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Koski-Holmes exhibit recalls artist's Finnish roots

During a reception for the 10th Annual Contemporary Finnish-American Artist Exhibit at Finlandia Universitys Finnish-American Heritage Center earlier this month, Minnesota artist Gladys Koski-Holmes discusses Finnish objects in the painting, Memory Threads, with Jim Kurtti, director of the Center and editor of the Finnish-American Reporter. Koski-Holmes paintings are on exhibit in the Center through Dec. 29.

HANCOCK Finnish-American artist Gladys Koski-Holmes paintings tell stories of life on the Minnesota Iron Range, her Finnish and Saami* heritage and her own and others survival. Her work is the subject of the 10th Annual Contemporary Finnish-American Artist Exhibit at Finlandia Universitys Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock through Dec. 29. Some Copper Country visitors to the Center say Koski-Holmes paintings speak to them because they share the same Finnish cultural background and a similar experience of growing up in a mining community.

"Its inspiring. It brings me back to my childhood," said Sharon (Karrio) Sibilsky, Finlandia associate professor of English, who is originally from Allouez. "I can relate to almost everything in the paintings and everything she says."

Sibilsky brought one of her English classes to a slide presentation Koski-Holmes gave of her work earlier this month when she was on campus for the Finnish Independence Day celebrations and a reception for her exhibit.

Addressing a group of Finlandia students, most of whom were students in the School of Art and Design, Koski-Holmes said, "Id like to encourage all of you to regard your work not only as a gift but as a responsibility (to yourself). Have the strength to risk and do your own thing."

Koski-Holmes painting Easel Dance suggests the woman artist needs to balance family responsibilities and the creative urge. Holmes said she enjoyed breaking the dishes to put the pieces into the frame.

In a painting titled "Easel Dance," a silhouette of the artist herself, surrounded by broken dishes, hints at the woman artists need to balance family responsibilities and the creative urge to "do her own thing." Koski-Holmes said she went back to school at age 41 and earned a masters degree in art from the University of Wisconsin, Superior, in 1989.

"There I am in my studio with everything Im supposed to be doing and trying to get at what Id like to be doing," she said of the painting.

Judy Puotinen, Suomi College (now Finlandia University) Art and Design graduate, who returned to school to study art after raising her family, said she could relate to that painting. She noted also that Koski-Holmes used real pieces of broken dishes in the frame.

"Its beautiful work. I think shes a great storyteller," Puotinen said of the exhibit. "Her frame becomes a part of the story as well."

Koski-Holmes said the original frames some carved with symbolic designs and some with objects imbedded in them are a rebellion against her past experience of working in a frame shop.

Objects in Iron Range Transition symbolize the economic instability that followed the closing of the Minnesota iron mines in the late 80s.

The painting "Iron Range Transition," held Puotinens attention because of the symbolism of canning jars in a birdcage and the pieces of broken glass in the frame. Puotinen interpreted the painting as a reference to the economic instability that followed the closing of the Minnesota iron mines in the late 80s.

"Its a way of telling the story of how what once was stable is now deteriorated," Puotinen said. "Then she turns around and does something entirely different mythological and symbolic."

Puotinen referred to a kind of "Stonehenge" arrangement of objects on a table in the painting, which also intrigued Toivola resident Vern Simula.

Noted Simula, "Its such a commonplace subject, but has such a deep and esoteric meaning to it."

Gladys Koski-Holmes and Vern Simula of Toivola discuss her Mandala: Bless the Family Lines during a reception for her exhibit in the Finnish-American Heritage Center following Finlandia Universitys celebration of Finlands Independence Day earlier this month.

Simula said another of his favorites in the exhibit was "Mandala: Bless the Family Lines," which he found "artistically superb" as well as profound in its human meaning.

Simula added he believed the Finnish-American senior citizens who attended the reception for the exhibit during Finlandias Finnish Independence Day celebration were able to relate in a personal way to Koski-Holmes paintings.

"This show had a lot of nostalgia for them," he said. "I think it really spoke to them. Many of these paintings are from the iron mining area of Minnesota, but there is a lot of commonality with the people of the Copper Country."

However, this artists appeal extends to the younger generation as well. Finlandia student Iloni Kotila of Ripley, who is majoring in ceramics in the School of Art and Design, said she enjoyed both the paintings and Koski-Holmes slide-lecture presentation of her work.

"I like it. Its obviously different from traditional art. It grows on me, especially hearing her talk about it. Her perspective intensifies my appreciation of it," Kotila said. "I just love all the frames, too."

Finlandia students Becky Beauchamp, right, of Houghton, and Iloni Kotila of Ripley note details in Koski-Holmes painting, Funeral Piece, in which the Finnish names on the tombstones are translated into English. The frame is decorated with names from actual funeral memorial cards.

Finlandia Art and Design student Becky Beauchamp of Houghton, who is studying visual communications and computer graphic design, said she liked all the paintings in the exhibit, but especially "Funeral Piece," in which the Finnish names on the tombstones are translated into English such as Island, Birch, Ditch, North, Lake, Field, Rapids. (Koski-Holmes noted many Finnish names identify something in the natural environment, including her own name Koski, which means Rapids.)

Said Beauchamp, "It doesnt look dark like a usual graveyard. I like her colors and her frames Ķ This one has death as a frame." She pointed out the actual funeral memorial cards the artist used in the frame.

In the painting, Reindeer Dreaming, the Aurora Borealis lights up the sky above Gladys Koski-Holmes family farm near Idington, Minn. She said the farm is about to be displaced by a highway expansion. Koski-Holmes used real pieces of reindeer antlers in the frame.

Finnish-born Hannu Leppanen, who works in Finlandias Information Technology department, also commented on the colors and the reminders of his native Finland.

"I liked especially the colors and the warm feeling, even if the subject was hard or painful," Leppanen said.

He noted in Koski-Holmes painting of Northern Lights above her familys farm, "Reindeer Dreaming," the buildings are arranged like the farm buildings of his relatives in Finland.

Koski-Holmes said the farm, located near Idington, in northeastern Minnesota, is soon to be displaced by a highway expansion. She and her husband, Arden Holmes, who is also of Finnish heritage, fear they will have to move back into the woods to escape the noise.

"We still live on a piece of the farm that belonged to my husband's parents in the same area where I was born, and after our five children were grown, we gave each a piece of the property," she said. "Four of them have homes on the land surrounding us so we often get to see seven of our eight grandchildren. Our only granddaughter moved to Georgia several months ago, or she would be here, too Ķ I have been to Finland three times and have located relatives there on all four sides of the family, which has been very exciting.  It was interesting to find that on my paternal grandmother's side there are two young women studying art in college right now." 

Gladys Koski-Holmes said her Finnish / Saami heritage emerges in various ways in her art, while the lives of her ancestors, relatives and neighbors reach out through her work.

"In-born traits reflect outwardly in the Finnish and Saami characteristics of persistence in pursuing whatever needs pursuing, and of a spiritual quest for the unknown that draws upon trees, rocks and water," she said. "The use of varied materials stems from an ethnic heritage reaching back through generations that feeds an inner drive to make something out of little or nothing and make it as good as possible, no matter how painstaking or time-consuming." 

In this symbolic self-portrait, Take Care of the Fish, Koski-Holmes relates her thyroid cancer -- possibly caused by toxic exposure -- to environmental concerns. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ at her throat and the golden broom a sign of cleansing.

The "trees, rocks and water" Koski-Holmes mentions form the background of her self-portrait, "Take Care of the Fish," representing her own bout with thyroid cancer. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ at her throat and the golden broom a sign of cleansing. Koski-Holmes said she did the painting for an environmental program called "Keepers of the Waters."

"(Doctors) told me the cancer had to do with something toxic in my environment," she said, explaining it might have been caused by exposure to post-World War II atomic testing while living in California.

Sensitive also to the pain of others, Koski-Holmes has created Mandalas specifically for people suffering from some sort of pain, whether psychological or physical.

"This is a very meditative form of art," she said. "You do go into a meditative state when youre doing it. You never know where its going to go."

The strength to rise above pain and a harsh existence seems to be a message in "A Place Called Idington" her painting of a neighbor, Ina Musakka, whose husband was dragged to death by horses when their children were very young. Ina raised the children herself; but later her house was torched by vandals, as portrayed in the dramatic inferno of the other half of the painting.

"That was a very sad day for people on the Iron Range," Koski-Holmes said.

This detail of the humorous painting, Sedge Grass Socks reflects a mixture of the old and the new in Saami culture. Traditionally, Saami use sedge grass to line their shoes for warmth.

On the brighter side, Koski-Holmes occasionally portrays a happier subject, or even a humorous one, as in "Sedge Grass Socks," which, she noted, portrays Saami characters "trying to fit the new ways in with the old and the old ways into the new." Sedge grass is traditionally tucked into a boot, fitting to the shape of the foot for warmth and providing a natural deodorant. Whether it works with modern, high-heeled womens shoes is another story.

Phyllis Fredendall, Heritage Center gallery director and a member of Finlandias School of Art and Design faculty, said Koski-Holmes was a logical choice for the Contemporary Finnish-American Artist exhibit.

"She is a well respected artist in the Finnish-American community," Fredendall said. "Her work really speaks to her Finnish, and particularly her Saami, roots."

Fredendall said the annual exhibit began in 1991 with the paintings and drawings of Tarmo Watia, originally from Hancock and now a resident of Idaho. Between the Watia exhibit and Koski-Holmes paintings, the eight other exhibits each featured the work of a different Finnish-American artist: Finlandia faculty member Joyce Koskenmakis paintings, drawings and quilts; Washington, D.C. artist Kathleen Oettingers interpretations of the Kalevala in woodcuts; sculpture by Linda Helander of Duluth; Calumet artist Peter Kittis painting and sculpture; paintings by Gerald Immonen, formerly of Hancock, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence; paintings by Elsa Bekkala, formerly of Calumet and now of New York City; painting and assemblage of Marlene Ekola Gerberick, originally of Crystal Falls and now living in Bath, Maine; and renowned Montana artist Rudy Autios computer drawings. Fredendall noted "a common thread" in all ten exhibits.

"It is clear that theres something Finnish in each of the artists works a connection to nature, animals, keen observation and documentation of daily life," she said.

Lorraine Uitto Richards, archivist at the Center, who said she has been working in the building since it opened, said she remembers all these exhibits. In Koski-Holmes work, she observed, "everything is well done." Richards said she especially appreciated the details in the paintings and in the special frames.

Visitors can still view the exhibit during the regular weekday hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and during special evening or weekend events.

*The Saami (spelled also Sami or Saame), sometimes called "Lapp" people, are the indigenous inhabitants of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula. The Saami speak nine versions of a Finno-Ugric language.

Click here for more photos of the Koski-Holmes exhibit.

-Michele Anderson
December 20, 2000