In summer 2017 I spent two months on Kökar, Åland Islands.
The Åland Island
The Åland Islands form a bridge between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea, geographically as well as culturally. The largest island so called Main Åland are situated in the northwest, and here live today most of the 25 000 inhabitants of the Åland Islands. Mariehamm, the only town in the Åland Islands, is the administrative capital of Åland and the seat of its parliament and government. The Åland Islands are an autonomous province of Finland, which means that the inhabitants of Åland largely mange their internal affairs themselves. The Åland Islands are exempt from military service, since Åland is a demilitarized zone.
An extensive archipelago of nearly 6.500 small islands and skerries, divided into six different parishes, stretches to the east and the southeast from Main Åland. Kökar is the outmost one, located at the edge of the open Baltic.
The atmosphere of the archipelago is intensively affected by the seasonal changes. In winter the days are short as the sun stays behind the horizon most of the time, while in summer the midnight sun disappears only for an hour every night.
The archipelago is a world of contradictions, it is calm and wild, large and little, rich and poor, all at the same time, and this had has an effect on the traditions and the live style of people living on the islands. In previous days, the islands were isolated and therefore the inhabitants had to learn to live on their own: they were fishermen and farmers, they built boats and houses, they sewed their clothes, etc. Everything had to be done at home. Women and men worked together. Therefore, the tradition of handcraft is still living at the Åland Islands.
My home island of Kökar similarly has land and water areas. Here you can see that merely 3 per cent island and the rest is the sea with bedrock rocky shallows seabed fish, wind and waves. I live in the middle of an enormous mass of water where my home sticks up out of somewhat. Where are lots of beings living down there in the water mass. A single shake of a bladderwrack seaweed - an important habitat for shell, molluscs and crustaceans – can reveal 1,617 cockles (5 mm large), 227 small mussels, 219 molluscs of species eodorus uviatilis, 51 Märl shrimp, 47 water woodlice 45 molluscs of species Hydrobia ventrosa, 26 flatworms (1 cm), 12 opossum shrimp (3 cm), 9 sedge-flies (4 cm), 5 annelid worms 5 cm), and 2 fish of species Pomatoschistus minutus (7 mm). Altogether, making 2,251 individuals, not counting all the moss animals (Bryzoa), sinistral spiral tubeworms yellow periwinkle snails (Littorina littorea),and the barnacles (Balanidae) (small crustaceans that, while laying on their backs in the sharp cones of lime sweep in food with their legs).
»how to read an island« Christian Pleijel)
The nature of Kökar is in many respects completely different from that on Main Åland. The landscape is dominated by naked grey bedrock of gneiss, covered a small brushwood, with alder, birch and juniper and by the open sea with the thousands of treeless islands and skerries.
The hunting site at Otterböte is the oldest sign of human activity in the Kökar archipelago and the only one from the Bronze Age. In the late medieval period, Kökar became a very important fishing area, and at the same time the island were used as a harbour on international sailing routes. These factors led, around 1450, to the foundation of a Franciscan friary. The building complex, located on the small island of Hamnö (the harbour Island), is today subject to extensive archaeological investigation. In the past, the economy of Kökar was almost entirely based on fishing and hunting. Most important was the seasonal fishing for Baltic herring that took place at the outmost skerries Ören and Mörskär. Today, the economy of Kökar is dominated by tourism, transport and tourism-related industry, combined with some farming.
The population reached the maximum around 1920, when some 1000 people lived in the five villages. In 1996, the permanent population amounted to about 310. An artisans village will be founded by the Kökar rural museum. The aim is to create a working milieu for professional artists and artisans (smithery, ceramics, textile) and a place where seminars and courses will be continuously organized.
Aino is an artist from Turku (Finland). She is 71 years old. Since 2004 she lives half of the year on Kökar, the other half in Turku near her four children and five grandchildren.
»When did you first come to Kökar?«
In 1985 I was on Åland for the first time. Together with my family we went on a bike tour through the Åland Islands. The landscape, the rocks and the light exerted a strong attraction on me and I wanted to come back alone to paint. At some point, I found out that there was an artist organization on the Åland Islands and that an art course on Kökar would take place. So I came to Kökar in early August. I remember very well the day I arrived there. It was a rainy day, the rocks shimmered grey in grey and their impression was so different to the light and the deep blue of the sea of the northern Åland that I was a bit unsettled afterwards. A few days later, however, we were lodged on the peninsula of Hamnö near the church, I noticed that the island had a very special effect on me. Something in my heart told me that I was in the right place. It was as if I had arrived at home and again when I came back the next time, it felt exactly the same.
From that time on I came back every year. During the first ten years, I rented a small grey house in Österbygge on a rock overlooking an island group. The owner of this small grey house was a very friendly old man. He was born here and does not live anymore. In winter, I regularly came back to Kökar, by train, bus, and ship. I then return from Kuopio in Finland where I lived with my family. I wanted to experience how the island felt in winter, how the colours, the sea, the wind seemed to me. In the winter, too, I feel this deep bond to the landscape. In order to finance my living, I began to teach art courses in Kökar, at first with my own students from Finland. When my marriage broke apart, I received a letter from a friend who lived as an art teacher in Mariehamm (mainland Åland), saying, "now is the time to look for a job on the Åland Islands." So, with only little knowledge of Swedish I moved to the Åland Islands and found my first work as an art teacher. I started working at an art school for young adults. Those young people came from the whole of Northern Europe, sometimes even from Germany and Holland, and had the opportunity to pursue an orientation period.
In 2004, I had lived long enough on Åland to acquire my own house. I found a small, typical wooden house, where I still live today. In order to become a house owner in Kökar, you have to live there for five years.
»What does Kökar mean to you?«
Every time I return from Turku, taking the boat from Galtby to Kökar, seeing the sea and the light, I feel that I can breathe more freely. The sea, the rocks and the sky have become a part of myself; I can feel it in my body. Sometimes when I walk from the harbour by foot to Karlby, the sea in mey back, I have this deep feeling to be in the middle of the sea. Even though I do not see the sea, I feel it. When I see all the houses and boats, I think that it is the only right way for us human beings to live. Living in Kökar means owning one's own space and at the same time living in a social community. Many of the people who live here are happy for themselves but if you need their help you can count on them. The people who are originally born here have a sense of humour and, in the course of their lives, they have learned to solve all the problems themselves.
»What does it mean to live on a small island?«
To live on a small island means to me that one has to get along well with oneself. Loneliness and pain can be felt very strongly if one is only thrown back on oneself. For someone who is not strong enough to meet himself, life here can be very difficult. Then there is the sea and for me the sea can be like a mother who comforts you when you are sad. Many people feel threatened by the sea - the sea has often comforted me. The sea does not scare me, I could sleep on the rocks.
»Is there something you miss on this island?«
When I think of music, I would love to go to the city, listen to a classical concert. Yesterday, it was a windy day, I sat in the garden listening to the wind and it was like a small concert. If you listen carefully, you could hear the most diverse mix of instruments, which formed a whole orchestra. Yes, and that is also a kind of music. At the same time, I love the silence very much, and you can really find it here.
Monica comes from Finland. She grew up in Helsinki and lived in Britain for over 40 years. She dedicated many years of her life to her family and all her creative energy went into family life. Today Monica is 66 years old, mother of 7 children, and grandmother of 7 grandchildren. She moved to Kökar this year in springtime.
»When did you first come to Kökar?«
In 2017 after all my children had left. I was up in Vasa and I thouhgt: ‘what am I doing here now? I had no reason to stay!’ I had already started to think about what to do with my life before it’s too late a couple of years ago. I didn’t want to go back to Britain because that’s done. I always moved for a reason and I moved an awful lot of my life. Moving for people’s jobs, for schools… In that moment, I had no reason apart from wanting to do something else. I asked myself where I wanted to go? So, I grabbed the opportunity of using the Internet for looking it up. I started searching in Finland and one morning in February I woke up and something in my head said to me: ‘you’ve forgotten Åland!’ When I was young I lived in the archipelago near Turku but I’ve never been on the Åland Islands before. I remember my first contact with Kökar as a child, when I went to Helsinki with my mum. It was autumn and we went to the fish market. It was the time, when all boats came from Kökar and my mother used to buy the black bread. This was the first time I remember reading the word Kökar.
I found a wonderful site that called ‘renting a home in Åland’. I don’t want to be smack in the middle, I want to be by the sea because I need the sea. It’s a passion for me somehow. I came to Kökar, and found a house to rent. Exactly what I was looking for. The house was still available and a couple of days later I came to Kökar. On this island, they have a wonderful thing called ‘KIT’, Kökar immigration team. KIT consists of a number of inhabitants covering a wide range, in order to give the best possible welcome and information to those moving to Kökar. A woman took me all around, she brought the keys, and invited a lot of people to get in contact with the locals. It was a very soft landing for me and they even arranged my move.
Kökar was a gift to myself. It was one of the best thing I’ve done in my live, because it was my own decision and I feel like I could make this my home.
»What is particular for you here?«
I need to be in the great outdoors, to sit and watch the moss grow. I need this communication and I am a colour person. The first thing I noticed when I arrived in February were the colours. The amount of colours was astounding. All the green junipers, the grey rocks and the red roads. The colours struck me. It’s the colour and the light; how the light places in the bright, in the shadow and the incredible sky’s you get here. And it’s the clean air and the clean water, all these things that matter to me. And there are so many opportunities to go into the forest and pick all the many plants and herbs. That’s even important to me because I pick a lot for drying. And somehow here there is a freedom for me as well. I feel free, free to exist, to create. once I came to Kökar I had a feeling that something was happened inside me and I was able to give out what’s been inside me.
I like small communities. I was used to that from Britain, to be able to talk to people when I wished getting help from them. For me Kökar seems to be a ideal community because once you’ve been seen, once you’re acknowledged, people will greet you. You are a person; you are not just an anonymous like it is in a town, where you don’t know who lives behind the wall of your apartment. People living here are very open and if one needs help they are very helpful. At the same time, they are happy on their own. I have both sides: a social side and I have a side, which urges me to be by myself. I can balance that very well here. It’s so wonderful to move to this little rock within the sea and to meet amazing people from all over the places. And I like animals as well. The deer come as far as the birch and thankfully they let my garden alone.When valuing, for now, what Kökar gives to me that I never got before: it’s the dark. It’s my inner being that needs the dark, to catch up with all the rest of me. I like a sort of living with the seasons. I don’t need strawberries in winter. Having everything that belongs to that season. In autumn I like the weather, I like storms, I’m a sort of catastrophic person. To live on an island means to live with the elements. You can’t escape by moving to an island. You can’t escape anything and particular you can’t escape yourself.
It’s a wonderful thing when you wake up in the morning and you don’t know what that place can bring you, whom you’re going to meet, what the weather is going to be like, how you’re going to feel, what you’re going to feel like doing. It’s an unopened gift in the morning. It’s very exciting and somehow it makes me feel alive. To move to Kökar for me was also a matter of faith: I believe that it will turn out to be good, I know it. I went with that attitude and I think it helps as well. When you live in a place like this you have to have a certain sort of patient with waiting for things, small things and big things. And also, a sense of being able to accept things that aren’t under your control. If the ferry breaks down the ferry breaks down. It won’t kill me. I haven’t left Kökar for two months; I felt no need to go anywhere else. You need to be self-sufficient as well and you need a basic place in a house to protect yourself and to pull you back.
»How are the roles of women and men distributed in such a small society?«
I think, it’s fairly balanced by tradition. This happens in other archipelago communities, too. Traditionally the men were away a lot. They were away fishing and hunting. It was the women who were running everything. They had children, they milked the cows and they did whatever was needed: growing, sewing, keeping the animals... Such a sort of place made strong women. They were survivors. People who live on this island could survive everywhere. They have the mentality to survive. The members of the council/ government are three women and four men.
Traditions on Kökar
Another thing what I appreciate on this island is the sense of history. When I arrived here I had the impression that all people here had been there for more than thousand years. Especially, because such a small place is so condensed in a very nice way. Every summer on the first weekend of July there is a Saint Francis festival on this island for three days. Kökar is known to have had a monastery during the middle Ages, the only one of its kind in Åland. People come for an ecumenical. You get Lutherans, you get Catholics, and you get people from free churches. People came from Sweden and the Saint Francis Association is busy planning this pilgrimage coming from Finland all the way to Sweden via Kökar. They arranged this pilgrim sailing and they are building a pilgrim hostel next to the church up here. This summer, on a Saturday morning during the festival, there was an early morning service in the church. When the hymns started the congregation started singing in harmonies. One just picked up the harmonies, the other continued – it was such a big experience to me.
One appealing custom here on this island is the burial ceremony. Kökar is still the only place left in Finland where when someone dies the family digs the grave, rings the bells in the church and fills the grave. In my mind it’s a very emotional, physical part of the burial. Another tradition you’ll find on this island is related to the stone lying on the ground outside the cemetery. The tradition is to lay down the coffin on this stone it was brought to the church. Then the priest comes to carry it into the church.In earlier days on the Ålands there was another custom, which said, that a young girl wasn’t suitable for marriage until she had been present at a birth and a death. Before that she could not care for her own family. She had to know these two things. So, she first had to go to someone who is having a baby and she had to look after someone who was dying.
»Do you think small islands can survive? Do you believe life on small islands is attractive for young people?«
I hope so! We see it actually. The baker people came. He was a banker in France. They drove by with a taxi when I arrived and decided to take the bakery and learn how to make bread. They had been amazing for this community. We just have two young families moving here with their children. People like me arrive because they need to come here. They just feel to come here, they find it. We have a family from Rumania, refugees I assume. The man works as assistance now. There is Johannes, the man from Kökar Service, an organisation who cares about people coming from abroad, who came back from Stockholm to start his own business. He now employs people who perhaps come from somewhere in Finland and came here to work and someday build her family.
It’s not a dead community. These people here are realistic, resilient, but in other ways incredible creative. They think creatively, they do sort of creative things with their lives as well. There are an awful lot of clubs and things you can do here in wintertime. When the summer people come then Kökars real life begins. There is book club, there is yoga, you can be busy every evening if you want.
Finally, there is one thing when you live on an island: you meet people who know a lot that other people don’t know. They had to find out and had to learn and to cope, as they e.g. haven’t got their doctors. They became strong because they have survived. This is one way to find out things.
Johanna Henriksson and Ville Ropo both come from Finland. Johanna grew up in Porvoo. She is 30 years old and works as a teacher in Kökar. Ville grew up in Helsinki; he is 35 years old and works as a carpenter in Kökar. They moved with their dog to Kökar in 2015.
»When did you first come to Kökar and why became Kökar your new home?«
Ville: 2014 in July, the weather was really nice. We came with our boat to Kökar. Every summer we make a tour with our boat. We came from Porvoo to visit friends who live four hours afar from here. After spending a few days there, they proposed us to go to Kökar. We had time and so we decided to go. In Brudhäll we spent only one night. We walked to Estholm, our dog went swimming there, to the bakery and the cafe and to the restaurant Brudhäll. The next day we made a trip to Sandvik, the guest harbour. We went from here to the church on Hamnö and then we went back home.
On the way home we thought, “how can the people live there, what do they do?” We asked us if people really could live there the whole year. Regardless of this, Kökar did not let us go. We had been to many islands, but here on Kökar was something magical.
Before we came to Kökar in the summer 2014, we thought about buying a small house in the archipelago of Porvoo, on a small island, but the prices are very high, too high for us.
Johanna: In August, when we came home, I wrote an email to Kurt, the mayor of Kökar. I told him that we were interested to rent an apartment. He told me to contact the KIT-Team and so I did. In October, we received a commitment for an apartment next to the bank and the post office. But we did not want to live there.
Ville: And this message came too early; we were not prepared for it. At the time, I worked as a truck driver and Johanna as a visual merchandiser. Kökar was no longer out of our head and we began to ask ourselves: “should we dare?”
Johanna: I was looking for a new challenge in my work. I have done this job eight years and there was nothing new to develop for me. I wanted to start something new without knowing what. This was a reason for me to leave Porvoo.
Ville: I also wanted to cancel my job and I had the feeling if I would not do it now I would never do it. My father has done the same job all his life. I didn’t want this. I thought, »maybe there is more in my life than the truck driving.« I’ve done this job for eleven years. It’s a long time and now I’m really happy that I stopped working as a truck driver.
Johanna: I didn’t like his job because he was always on the road. We weren’t living a normal life and I wanted him to be more often at home. I wanted to spend more time with him.
We started to renovate our apartment in Porvoo to rent it out. We needed security in case our plan would not work out. In January or February, we received another letter from Kurt with the information that another apartment would be available. It was our apartment. We confirmed quickly, rented our apartment out and I terminated my job. At the end of March, we moved to Kökar. Ville took a short vacation but afterwards he had to go back to make money. At first, we needed his money.
Johanna had different jobs at the beginning. She worked in the bakery and the café and as an assistant in the school. Last year in autumn she worked as an assistant teacher at school and in spring she began her work as a teacher. Ville finally moved to Kökar in midsummer 2016.
Ville: At the beginning, I did small jobs for the artist residence, a lot of repair works. I worked in a store and in the school as an assistant. I did everything. If you come here you have to do different jobs, you can’t really choose what you want. But on the other side it’s great to learn new things and I like my work as a carpenter very much.
Johanna: A nice thing here is that you do not need much money. You do not have the possibilities to spend as much money as in a city. It can happen to you that you are looking for your cash card, because you have not drawn cash since a long time.
»What is particular to other places you moved before?
«Ville: The archipelago of Porvoo is beautiful but different from the archipelago of Kökar. Here you can explore many different islands: sandy small islands in the Northeast, the rocky island Källskär, Ide with all its flowers and herbs, and Kökar …and the history of Kökar as a very important place between Sweden and Finland.
Johanna: I didn’t like autumn before we moved here, not at all. But now it’s my favourite season. All the tourists are gone, the silence of the island comes back and there is a special autumn feeling, you can smell the autumn. The sea is pretty warm and the light is so beautiful. And the darkness comes back with all the stars.
Ville: If you live here you must have a relationship with nature and you need to be alone.
Johanna: The people in Kökar are different. You can find the same people as in Porvoo but the space is much denser. Individuality is shown here because everyone lives his own personality. And everyone has something in common with the other, otherwise you can’t live here. They all share similar values. All people living here are strong personalities. They like to be alone and trust their own strength. People are helpful and kind. They want people to stay here and that they are happy. Life here is easier when everyone takes care of everyone and people respect one another. You will quickly learn to understand exactly how the community is doing, whether they are happy or sad.
»What would you have to change here, to make Kökar more attractive to young people?«
Johanna: I’ve been thinking about what I missed when I came to Kökar. At first, I thought about my friends, my family and all the possibilities that would not be available here. But the longer I live here I realise that life can be richer without all the options. The first thing you learn is to figure out what you really want. But many people do not want to renounce a more of possibilities. Do you really have to choose between countless yoghurts? You can spend a lot of time in the supermarket just to pick your food. Another example: in Kökar you can choose between Yoga lessons and violin lessons in your free time. In Porvoo I would never have thought about it but here I do it. If you really miss things you can get active, make suggestions and make things happen. And things, you really want to do, that do not exist here get a different importance because you can not do those every day.
Kökar’s biggest problem is that there are too few young people, too few families with children. We think Kökar could make more advertising to attract people who would like to live here. They have done a lot to bring people here during summertime. But most of them do not understand how to live here the hole year. All our friends who have children want their children to grow up with their peers to learn social skills. At present, we have got eighteen children in the school and one child in the kinder garden. Only when young families will start to move over we can solve the problem of fewer children. They have to move to Kökar to experience the quality of life here.
»You both care about the artist residence. How did it happen?«
Ville: We met Satu Kiljunen in the school. Our neighbour Gun, who is also active in Kökars cultural scene and Satu often spend time together. Satu wanted to know more about the reasons why we came to this island.
Johanna: One day she came to school and asked me if we did not want to join Kökars cultural scene. We were curious about this new challenge, without knowing exactly what we had to do. We agreed and Satu came with a pile of paper and introduced me into the work. Art and crafts have always interested me and step-by-step I got an idea about this work. Satu is a straight and energetic person, not someone who makes big words. She is a person who takes care of things and transforms things. I greatly appreciate that.
Ville: Satu also asked me for maintenance and repair works, for example to repair and fix the windows in the residence.
Satu was in many ways very helpful for us. We did not know many people we could trust here, Satu was one of them. She became a friend of us.
Johanna: My work first of all consisted of checking the emails with the artists. Satu doesn’t like this job. As time passed, I increasingly grew into the role of the coordinator-person. Satu always helps with questions. She is like a teacher to me and stays involved in many ways. The artist residence is the thing that is dear to her heart. And Gun our neighbour helps us with lots of information.
»How do the inhabitants react to the artists? Which role can artists play for small islands community like this one?«
Johanna: On this island there are people who are interested in arts and crafts. There are People who want to know more about the different work of artists. And we both want to share our experience with the island people. We want them to know more about the artists who’re currently living here. One of our ideas is to redesign the Internet site. In future time people could find more updated information about the residence. Another idea is to bring the people to the residence by organizing talks or workshops.
When the residence is more alive in the minds of the inhabitants, it will affect the island. The artists who live on this island carry their experience to the outside.
Sylvia Sundström was born on Kökar. As a young woman, she moved to Ekenäs/ Tammisaari, Finland, for thirty years where she graduated and became a teacher. In the 1980s, she returned to Kökar. Today she works in the Hembygsmuseum on Kökar. Sylvia is 85 years old. She has four children and ten grandchildren.
»How did you grow up?«
I grew up in Karlby in a fisher family. When my father and my mother were on the sea fishing, my oldest sister took care of the younger brothers and sisters. In summertime the whole family often left Kökar for seasonal fishing of Baltic herring in the outmost skerry Ören. Fishing was the most important economy in Kökar.
»…Family members of all ages participated in the fishing country’. At home there was grandmother or aunt or someone else who could handle young children and milk the cows. Milk was saved and bread was baked for the following puff pastry. When school had not started, the children were lucky and were allowed to join the fishing. The youngest ones and those born before seasonal fishing accompanied her mother too…«
from: Mat till folket i staden – Sylvia Sundström
Other people migrated to America. They searched for new and more effective ways to earn their lives and were curious about other countries. First, mostly the men went, later their women followed. For example the parents of Florence migrated in the 1920s to America. They married in America, came back, built a house and then Florence was born. Before the Second World War about 900 people lived on Kökar. There were two schools, one in Hellsö and the other one in Karlby with a total of eighty pupils.
I only have good memories of my time as a child on Kökar. The time I was away from Kökar, I was always dreaming of going back.
»…For the children in the village, Fladan with its bridges, stone beaches, boats, water puddles, sea noise, Vasselgrund’s swimming area, its icebergs and snowmen in winter, those were our daily playgrounds. No one had life jackets but everyone felt assured of the ride.
People everywhere preoccupied with day-to-day survival and they trusted in better days. Those memories have become a treasure I carry with me. Through stories, I want to pay tribute to the simple, genuine way of life my ancestors lived. This was the world. The true world and reason for everything in my life.”…«
from: Mat till folket i staden – Sylvia Sundström
When I was fourteen years old I worked as a home help in the pastor’s family. My job was to take care about the oldest girl. The book ice of Ulla-Lena Lundberg is the tragic story of this pastor’s family. The time with the pastor’s family plays a very important part in my life.
»Has life changed a lot since your childhood?«
Many things have changed and I can not tell you everything.
When I came back to Kökar in the 1980s many people, families with children lived on this island. My idea was to cook for people and so I converted my parental home into a guesthouse. My son Gunnar, who still lives with his family on Kökar, helped me out and in 1985 we started with Antons Gästhem. In summertime, from April to October, many school camps came to Kökar. Pupils came from Sweden and Finland and sometimes from Denmark. They always stayed for one week and participated in different activities: fishing, sailing, bird watching, hiking and visiting the museum.
My whole family offered activities. I organized hiking tours in Kalen. The summer schools do no longer exist because the government has abandoned their funds.
Today few people live on Kökar and many of the younger people have moved away. Friends of my generation all died or moved away too. Nature has also changed around here. In my childhood Kökar was a barren landscape with few trees. There was the grey of the rock, the red of the heather, the green of the juniper, and the blue of the sea. Today you see a lot of forest again.
»How important is the Hembygdsmuseum for you?«
When I was a small child, my grandmother often took care of me. I lied in the cradle when she died her hand upon me. It was like a message my grandmother left for me. I wanted to pay tribute to the simple, genuine way of life my ancestors had lived.
When I came back from Finland I felt that the inhabitants wished a museum for local history. In 1988, we founded a patrons association for the museum and used the building of the old school in Hellsö, Österbygge, to build the Hembygdmuseum. The bed of my grandmother and her crutches can be seen here.
»Do you feel isolated from the outside world?«
We never felt isolated. Today, the water connects us with others, as it did in early days. People from Kökar were always sailing between the islands and the mainland.
»Would you say Kökar is different from the other Åland Islands? If so, why?«
It’s difficult to compare Kökar to other islands of Åland. Kökar is an archipelago community where people live close to each other. The nature on Köker is strong and affects people's sense of life. The other small islands of Åland, like Kumlinge, Brändö, and Föglo, are similar to Kökar but their history is so different. The geographical location of Kökar has brought the people closer to the outside world. For example the Baltic herring was sold in Turku or Helsinki. And in former times most of the young people went first to Turku and Helsinki. Later when they got older they went to Mariehamm. The travel to Turku was much easier than to Mariehamm, even if it was a longer way. And people used their own boats to go to Turku. They knew the sea and the boat was the common vehicle for them.
Once a fisherman was asked, whether life on a small island might scare him sometimes. The man answered: I have never been afraid because I spent few time on the island. Most of the time I have been on the sea.
»How would you describe Kökar?«
When I think of Kökar I always think of Kökar as it used to be: the rocky island without trees, the sand beaches and the bridges. Today Kökar looks very green. I think about the people and their simple life in harmony with the nature. If I could I would return to old Kökar.
»I'd like to talk to you about the book Ice. You have a part in this book. With fourteen years you were working as a house help in a pastor’s family on Hamnö, the old harbour island of Kökar. Do you remember your time as a house help in the pastor’s family?«
I remember this time very well. It was a very important time for me. I took care of the young girl when her mother was pregnant. Normally, I stayed there the whole day but the night I spent at home in Karlby. In the pastor’s house, I got my first own room and I was very proud of it.
Everything in the book is true except the story with the sauna and the soldier. Ulla-Lena has never interviewed anyone except me. The story of the book is based on personal her mother’s personal telling.
»Was Sanna, the girl you cared for, the author Ulla-Lena?«
Sanna was Gunilla the older sister of Ulla-Lena. Ulla-Lena was Lillus. When the father drowned Ulla-Lena was two and a half years old.
»Can you tell something about wintertime and how it used to be?«
In 1939 there was a really cold winter on Kökar. The water in the jugs was frozen in the house and the cold crawled everywhere. The people went with their horses and their sleds to Sottunga. Sottunga is about one and a half hour from Kökar by ferry. The boat to Turku was waiting there. Between Kökar and Sottunga was no free shipping lane left. Otherwise it was customary to ski. I remember one day, we were skiing to Sottunga, the long journey was exhausting and on the day after we could not feel our legs anymore. Sometimes it took two hours to the boat and sometimes the boat did not come because the ice was too thick. There were waiting rooms in Sottunga and Harparnäs where we could warm up.
In spring everyone was waiting for the ice to break. The men wanted to go fishing and hunting water birds and seals. I remember the year 1970 when the ice broke and a long-tailed duck flew between the broken ices and called (Sylvia imitates the bird-call) and about thousand other long-tailed ducks followed. It was the year when my daughter was born.
»Do you know how the pastor drowned? And what has happened to his family after he drowned?«
The pastor’s family lived three joyful years on this island. The community loved the whole family. The day the pastor drowned, he was on the way back from his bible group, on his bicycle when he crossed the street between Karlby and Hamnö. The ice broke and he started to scream. At the same time his wife was in the house and Ulla-Lena was crying. She could not hear him. People living in Hellsö have heard the cries. They knew it had to be the pastor but they could not locate where the screams came from. The pastor tried to attach the lid of a milk jug on the edge of the ice to get out of it. Ulla-Lena wrote in her book Ice that her father probably died because he tried to save his Bible.
The pastor was very popular in the community. The next day a family from Sandvik came by boat and found him. They have filled the boat with flowers and they never used it again. In every household you found a picture of the pastor’s family.
After the pastor’s dead his woman and the two girls lived for another year in the pastor’s house. Then they moved to Pargas in Finland where Ulla-Lena’s mother started working as a teacher. They built a new house on Kökar and every summer they visited Kökar. Ulla-Lena’s mother is buried on Kökar in the same grave as her husband.
Satu Kiljunen grew up in Helsinki. She worked as a professor in Helsinki for many years. Satu Kiljunen is 62 years old and lives on Kökar since 1995. She has one son.
»How did you become an artist?«
I grew up in a family of artists. My father was a painter. After a tuberculosis diagnosis, he decided to become a conservator. But most of the time he was painting, so I grew up between paintings and colours, and it was only natural for me to paint. As long as I can think I was painting. I had no toys, they were not important to me. By painting I created my own reality. When I missed friends, I painted them myself. As a child, I lived in my own fantasies and I often had difficulties to distinguish between reality and imagination. For me, the area of fantasy became increasingly difficult. Maybe this is one of my reasons to live here on Kökar. Kökar has a very strong environment; it does not really build up your imagination. The environment here is much stronger than my own imagination.
In my family it was normal to be interested in art, especially in contemporary art. My parents knew many artists and they often were visiting us. I have not admired these artists; I have not even perceived them as particularly intelligent. I admired old art and the traditional techniques. I was very interested in art history and when I started studying art in Helsinki, I studied art history at the same time. As a child, I dreamed of working in the cultural field. I had no real idea of it, but I already knew that it was a very diverse area and that one had to have a broad knowledge. Perhaps I have realized this dream ... I have made art, performances and I have taught a lot at art academies and at art high schools. I developed whole programs for doctoral degrees at academies and I was a professor.
In 1974 when I began my art studies the academy was housed in the Ateneum Art Museum. It was a very noisy place and most of the students drank. Alcohol was a daily problem. I could not concentrate there and so I painted at home. We lived on the edge of Helsinki, where it was much quieter. It was the time when I began to understand how colours engage into relationships with each other. I made the experience that art was a great phenomenon, not only for the viewer but also for the artist. This experience completely changed my attitude towards art. The idea of developing through art and enjoying art became more elementary to me than the idea of becoming an artist.
1978 after my studies I sold all my paintings in a final exhibition. The galleries began to take notice of me. It was the time when the art market system established. My work was in demand and there was no time left for me to spend with them. Sometimes they called me and asked if I could paint this or that picture. I was shocked. During this time I lost all my pleasure in painting. All that was left was the taste of business and repetition. I refused the requests and began to paint still life at home while waiting for the right lighting. I invited people to look at my pictures from different points of view and suddenly I realized that I did not have to make any objects. Art took place as an interaction between the artwork and the viewer. This was the beginning of a new era in my artistic career. I started organising happenings.
At the beginning of the 80s a friend of mine, Risto Heikinheimo, and I founded the performance group Jack Helen Brut. The group consisted of actors, dancers and musicians. We created a kind of moving pictures in space. The concept of Jack Helen Brut was unique at the time. I designed scripts of geometric shapes that transformed into each other. We created visuals through motion, light, space and rhythm. In performances music, theatre and dance merge with visual art. Risto Heikinheimo and I developed two performances and then Risto left the project because he wanted to be an actor himself. Our group was very popular. We participated in various festivals in Scandinavia and Lisbon. When we were asked to start a little tour through different countries and to perform our work, I declined. I had no interest in repeating our pieces. Also, there was no manager and I could only trust three people. We were too young and actually a totally crazy rock band. There was no real possibility for us to survive. Risto Heikinheimo founded a new group and I did my own performances and video installations.
In my opinion, my work at that time is not differing from my current work. I have always used different media in my work. It is an ongoing project: the observing and influencing of spatial contexts to expand our understanding of space. Even my new works with small and big faces are manipulations and studies of the understanding of space. I would rather assign my own work to the field of performance than to object art. It is always the question from which point of view one looks at a picture and how one encounters it. Art is a happening between the artwork and the audience. Art happens in between.
»When did you first come to Kökar?«
I first came to Kökar in 1992. I lived for three years only with my dog on Kyrkogårdsö, the northernmost municipality of Kökar. These three years were a very important time for my work and me. At that time, I was seeking a suitable place to work with my students. Before I came to Kyrkogårdsö, we were on the small island of Bengtskär, a southern uninhabited island of Finland. Twenty-five kilometres southwest of Hanko, at the entrance of the Gulf of Finland, stands Scandinavia’s tallest lighthouse. Towering 52 meters above the sea, the lighthouse of Bengtskär is the archipelago’s most imposing and magnificent monument. On this rocky island, there are only this lighthouse and a bush, and nothing else. There is no harbour and the waves always spill over the island. This massive stone structure has witnessed many dramatic events in Finland’s history. For nine decades, the lighthouse provided a safe passage to the thousands of vessels, which plied the waters of the Gulf. On this island several student projects of the Sibelius Academy and the art industrial high school took place. Various professors and students organized light happenings here. I visited Bengtskär several times. The longest time I spent here with students was about three weeks.
In Bengtskär I heard about Kyrkogårdsö. A man who looked after the summer's guesthouse took my colleague and me with a small motorboat from Koorpo to the island. When I saw this small island, I felt I could die here. At that time, the island was almost uninhabited. Only one family, the owner of the island, lived there. Today seven people live on Kyrkogårdsö. I converted an old cowshed into a building for student projects. However, there was no functioning heating system. Then I found this place on Kökar, where I now live. The surroundings look the same as on Kyrkogårdsö. I was forty years old when I came to Kökar in 1995 and I am very happy that I have found this place. I learned a lot here: driving a motorboat, fishing, building...It was no accident for me to end up here in Kökar. I have travelled a lot in my life. Whenever I was able to sell an artwork or earn money by commissioning, I left Helsinki. I even travelled to places where I have found no humans, no culture or any civilization remains. I always felt better in those kinds of environments. And I got a lot of material to work, primarily ideas. I got to know the diversity of cultural values and understood that our Western values are not the only ones. Yes I can say I've seen the world and so I can stay here. I have no reason to travel now. Perhaps it would be interesting to see Greenland with the floating icebergs. But this is just a picture; it is pure curiosity but no real need anymore.
»How important is the exchange with other artists, with the cultural life of a big city?«
Before I adopted my son Ronny from South Africa, my life took place both in Kökar and in Helsinki. About a week, a month, I lived in Helsinki, taught as a professor and did all the work. With Ronny, the agreement between the job and a life with a child became difficult. There was the kindergarten and the school, things that demanded to be continuously in place. During this time, I was able to concentrate more on my own work. However, the connection to Helsinki never broke up because my family lives there. But I think it would be difficult for me to live on a small island and to be totally isolated from the exchange with persons involved in culture. Even now, when I am going to live in Helsinki for a long time, because Ronny cannot finish his school on Kökar, I will work with some students and make visits to the studios. But I will no longer work as a professor; this time is over for me. I would now focus more intensely on my own work.
»How closely are you associated with the artist residency on Kökar? Did you establish this institution?«
In 1997 the artist's residence was founded on Kökar. It is one of the oldest artists' residencies in Scandinavia. At the time there was only one near Helsinki. In the winter of 1997, a photographer, a teacher, a writer and I founded an association in which various activities could take place. We wanted to found a centre for contemporary thought that was independent of the local museum’s work. My idea was to create a place for artists which helps them to get to know this particular place and work on it. Even for me this place was very inspiring and I wanted to share my experience with other artists. Kökar is a place where you can get in touch with nature, where you can learn to understand your own size and the size of nature. However, I have never run the organization. There were always other persons, artists, writers, and some outsiders who were responsible for the residence. I was more active as a person in the background and chose the artists together with other people. It has always been important to me that the artist's residency remains an independent place. The artists were never asked to realize projects at school or to prepare other forms of presentations. But if we realize that it might be important to one or another artist, then we can support them. Even today I am working in the background. Interested artists can get in contact with me and visit me in my studio. The artists who come here relay on themselves and their work.
»How are you involved in the community here?«
When I came to Kökar, one day a Finnish woman asked me if I could give her painting lessons. I considered and agreed on condition that others would be added and we would form a painting group. This was the beginning of a local painting group on Kökar. First, we started at my home, later, when the renovation and construction work was completed, I taught the group upstairs in the residence. For me this time was a very important time. Once a week, I taught this group of women in painting, and through these women I got contact with their husbands. They have helped me if I had any practical problems. And step-by-step I reached out to the community. Without those women, it would have been very difficult for me to get engaged here.
»What distinguishes Kökar from other small island communities?«
Kökar is a community that has constantly changed. The population on Kökar has been growing slowly during the last five years. Before, more and more people had moved away from Kökar. In recent years our community has been growing again. People between 30 and 40 years old are looking for a different way of life. They bring certain experiences and skills with them and can promote things and projects. Perhaps this is a way to change our value system. This place is suitable for it. Kökar is far enough away from everything but not isolated. There is an active municipality, unlike many small islands between 100 and 200 inhabitants. Most people on these islands are over sixty years old. There is no school, no kindergarten and no nurse. Throughout the year around 205 people are living in Kökar and there is a school with twenty pupils. The people who are settling here come from other contexts than the traditional population. On Kökar there has always been a system of families and family ties. The exchange between newcomers and old ones could be interesting.
»What is particular on Kökar?«
There are many things but one of them is: Kökar is far enough away, the sea surrounds it and the sea is our connection to other countries. The sea is not the forest. It is not the field and not the city. When I am here, I feel that my mind has opened paths in all directions. This is very important to me. If you're flying to Kökar, you'll understand how goddamn far away Kökar is.
In winter there is another phenomenon: all trees lose their leaves. There are only a few conifers, just like in Lapland. The island suddenly becomes very open and changes completely.
The strong historical background of Kökar also surprised me: the Vikings were here and there was enough land for farmers, cows and animals. When I stand on this ancient rock, I feel that it is the same stone that has existed in the middle Ages. The rock formations are the same. When the archaeologists dug on the church ground, they had only to dig 15 centimetres deep and came to the middle Ages. If you dig in other places in Finland, you would have to dig one and half meters deep to get to the middle Age. When you are on these rocks you can feel that they are directly from the sea. You are on a very solid ground. There is nothing left but the cover and magma. The material of this rock is over 900 million years old. It was the first rock that existed on Earth. It is said that there were mountains on Kökar, which were higher than the Himalayas.