Every October for the last four years, I’ve run a 31-pastels-in-31-days Challenge in my HowToPastel Facebook group. It’s awesome to see all the work and everyone pushing themselves (cos the going does get tough!). I think it was in our first or second year when this month’s guest, Silja Salmistu, was posting her still life pieces, paintings of very ordinary objects elevated to art status! These paintings have stuck with me and when I was looking for a guest whose main subject is still life, Silja came to mind.
Before contacting her, I renewed my visual relationship with her work by checking out her website and was blown away when I discovered her Nursery Games series. You’ll see what I mean because she agreed when I asked her to focus on this series for her guest post. You’re in for a treat! The tension between alternative narrative content as well as the physical aspects of the work (colour, values, texture, mark-making, design) are riveting and marvellous. The beautiful pieces may be discomforting but they will get your attention!
Don’t know this artist’s work? Then have a look at this. It doesn’t quite fit with the theme of this blog but it reminds me of the work she did for our 31-in-31 Challenge. AND it does show Silja Salmistu’s skill with pastel. It also introduces the idea of narrative within a still life. (I wrote about one of Silja’s pieces for one of my roundups. You can read it here.)
Before I hand the blog over to Silja, here’s a wee bit about her…
Silja Salmistu Bio
Silja Salmistu is an Estonian artist living and working in Denmark. She has an MFA in painting from Tartu University (Estonia) and has painted continuously since her graduation in 1986. The exception was a period of 11 years when she was raising her two children. In 2015, she returned to the easel, using oils. A year later, she fell in love with soft pastels and now uses them as her primary medium with still life as her main subject.
She is a multiple award and competition winner, both on the international pastel scene and in Danish and Estonian all-media juried exhibitions. Silja has exhibited in numerous juried, curated, group, and solo shows since 1997 in Europe, the USA, and online. Her art has been featured in several international and national art publications. Check out her website to see more of her work.
[Updated 18 June 2021…I just heard that Silja Salmistu has won the 1st place award in the 38th Annual IAPS show – 2021 Gallery Exhibition – for her painting, “Sunflowers.” Congratulations Silja!! Listen to what Juror of Awards Fred Somers has to say here. Start at 17:26.]
And now, here’s Silja Salmistu!
Thank you so much, Gail, for the opportunity to talk about my art to your blog readers. I’m honoured to be your guest blogger.
You risk becoming a pastellist if you’re kind to your next door neighbour!
That is what happened to me about five years ago. Throughout my art studies and artistic practice I had mainly used oil paints, but the neighbour to my new studio (who owned a yarn shop) complained about the smell of my paints and solvents and that it had sunk into her goods. For her sake, I decided to use watercolours instead of oils. But with watercolours one cannot re-work a failed painting…. So, in order to rescue the “wasted” good paper, I dug out my 40 year-old Russian pastel box and bought some new sticks.
That was the start of my ongoing love affair with pastels. I love everything about them (well yeah, except for the framing /glass limitations). The best thing is that, compared to oils or watercolours, pastels do not need drying time so you can stay in the flow until you collapse from exhaustion. Great!
I have loads of ideas in my head and hoards of props on my shelves.
Sometimes I have an idea for a painting, then I try to find the props for that either in my studio or in thrift stores. Other times I get inspired by the way things just happen to lie around in the ever-changing mess of my studio. Then, the concept may develop during the painting process.
There are both pretty paintings and pain-paintings in my portfolio. Life is not only sunshine, joy, and happiness. It has also shadow sides like pain, fear, grief. There is shallow polite small talk on harmless topics, and there are deeper conversations about serious issues and touchy topics. I think, if in good balance, they complement each other.
Considering art as a language that we artists use for communication, no subject should be taboo. I see so much breathtaking beauty created with pastels, but sometimes, at some point, I feel a bit like …I can’t breathe…
I celebrate the beauty of nature in my florals – happy feelings and memories evoked by the colours and forms of flowers and fruits. But in my Nursery Games and Masquerade still life series (I call them “pain-paintings” or “pain-things”), I focus less on aesthetics and more on narrative and social criticism. I look at issues that may hurt or are uncomfortable, on aspects that concern me as a human being. In that way, my art follows the concept by Cesar A. Cruz: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.“
When I was little, I had some dolls like every other little girl, but I hardly ever really played with them as the other kids did. I was always busy creating things for my dolls – designing, sewing, and knitting clothes, building doll houses, designing and constructing cradles and prams, etc. I guess the dolls have come back to haunt me now that my own kids are almost grown-up.
The use of toys for my social or political commentary artwork actually has a prologue that goes 20 years back. I had painted a still life with toys like a freeze-frame image of a typical playroom floor from my childhood. I had no intentional provocation with that painting, just some nostalgia. The reaction of the audience surprised me. Cosy harmless domestic situation in happy colours and classic toys aroused strong feelings and questions, mostly because of the overturned doll dressed in folk costume with a toy gun beside her.
The start of the ongoing Nursery Games series was triggered by the news of the school massacre in Florida in February 2018.
As a mother of two school kids, I was horrified. Not surprisingly, the illusion of safe and carefree childhood was burst once again. It birthed an urge for artistic expression, so that is how my ”pain-painting” series started.
I try to imagine how a child might respond to the darker issues of our present reality, through his/her play. No matter how hard and long we parents/adults try to shield and protect them, sooner or later or somehow, they are going to face and tackle the darkness anyway.
On the other side, a picture depicting a completely innocent scene from almost any nursery floor can be ”read” by us adults in quite different ways. We know that a doll is just a lifeless object made of plastic, fabric, wood, clay, or whatever, yet due to its anthropomorphic character, we tend to attribute human qualities to it, just like children do.
I use the well-known lost-and-found design principle also in my storytelling – I present some recognizable objects/subjects in a setup but do not really illustrate a certain narrative. I deliberately leave the tabula incomplete to let the viewer fill the gaps, interpret the depicted situation, finish the story, and in this way, become a co-creator of the artwork.
That may be the reason why many people feel uneasy looking at my toy series – their own fantasy terrifies them. I have been verbally attacked by people whom my morbid/macabre art has upset, and I have lost quite a number of followers on my social media accounts since I started my pain-paintings. Therefore I am so grateful to Gail for allowing me here to explain and not just barely defend myself.
I also try to title the paintings neutrally. When considering different titles, I can see how much they may lead to different directions of potential interpretations. Some of my paintings have borrowed their titles from music or art history. An object – or a colour – may have different symbolic meanings in different countries/cultures or individuals may bring these different interpretations, thus push/drag the understanding of a painting into unpredicted directions. It is always so interesting to hear what kind of stories people read into my pictures.
I paint from life. I prefer to have a direct eye contact and share the room and time with my subject-rather than work from a poorly coloured, flattened, and distorted image (digital or printed) of it. My nine years at art schools offered lots of practice in drawing and painting from life (six to seven hours every day was normal) so it has become a natural approach for me.
I am not particularly structured in my art-making process (nor in my housekeeping, sad to say) and have no patience for planning much ahead. So, often I just jump in and let the painting itself dictate the steps. Lots of choices and decisions come along during the work, impulsively and intuitively.
Not really having a plan from the beginning allows experimenting and happy accidents, but I am also aware that too many “what-ifs” may result in muddy, dull, and stuffy colours. This kind of gambling – not knowing where the road is taking me – thrills me.
I like to keep my options open, so although pre-planning might save me from lots of frustrations, I am afraid that following a firm step-by-step plan for a painting may kill the creativity. I prefer to have the “what-if-thrill” until the very end of the painting process instead of the mechanical execution of a program/recipe.
For the bigger and more complex setups, I may spend a lot of time moving things around, adding and/or removing the props, until I get a satisfying composition. In that process I sometimes do sketches, but mostly I just use my phone camera for considering the proportion, lighting, and cropping options. I may still change my setup even in the very last phases of the process if the painting asks for it. I use the camera also to record and analyse my work in progress.
I normally work all over the picture throughout the process, so it develops evenly. An exception is when painting fresh flowers as I may need to go to the details of each flower one at a time, before they turn away or wither. The results of this approach are very unpredictable.
I also want the background to be an active actor in my composition as it interacts with the objects and influences the way we perceive them. I like to experiment and implement wet techniques, combining it with the traditional dry pastel application. I do washes not only for underpainting but more or less throughout the entire process. I use both water and alcohol, often simultaneously. Together they make some interesting flows and drips that may benefit in solving some problematic areas or inspire the further steps.
Any surface that can take wet media, goes. (My favourites are UART, Fisher400, and Pastel Premier, and my absolute favourite is LuxArchival sanded paper.) Again, lots of potential for disappointments and frustrations but also chances for beautiful happy accidents.
I pay a lot of attention to the illumination of my setup, observing how the light bounces between the objects and affects my colour perception. The colour/temperature, angle, and distance of a light source have a big influence on the composition, on the value contrasts, on the shapes and rhythms of the shadows of the objects.
I have a lot of different pastel brands of high-end quality in my pastel box. I love and use them all, no favourites here. Any brand goes as long as the color and hardness are what I need.
The biggest challenge for me is not to overwork my piece, to know when to stop. Analyzing my work-in-progress photos afterwords, I may find where I should have stopped or made a different decision about the direction of proceeding. It is an everlasting learning process.
In the beginning of my artistic career, I was somewhat embarrassed about my affection for the still life genre. It had, or maybe still has, quite a low rank in the art hierarchy for its formalistic tendencies, at least in Estonia, my home country. I hope that my Nursery Games help to bring some more social context to still life.
Ohhhh, I had a marvellous time arranging and curating Silja Salmistu’s blog! I’m intrigued and fascinated by her use of toys to reveal social commentary. And, I have to admit that I’ve often had a twinge of discomfort in a room full of topsy turvy toys. There’s something sinister about a room full of lifeless dolls…
I hope with this guest blog that you’re encouraged to paint what you feel you wish to express. Don’t be afraid to use your art to communicate your emotions and feelings about some horrific and/or tragic event in the world. Art can certainly reveal the obvious as well as the unseen beauty of this world. It can also shine a spotlight on what others find hard to see or acknowledge. Consider these masterpieces from the past: Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Disasters of War series (referenced by Silja in her piece above), John Singer Sargent’s Gassed. I too have reacted to horrific events (and lost many subscribers from doing so!).
Now Silja Salmistu and I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, reactions, questions. So please do leave them in the comments.
Until next time,
The books I mentioned above: