Empowering Ceramics Asa Hellman, a Nordic Colourist
Isohauta, Teija, Ceramics Art & Perception
EXPRESSIONISM WITHOUT DOUBT--A STRONG PRESENCE--abundance without superfluous gestures and at the same time incorporating elements from art history.
These are the first impressions of my visit to Asa Hellman's exhibition in the Salo art museum in late 2011. A similar feeling was conveyed during our meeting at her garden studio in Porvoo, where she has worked since 1993. Porvoo is a picturesque medieval town on the southern coast of Finland.
Asa Hellman's book Ceramic Art in Finland, 2004 is a salient reference work on Finnish ceramists. She is a member of the Helsinki Fat Clay group and an active participant in the Association of Finnish Designers Ornamo.
Hellman's parents, both artists, have had a significant bearing on her activities: "All through my childhood summers I was dragged into museums. I was barely three when we camped in Spain for the first time. The Louvre, the Prado and the Uffizi all gradually became familiar. Our family spent most summers in the Mediterranean region. It was boring for me as a teenager to spend hours in museums but now I love them and visit them whenever possible."
All this had bearance on selecting a profession, but initially inversely. Hellman began her art studies by reading archaeology as well as art history at the Helsinki University. Simultaneously she attended evening classes at the University of Art and Design. Her plastic arts teacher, sculptor Heikki Haivaoja, known in Finland for his many public statues and medals, recognised Hellman's ability and encouraged her to apply for a place at the department of ceramics.
"Being such a free spirit, I sometimes found conforming to the department of ceramics difficult. During the second year, three of us set up a workshop in a basement in Helsinki and this competed with our studies.
In the workshop one could quietly practice throwing on an old kick wheel--the clay was totally absorbing. We were there all the time, we even slept there attending our kilns, using cheap night electricity rates."
In the 1970s, applied arts and ceramics were both powerfully on the ascent in Finland. "It was trendy to use rough clay bodies with added grog. Everything thrown, brown and rustic, sold as hotcakes. The style was so different from that of the Arabia factory-made products that it seemed to people like coming from a different world. At that time private sales of ceramics were unusual. A sale at the studio drew lines of customers and everything sold."
The education at the University of Art and Design was quite different from studying at the Royal College of Art in London, which Hellman, with the intention of broadening her prowess, entered in 1978 with a grant from the British Council. "The Royal College of Art laboratories offered every possible type of technology; industrially produced colour stains and small test kilns, gas kilns and so forth. My teacher in Finland, internationally celebrated ceramist Kyllikki Salmenhaara (1915-1981), had emphasised that all colour pigments had to be made by hand using traditional methods, only metal oxides were allowed. When I later returned and began to create brightly coloured ceramics; pink, lilac and orange, I felt that all doors stood open for me."
Between 1973 and 1993 Hellman was part of the Pot Viapori group on Suomenlinna, an island with historical significance close to Helsinki. There she also produced functional ware and frequently participated in exhibitions in Finland and abroad. At the same time she wrote art reviews for Hufvudstadsbladet, the Swedish language daily in Helsinki but, increasingly, she devoted her time to her own art.
Hellman's early exhibitions already imbued Finnish ceramics with an exotic addition. Her debut took place in 1973 in the lower level of Taidesalonki (a well-known Helsinki exhibition venue) showing abstract sculptures. …