exhibit recalls artist's Finnish roots
HANCOCK ĺ─ý Finnish-American artist Gladys Koski-Holmesĺ─˘
paintings tell stories of life on the Minnesota Iron
Range, her Finnish and Saami* heritage and her own
and othersĺ─˘ survival. Her work is the subject of
the 10th Annual Contemporary Finnish-American Artist Exhibit at Finlandia
Universityĺ─˘s Finnish American Heritage Center in
Hancock through Dec. 29. Some Copper Country
visitors to the Center say Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ paintings
speak to them because they share the same Finnish
cultural background and a similar experience of
growing up in a mining community.
During a reception for the 10th Annual Contemporary Finnish-American Artist Exhibit at Finlandia Universityĺ─˘s Finnish-American Heritage Center earlier this month, Minnesota artist Gladys Koski-Holmes discusses Finnish objects in the painting, ĺ─˙Memory Threads,ĺ─¨ with Jim Kurtti, director of the Center and editor of the
Finnish-American Reporter. Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ paintings are on exhibit in the Center through Dec. 29.
"Itĺ─˘s 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
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, "Iĺ─˘d 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."
In a painting titled "Easel Dance," a
silhouette of the artist herself, surrounded by
broken dishes, hints at the woman artistĺ─˘s 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.
Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ painting ĺ─˙Easel Danceĺ─¨ 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.
"There I am in my studio with everything Iĺ─˘m
supposed to be doing and trying to get at what Iĺ─˘d
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.
"Itĺ─˘s beautiful work. I think sheĺ─˘s a
great storyteller," Puotinen said of the
exhibit. "Her frame becomes a part of the story
Koski-Holmes said the original frames ĺ─ý some
carved with symbolic designs and some with objects
imbedded in them ĺ─ý are a rebellion against her
past experience of working in a frame shop.
The painting "Iron Range Transition,"
held Puotinenĺ─˘s 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.
Objects in ĺ─˙Iron Range Transitionĺ─¨ symbolize the economic instability that followed the closing of the Minnesota iron mines in the late 80s.
"Itĺ─˘s 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 ĺ─ý mythological and
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, "Itĺ─˘s such a commonplace
subject, but has such a deep and esoteric meaning to
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
Gladys Koski-Holmes and Vern Simula of Toivola discuss her ĺ─˙Mandala: Bless the Family Linesĺ─¨ during a reception for her exhibit in the Finnish-American Heritage Center following Finlandia Universityĺ─˘s celebration of Finlandĺ─˘s Independence Day earlier this month.
Simula added he believed the Finnish-American
senior citizens who attended the reception for the
exhibit during Finlandiaĺ─˘s Finnish Independence
Day celebration were able to relate in a personal
way to Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ 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
However, this artistĺ─˘s 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-Holmesĺ─˘ slide-lecture
presentation of her work.
"I like it. Itĺ─˘s 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 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
ĺ─ý 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 ĺ─ý Koski, which means
Finlandia students Becky Beauchamp, right, of Houghton, and Iloni Kotila of Ripley note details in Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ painting,
ĺ─˙Funeral Piece,ĺ─¨ in which the Finnish names on the tombstones are translated into English. The frame is decorated with names from actual funeral memorial cards.
Said Beauchamp, "It doesnĺ─˘t look dark like
a usual graveyard. I like her colors and her frames
ĺ─Â This one has death as a frame." She pointed
out the actual funeral memorial cards the artist
used in the frame.
Finnish-born Hannu Leppanen, who works in
Finlandiaĺ─˘s Information Technology department,
also commented on the colors and the reminders of
his native Finland.
In the painting, ĺ─˙Reindeer Dreaming,ĺ─¨ the Aurora Borealis lights up the sky above Gladys Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ 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.
"I liked especially the colors and the warm
feeling, even if the subject was hard or
painful," Leppanen said.
He noted in Koski-Holmesĺ─˘ painting of Northern
Lights above her familyĺ─˘s 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
"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 ĺ─Â 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.
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 ĺ─ý and
make it as good as possible, no matter how
painstaking or time-consuming."
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."
In this symbolic self-portrait, ĺ─˙Take Care of the Fish,ĺ─¨ 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.
"(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
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 youĺ─˘re doing it. You never
know where itĺ─˘s going to go."
The strength to rise above pain and a harsh
existence seems to be a message in "A Place
Called Idington" ĺ─ý 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.
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 womenĺ─˘s shoes is
This detail of the humorous painting, ĺ─˙Sedge Grass Socksĺ─¨ reflects a mixture of the old and the new in Saami culture. Traditionally, Saami use sedge grass to line their shoes for warmth.
Phyllis Fredendall, Heritage Center gallery
director and a member of Finlandiaĺ─˘s School of Art
and Design faculty, said Koski-Holmes was a logical
choice for the Contemporary Finnish-American Artist
"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-Holmesĺ─˘
paintings, the eight other exhibits each featured
the work of a different Finnish-American artist:
Finlandia faculty member Joyce Koskenmakiĺ─˘s
paintings, drawings and quilts; Washington, D.C.
artist Kathleen Oettingerĺ─˘s interpretations of the
Kalevala in woodcuts; sculpture by Linda
Helander of Duluth; Calumet artist Peter Kittiĺ─˘s
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 Autioĺ─˘s computer drawings. Fredendall noted
"a common thread" in all ten exhibits.
"It is clear that thereĺ─˘s something
Finnish in each of the artistsĺ─˘ works ĺ─ý 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-Holmesĺ─˘ work, she observed, "everything
is well done." Richards said she especially
appreciated the details in the paintings and in the
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
December 20, 2000