Mid-Wales arts organisation Celf o Gwmpas took four disabled artists to meet with Kettuki in Hämeenlinna, Finland, from 16-21 September - as part of a mentoring programme. Chris Tally Evans discusses some broader issues about empowerment that came out of the trip.
Some of you may not have heard of Celf o Gwmpas (that’s Welsh for Arts Round and About) but I think that’s probably going to change. Celf works with learning disabled adults and those with mental health issues. I’ve been increasingly involved with Celf since they invited me to join them on a trip to Scotland as part of the Turning Points project last year.
And I’m particularly interested in their artists’ mentoring programme, which is seeking to work intensively with a small group of visual artists to help them overcome the barriers to education, training and acceptance that have so far prevented them from establishing themselves as professionals. At the end of last September we headed for Hämeenlinna, a small city in Finland, 100k north of Helsinki to liaise with Kettuki, a similar, though better funded organisation, to see if there’s mileage in working together to set up an international artists’ residency exchange project.
10 of us go on the trip. The artists, Jan, Dean, Amanda and Joolz, Celf staff Shan, Kayte and Tom, Paul (Deans PA), myself and Mike Layward, Director of DASH. It’s clear from our knowledge sharing and feeble attempts at one or two words of Finnish that none of us really know what to expect. Strangely enough my father went to Finland back in the 1930s when, as a dockworker, he was sent to inspect timber destined to shore up Welsh coalmines. With visions of the liberated Scandinavians in his 20 something head, him and a mate opted for sauna. He described it to me as one of the most unpleasant experiences of his life!
A couple of hours later and, after a brief impression of a spotlessly clean airport and friendly border officials, we’re on the bus heading north. Helsinki looks like any other modern city but it’s soon left behind and we drive through endless forest, punctuated by shining examples of the hundred thousand lakes that give Finland its character. The weather is dark and brooding and we mutter about gingerbread houses and wolves. One hour later, we’re met in Hämeenlinna by Jaana, one of our hosts at Kettuki.
Hämeenlinna is something of a shock. I think my expectations were coloured by reading that Finland had been occupied first by Sweden and later by Soviet Russia for much of its history and by my only other trip to anywhere remotely near, a spell in Krakow, Poland, almost twenty years ago. I suppose I expected the same embattled atmosphere and Spartan approach to the good things in life. I couldn’t be more wrong. The food at the cosy restaurant down the street is fantastic and Hämeenlinna is a beautiful, vibrant and stylish city with a magnificent medieval castle. Our hosts Jaana and Sirpa are charming and friendly, speak fantastic English and we’re all looking forward to what is to come.
Next day and bright and early we’re at Arx House arts centre to meet some of the Kettuki artists and take part in a painting workshop. The arts centre is huge and well equipped and we are impressed by the facilities and some of the work that the Kettuki artists are doing. We meet two groups and Saara, the tutor, tells us about how the centre works. Even more impressive is the participants’ fluency in English. How many people, let alone learning disabled people in the UK have a second language let alone can speak and read it fluently?
Amanda, Jan, Dean and Joolz produce some good work and when one of the Kettuki group writes us a poem of welcome we all feel included and happy to be here. As the evening approaches though, nervousness begins to set in. We are being driven out into the woods to a house owned by the school at which Jaana works. There we will meet her husband, the celebrated Finnish artist and Kettuki founder, Ahti Isomäki. They are feeding us and then, we are told, we’re doing that most Finnish of things, having a sauna and jumping into the lake. The lake is beautiful but looks very, very cold. First we go for a walk in the woods and pick lingonberries and wild mushrooms. The Finns see themselves as forest dwellers and revel in gathering the fruits of the wild woods. The meal is fantastic with a bewildering array of salads, mushroom dishes and reindeer sausages. Then it’s time for the sauna.
The girls go first and the boys hang around making crap jokes and generally getting nervous. We don’t know why we’re nervous. I mean, how bad can it be? As bad as my father said? Then it’s our turn. We all strip off and Ahti instructs us in the ritual chant that we must say when the water hits the hot rocks. It’s dim and somehow pagan in the sauna-house and, despite the wisecracks and banter, I can feel that we’re all getting moved by this experience as the heat builds and builds to an incredible level. Then we’re out. A 50-yard stagger and down the slippery wooden steps into the freezing lake. It hadn’t looked deep from the jetty but appearances are deceptive.
“It’s really deep!” shouts Mike, as he goes in before me.
I think he’s winding me up and don’t take any notice. The sun has set and as I let go the inky waters close above my head and I still can’t touch the bottom. Spluttering and thrashing I make the surface and strike out for the shore. The sensation is incredible and whatever it does the stream of endorphins coursing through me makes me understand why sauna is something of a religion in this neck of the woods.
Wednesday, and this time it’s fabric painting with Kikka, our tutor, urging us to scale up parts of yesterday’s paintings to a truly massive scale. I’m forced to abandon my comfort zone and my camera and help Amanda as we realise her work on a piece of material some 4 metres by 2.5. This time the workshop is just for us and everybody gets stuck in and appreciates being able to work on a scale that we simply don’t have the room for back home.
Thursday and Erik, a guide with an irreverent sense of humour and a wealth of historic knowledge, takes us on a whistle stop tour of Hämeenlinna and its district. Among other things we learn how to build a castle. Then we’re whisked off to Kettuki’s Art House, their base and the building they are developing as a residential place for their students to learn and develop as artists. Esa, the Art House’s Director, explains a bit about how they’re funded – mainly from education - and proudly shows us a series of designer products that they’re about to launch as a funding arm of the organisation. There are trays, bags, oven gloves and other wares, all beautifully covered with designs created by the Kettuki artists. They’re nicely done and wouldn’t look out of place in Habitat, IKEA or indeed the gallery shop of any contemporary arts centre. We are impressed, but this sparks much debate.
On one level this presents learning disabled art in an accessible, professional and desirable way. On the other hand we wonder how many of the decisions are taken by the non-disabled people who run the organisation and what this means. It boils down to the dilemma that they are doing very good work, it’s impressive and the people who come to Kettuki’s workshops seem happy and empowered, but that it lacks the political movement that underpins disability art in Britain and raises questions about ownership and control. There’s much to talk about and learn.
Celf o Gwmpas itself is not a disability led organisation. In the sparsely populated wilds of Mid Wales, there simply aren’t enough disabled professionals to go around. So this is a question that looms large in all our minds as we come to the end of an all-too short stay. That night we all go to Jaana and Ahti’s lovely atmospheric house where we are again fed to bursting. We look at images of Kettuki’s past work and Mike and Ahti perform a cracking impromptu duet on Ahti’s lovely djembe drums. The twilight in the woods and the tribal, primal rhythms somehow sum up to me the whole soul of the trip.
Friday, and en route to the airport, we stop off at Galleria Art Kaarisilta for an exhibition by Ville Seppälä who tragically died recently. Seppälä’s work is stunning and the gallery, located centrally in Helsinki is clean, chic and modern, giving disability art a platform that it rarely receives in Britain and seldom, if ever, in Wales. We are all blown away by Finland and Kettuki in particular. Their enthusiasm, kindness and generosity has overwhelmed us all and won our hearts and we are all desperately keen to continue this relationship and want them to come to Wales. We all feel we’re at the beginning of an interesting and exciting journey.
Finnish people are overwhelmingly friendly. They have a connection with the landscape and a reverence for nature and the environment that we in Britain seem to have lost. This seems to bleed out into society and I felt the Finnish people have a genuine desire to enable everyone to be thinking, feeling, creative beings. It is also very ordered and you wonder whether this love of cleanliness and efficiency may, inadvertently, be a barrier for disabled people experiencing the same kind of revolution of consciousness that has been part of the British experience of disability art and culture over the past quarter of a century.
One thing’s for sure. We need to talk more and learn from one another’s strengths and weaknesses.