easy and simple. I like the texture of clay, and I like that it doesn't require any additional casts when working with it, as opposed to bronze for instance. I need to see quite quickly what kind of form my work takes. If the work process demands too many steps, and therefore a long time, I start questioning the outcome and the point of what I am doing. So, for me it is essential that I can see the work forming in my hands. Obviously, I also like the historic aspect of clay; that it is one of the first materials that has been used by humans to create with. I work primarily with a few different kinds of clay. Sometimes I try to be adventurous and buy something different, but I always end up going back to my usual kind, because I know what is possible to make out of it and how the structure of the material behaves.

Tommi Toija's studio, Lallukka, Helsinki

You worked as an assistant for Kain Tapper in the early years of your career. What did you learn from the experience?

At the end of the day, the almost three years I worked for Tapper were the best school I could wish for. Not that I actually learned technical stuff from him, however, getting to see his way of working and his attitude to making art was eye opening. Tapper was an all-encompassing person, you could not separate him from his art, so to get to spend time with that kind of presence and knowledge was very important for me at that time. I learned about Helsinki of the 50s and 60s that he was part of. It was a very concrete window into the Finnish art history of that time: to get to hear about discussions with Wäinö Aaltonen and dinners at Elite with people from all areas of culture in the same long table — the normal way of life then. He worked as the assistant for Aimo Tukiainen, working on the Mannerheim statue. Also, what made our interaction easy, I feel, is that both of us have the same view of what art is: that it about a feeling inside, and not about theory and rationalising of what a work is about. Of course, I also learned a lot about making by observing how Tapper worked. He was very immediate with his approach to doing; he did not overthink things. Naturally, it gave me a stability to create my own work too, and a rhythm to the week; it was nice to get to spend time with someone and not be left alone in one's studio at a time when I was just out of school and trying to find my way.

How did you start making your figures? Where you already doing them in school?

No, I used my school years to examine and try out different materials. I did not have the urge to create my own style in school, rather, I studied mostly figure drawing and sculpting. We had great teachers for learning to draw and sculpt the human figure. I feel that that gave a great foundation to build upon. Later, I found the human figure by playing around with scale: I was interested in finding out if you can command a big space with a small figure; playing around with the idea that you don't necessarily have to fill out a big space with a lot of mass. Instead you can work with something smaller that can have an equally strong effect. This idea of playing around with space and scale has always interested me, as does existential questions.

Tommi Toija's studio, Lallukka, Helsinki

What does your work process look like?

It is messy and unorganised, or so it might seem from the outside. I have many pieces going on at the same time, and I go back and forth between them. Sometimes, I would hope that I would work more systematically and that I would be able to not leave everything to the last minute. People ask me if it wouldn't be easier to work with one piece at the time, as in making sure that one has something ready, but for some reason, I can't work that way. I like to leave things open and see how the work evolves; kind of let things happen and give the work a chance to become something — waiting for the magic dust to land on the piece (laughs). Although, I know that the piece is ready, but saying that something is ready is difficult — trusting that it is enough. This has to do with the uncertainty of the profession in itself; the uncertainty of creating something that will be appreciated. So, I have learned to tolerate the chaos, which at the end of the day still is a managed chaos, and I have learned to cut myself some slack. In order to be able to manage the uncertainty of this profession, I try not to take things so seriously — sometimes I succeed better at this, sometimes less so. (laughs)

Tommi Toija was part of Marcy's Sensual Closeness exhibition

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