His family has lived on the same farm for longer than can be traced back by church records. And those go all the way to early 1400. But as the youngest child and one gifted academically, he was not in the least expected to be a farmer. This all changed, however, when his father died prematurely and his siblings had already left. So while he studied Economics, he looked after the farm with the help of his mother. But his love for art never waned and after obtaining his degree, he started afresh. For the next four years, he woke up at 5 am, milked the cows and took the train to Helsinki (160 km away) to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. In the evenings, he was back to milking the cows again. Today, Osmo Rauhala is one of Finland’s most accomplished artists, with over 50 individual exhibitions worldwide of which 15 have been in museums. I meet him on the farm where it all began, to discuss sheep (250 are grazing outside as we speak), art, philosophy and agriculture over a delicious organic lunch prepared by his wife, Minttu.
How did you decide to become a painter? Was farming something that helped or made it harder?
I loved painting when I was a child. My father was good with his hands and made a lot of the furniture you see here. My parents always encouraged me to draw. When I was 14, my sister entered my drawings in a local competition for those under 18. I won the local and the county competitions, which took me to a national competition where I earned a prize. But because I was good at school – I was the first boy to enter university in the village – I was expected to become an academic. As soon as I finished my Economics degree, I knew I wanted to paint. I resolved I would do it for the rest of my life.
I decided to become a farmer in fact after I decided I would be an artist. This was a small dairy farm – originally only 12 hectares – and in today’s world that would not have been very sustainable, which pushed my older brother and sister to pursue other occupations. But the family did not want to sell the farm after my mother retired and there was no one else willing to take it.
Of course, it was hard. Farming is not as romantic as people think; you smell of diesel fuel and it’s dusty. But in many ways the farm was my savior. It helped me when I went to study art in Helsinki. I learnt to appreciate my art education. Those years I slept very little. Commuting and milking the cows took a fair amount of time away from sleep every day. But I was always the first in the Academy, ready to paint between 10 am and 7 pm.
Later, when I went to study in the University of New York in the School of Visual Arts, I had no way of getting a stipend to pay for the full costs of tuition and living. The farm was my back up for the loan I took. I would not have managed to study in New York without it. I would have been willing to do whatever job – cleaning or whatever – to save the farm had I not managed with art. But it has been a good coexistence.
Tell me about your two professions, can you do them on the same day or do you need to separate them altogether?
I can farm and paint on the same day. It is just a matter of changing your thoughts. I recently heard an ice hockey coach tell this to my son and the other guys he was training. And this resonated. Just like a sportsman can be different on and off the ice rink, so can I. The farm taught me to focus on what I was doing and appreciate the time.
When I stay in New York, I manage to do the same as when I studied art in Helsinki. Sometimes, I finish ploughing the fields on Sunday night – that is of course the last job after the harvest. On Monday morning, I clean the machines and leave for Helsinki. I usually take the 2 pm flight to New York. Twenty-four hours after ploughing I am in my studio in Soho, New York, painting. There are different moments when you do art. There are those kinds of moments when everything is going really well and you feel really inspired. You can say you are in the flow. I can’t wait for those moments! I focus on painting whenever I can.
So you are disciplined.
Yes, you could say that. I do something in painting that one does in farming; I remove the weeds. By that I mean that I strip away distractions that will affect my painting; things such as reading an art critic’s review. But other than that, I paint when I can.
Tell me what role Finland and the United States play in your life as an artist and a person?
Studying in the US was important for me. Finnish art education was very emotional and practical in my time. In the US, I could learn and compliment that with more theory as well as philosophy.
In science, you start from wide studies and then you specialize. In art, normally the reverse is true. You start from something you know and can do well. After that you broaden your mind. Education can help you identify your role within the bigger picture. My studies in New York gave me that perspective.
Is your art different pre and after New York?
I always painted nature, because that is what is close to me. Before New York, I focused on the animals I saw on the farm; rabbits, mice, sheep. In New York, I moved to a more romantic, mysterious relationship with animals. I started to work on wild life in general. After New York, I also started to feel more of a global citizen. Sometimes in Finland, we believe we have big problems, but they are small by world standards. The problems we face today are so huge we cannot isolate them in our own back yard.
Your art is very linked to nature, but there is an intellectual element in it; game theory, language, image. Tell me about that.
Albert Einstein said that the real essence of science and art is the feeling of mystery. It is so interesting that Einstein would link science to such strong abstract words as feeling and mystery. Science at its best is a good guess about reality. So is philosophy, so is religion, so is art. As an artist, I agree with Einstein and in my art I seek to bring these elements together. One cannot understand the world through any one single tool. We need them all.
During the last 200 years, science has been the most efficient tool – in industrialization, mass production, medicine and so on. But during my lifetime, I have seen that art is growing. In the sixties when I grew up, science was what you had to pursue. Nowadays there is a shift that is emphasizing our creativity as well. Science alone cannot be the answer to many of our problems – such as environmental and social ones. The Enlightenment and the Renaissance were periods where art was highly appreciated and now we are maybe witnessing another change. It is important to keep this conversation alive between all the elements – specializing in only one is a problem.
What about game theory?
I have been fascinated by game theory, because it is a hybrid discipline that can help in many areas; economics, mathematics, biology, physics. Do you know that game that we played as children? It was a pre-digital game… you could get a plastic square at the store that had nine spaces formed of eight squares and an open slot of the same size. Each square had a number or a part of an image. It was like a puzzle and you had to move the squares around to make sense of the sequence or image. That kicked off some thoughts. I normally jot my thoughts down in a book.
I then read a book about a scientist who tried to understand system complexity through game theory. Soon after that I saw A beautiful mind, based on the story of John Nash, the Nobel Laureate mathematician who suffered paranoid schizophrenia and was able to decode encrypted enemy code.
These all influenced me. I thought of the mathematical axiom that 1+1 = 2. But if you have the 2 in Roman numbers, it could easily read like one plus one is eleven. Mathematics is no more objective than anything else; it is based on a philosophical decision. They are workable decisions for sure. You can send a person to the moon with such decisions. But my point is that it is still a decision. Today, people conceive reality through language more than before. That is why we need to study the foundations of language.
What are you working on at the moment?
My next show will be in MassMoca in Massachusetts in the US. It will be very different to anything I have done so far. The farmer in me will come out. I will make a permanent piece for the Museum, which is called Five Months of Spring, a video installation incorporating plants.
So you are going into new media?
Yes. I have worked and showed video for over 20 years, but this is the first time I am using it with living matter.
I opened a video installation recently in the Nuuksio natural reserve in Espoo. My last two commissions have been exactly the opposite; to paint the altar in a reconstructed 500-year-old Catholic church that got burnt down and was rebuilt – Tyrvään Pyhän Olavin kirkko – and the work in Nuuksio.
This year, I exhibited in Kiasma, the modern art museum in Helsinki. All the works for the exhibition, which was called The Book of Life, were new and purposely made for the Kiasma exhibition. I painted 50 works. People ask me if that means one work a week for a year. But it is not like that. My works are layered and I work on several simultaneously.
Are your themes recurring?
Some of my themes are recurring. Some I think I exhausted already – unless perhaps I change the media. I had a river theme at one point, which came from a changing in perspective. A river is very similar to the antlers of a deer, the branches of a tree or the veins in our arms, if it is viewed from a satellite perspective.
Some images are like a bedtime story you want to hear again and again. The deer is for me like a self-portrait and it is forever recurring.
Who are your favorite artists?
I see art as the trunk of a tree, which symbolizes our human need for finding answers. This need is one of our oldest needs. I often say we were first artists and then farmers. Art has been a need from the very beginning of our existence.
In this tree, there are some branches. Mark Rothko taught me the role of color. He did something truly unique and he occupies a branch in my tree. You can’t improve on Rothko in color – he is at the tip of that branch.
Vincent van Gogh occupies another branch. His work is truly unique and cannot be replicated.
Robert Smithson showed me how art is related to our life. His work is unique and is one branch in itself.
Bill Viola as a video artist is building a fourth branch.
Of the Finnish painters, Akseli Gallen Kallela and Hugo Simberg are also such that they have their own branch in my tree. They are both mysterious and universal. It was Kallela who really first portrayed the Finnish nation. Of the Scandinavian artists, Hilma af Klimt is my great favorite. She was ahead of her time.
Your son is called Onni Rauhala, which would translate as happiness in a peaceful place. How would you describe perfect happiness?
Happiness is balance. Nature is built in such a way that there is a warning system. It is always nodding us towards balance, wherever there is pain, you seek a place with no pain. If you sprain your ankle, you seek a position where it doesn’t hurt. This happens everywhere. We are attracted to art or music that takes us to that place of balance.
When and how are you happiest?
The happiest moment is when your children are born. Even though I spoke to them before they were born, it was the most fantastic feeling to finally see them. The biggest saga in the world is the saga of our DNA. There is a system of balance, a mystery, and guiding life.
There are moments of life that bring this feeling. This spring I was very tired. 160 little lambs were born on the farm. Many needed extra milk every 4 hours, just like little babies. I slept very little. But the spring was coming and there were beautiful moments in the night and early in the morning. There is a strange quietness in the forest and suddenly you feel you communicate with it. You lose your own identity and you are in flow with the forest.
It sometimes happens to me that I am dusty and smelly in the middle of the fields and suddenly I realize I have stopped the machine, opened the door and stepped out of the tractor to look at a tree! I have no idea for how long. It is the busiest time of the year and I should be working. But there I am looking at a tree and I just feel great!
For me happiness and peace is always about being in flow and is connected to nature. My father taught me about shepherd trees. Shepherd trees are usually big birch or fir (though they can also be pines). These were trees in a forest where shepherds took their flock. They used these trees for protection and rest. Today, I can tell which tree is a shepherd tree – even what stump is the stump of a shepherd tree. I have asked lumberjacks about this and they tell me they too recognize a shepherd tree and always respect it. Unless they need to make a clearcut.
How do you relax?
There are two sacred days in the year where all is still, there is no work and no one can come and go from the farm. They are Mid-summer and Christmas.
What is on your reading table?
I like reading a lot. When I was seven years old I was allowed to miss school, as long as I was reading! I read a lot of fiction and popular science. At the moment, I am reading poetry. A friend of ours was reading Yeats when she visited us and left the book, which she had found on our shelves, lying around. I found it and have really enjoyed it.
What is the most overrated virtue?
In the Finnish society, we talk a lot about our collective thinking and honesty. We underline this too much. You talk the most about what you have the least. Actually the opposite may be true. Sometimes when one overrates something in reality one is talking of a need. We may be using both of these values to disguise some of our weaknesses.
What is the most underrated virtue?
I think balance is. Whether this is part of industrial society or the need to focus on the future (overcoming the winter) we have to focus too much in the process. Even when you move (or when you drive a bike), balance is important.
Do you have a life motto?
I agree with Einstein: the real essence of science and art is the feeling of mystery.
Image: Osma Harvilahti