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Kalle Mustonen is a Finnish contemporary artist who reimagines modern culture in monumental and mythic terms, as in his intriguing large-scale wooden sculptures with shed-like interiors that visitors are often invited to peek into. The Gnome King series is based on stories from European folklore and recalls a certain variety of garden ornament. It also references a darker ecological and political message. I met and worked with Kalle in 2004 in Orivesi, Finland, and immediately knew he was a powerful force of nature, albeit a deceptively gentle one. He assisted me and taught many others in a sculpture studio at Oriveden Opisto where we were both preparing young people to apply to the art academy and art and design universities in Helsinki. Orivesi is a tiny town many miles north of Helsinki. This village community hosts a herd of young art students annually as they explore their work (and themselves), offering a portrait of unconditional generosity mixed with restrained Scandinavian irritation. I was there in the midst of all that, the American; they all put up with me, too, and we forged authentic connections for life. I followed Kalle's work closely, and when I returned to Finland in 2015, I was able to attend the Turku Biennale where one of his giant wood gnomes was featured. It effortlessly stole the show. Gnome King is a massive wooden “little fellow,” measuring 27.89 feet long, 14.76 feet tall, and 7.87 feet wide. He took a trip to London recently to be part of the exhibition Kalle Mustonen: Gnome King at the Southbank Centre not far from the site of the recent London Bridge terrorist attack. Shoe-horned into the gallery in Turku, his nose almost touched the ceiling and the visiting public could hardly get past him. Taking up far too much space, he was yet built in such a way that he was porous: one could catch glimpses of his inside armature and see other people passing on the other side. This was a highly amusing, incredibly smart, yet enigmatic piece of sculpture that was somehow also full of great sadness. Its overwhelming size somehow exuded vulnerability, which is so rare for massive works. Feeling like a Lilliputian while trying to squeeze past a massive hand-carved hand or ear was completely disorienting, enchanting, and disturbing all at the same time. It was one of the best pieces of sculpture installed into a gallery that I had ever seen in my life. Expertly crafted without being fussy, down to earth, yet bursting with metaphor and concept, it was nothing short of breathtaking. I took a million photos and sent them back to friends in the United States. Beatrix Reinhardt and I met in 2001 in Lithuania a month after 9/11; we both were in residence at Europos Parkas just outside of Vilnius. Europos Parkas is an interdisciplinary sculpture park that selects artists of all mediums to visit, believing that sculpture is one spoke in a larger creative wheel. I had immediately sensed a rambunctious force of nature in Beatrix, too, and then hired her to take photographs of my work at Europos Parkas. Again, I made a friend for life. Beatrix was appointed in spring 2016 to curate the fall 2016 and spring 2017 season of The Art Gallery of the College of Staten Island. When thinking of new works and concepts she reached out to fellow artists and curators to discuss possible exhibitions and collaborations. I sent her the photos of Kalle’s Gnome King at Turku in 2014. The rest is now history. Each student also created a gnome-informed/inspired personal project. These works will be part of the exhibition about the making of the gnome at The Art Gallery of the College of Staten Island from September 19 to October 21, 2017. Working with Kalle in small groups in the sculpture studio, these remarkable students (many of whom are not Art majors but are instead studying business, math, art history, English, and science) built a permanent commissioned piece of sculpture for their campus, leaving their mark here indefinitely. Together, we have also explored kitsch in contemporary art and the power and undertow of fairytales from the likes of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, in addition to considering the mundane as site for miraculous transformation. Kalle Mustonen’s work often plays with the idea of kitsch, bestowing mythic status on everyday objects. In doing so, he explores their underlying commonality with ancient monuments and places of worship. I somehow initiated all this, yet am now simply tagging along, perhaps even a nuisance. I am still scratching my head about a project that has uncannily come into existence, perhaps guided by the gnome himself. It certainly has all been very magical and gnome-like. As an artist/curator who is exclusively interested in larger-scale projects that often involve creating work in community with people who would never consider themselves artists, I believe this project has all the best ingredients. It is an honor to work with the funny, scrappy, curious students; the lovely park-like campus; and the wonderful educators, staff, and assistants in a great studio situation. I loved the feel of the CUNY–Staten Island campus the moment I arrived, and after meeting the 23 students and hearing of their histories of “making stuff” (whether that meant a piece of art or a project in an uncle’s garage or helping a parent fix a banister with power tools and carpentry skills), I felt immediately at home and knew this would be the perfect spot for Kalle and the gnome. It is uncanny the way this project fell together and came into existence. Yes, it has taken an immense amount of hard work on the part of many people, but it has felt supernatural from the start. Unmistakably, this gnome wanted to be built. Right here, right now. Why is the gnome laying down? Is the gnome sleeping? Is the gnome dead? Why is the gnome so large, when in their most recent popular history, gnomes have been perky miniatures nestled in yards? Gnomes have been the keepers and guardians of the forest realm; their snug cottages have been sites for transformation and healing. Animals and humans a like change when they encounter a gnome/home. Think about Snow White and the countless tales of forest “little people” aiding a hurt mouse, communing with a hawk, or working to divert some kind of tragedy like a forest fire or flood. They have conversations with earth worms. Gnomes are busy. Yet this one is clearly not. It gives one pause to consider that the huge form of the guardian of the forest could be dead: a death knell or wake-up call on the scale of a planet, in ecological terms, or a warning that our little helpers can no longer help or heal us; it’s too late. Jean Pitman August 2017 Jean Pitman is a visual artist, educator, and curator who works in a wide range of media and projects almost always involving others. She moved to Columbus, OH in 2008 from Honolulu, HI and has advanced degrees in studio art and museum studies. Spending a lifetime on larger-scale work anywhere from a village in rural Finland to a Native American Indian Reservation in Wisconsin to a drop-in center for homeless youth in Minneapolis, her main interest is in amplifying the image, voice, reality, and perspective of those who have traditionally been invisible to and unheard by most through interdisciplinary contemporary art projects engaging with communities and groups of people. Jean is presently employed at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University as their Youth and Community Programs Manager.
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