(NOT) sorry for the mess!

Hello, who are you?
My name is Merja Simberg and I am a painter. I live in Munkkiniemi.

Have you always lived here in Helsinki?
I was born in Espoo, and studied a couple of years in Tampere, but I’m basically here. I love it.

What did you study and where?
I studied art at the Free Art School (Vapaa Taidekoulu) and graduated three years ago. The school was founded in 1935 by Maire Gullichsen, who collaborated a lot with the famous Finnish architects Alvar and Aino Aalto. She had previously studied in France, from where she brought in the particular approach that the school uses to teach art. They emphasize color painting.

Is it difficult to get in?
Only twenty to thirty people can enroll, and many apply every year. They set up a kind of two-week workshop, and assign tasks to the applicants. They observe their potential and track their progress, and after the two weeks they decide who gets in. Then, after one year of hard studies and work, a new selection is made, from which only about ten people will continue till the end of the program.

Ouch. That must hurt.
It’s painful because you already have invested a year, and then you have to move on… But no-one complained much, because it’s time well spent, for any artist.

How long are the studies? What is it like?
Four years. The first year was about exploring light and color, and it’s quite hard work. The next three years were more relaxed, and we were very much encouraged to follow our own personal insights and ways of expression. It was free of emphasis on particular techniques, so we had to explore and discover them by ourselves, with the help of the teachers who were there to answer our questions.

It was a good experience for you.
Oh, yeah. The atmosphere was great, the teachers so helpful… Also because there were people from every age group (I made friends with a lady who’s soon to be seventy). And with the people who continued till the end we bonded very well, and went on to collaborate and mount exhibitions together, and so on.

Do you miss school life?
Yes, I do. I miss the interaction, the shared feelings of doing… It’s lonely work now (laughs).

What were you doing before entering art school?
Oh, it’s not interesting…

Yes it is.
I was a housewife, taking care of my two children, and husband.

Were you doing artistic work in those times?
No, almost nothing.

So what prompted you to take art seriously?
I used to draw and paint a lot when I was a child… I remember telling my teacher and parents, when they asked what would I like to be when I grew up, that I wanted to be a painter. I always carried that in me. And I had to get out of the “household wife” rut and follow my instincts. I didn’t have much to lose anyway.

I disagree there. I think we end up avoiding taking chances because we believe we have a lot to lose. But we probably have nothing, and yet we are unwilling to risk it to accomplish something of real value.
That’s true… Yeah, I guess I realized I didn’t have what I really wanted.

Your Simberg name carries some powerful mojo. Any relation to Hugo Simberg, the famous Finnish painter?
Actually yes, but not from my family’s side. Paul, my husband’s great-grandfather, was Hugo’s twin brother.

Awesome; do you ever channel Hugo when you paint?
(laughs) Not that I know of.

Let’s talk about your style.
I don’t think I have one. And I would rather be free from any obligations and styles.

I understand. But like it or not, we are always moving within conventions.
I know what you mean. Well, the work process is very important for me, from beginning to end. Observing the color, how it moves, and makes patterns. The tensions in contrast and depth… But I don’t want to stick to a particular method, or be stylistically constricted in any way.

Right. But how did you achieve your current style? Did you begin with figurative, for example?
Yes, on the first year at school. We began drawing and painting, in oils. We had to do still lifes every day, we had nude models posing there. The idea was to get straight into oils as soon as possible, and see how one relates to the medium in their own way; to begin observing the interaction of color, and light… And then, after the first year, everything came crashing down (laughs). They said “don’t think about what you have done so far, forget it and do things in a different way! Now you can do whatever you want!”

Whoa. How did that feel?
It was quite hard… I was like “Aaargh! I have no idea where to go next!” But it’s part of their methodology, I guess. Like throwing someone into the water to see if they will swim… It was both relieving and terrifying.

And then you explored abstractionism?
It began with an interest in color. I started with oils, but I felt they were too sticky and I struggled with them too much, I couldn’t focus on what I wanted to express. I turned to acrylics for more precise control (lines, for example). So I started to combine them, according to what I needed. By creating several images on the canvas (sometimes I destroy part of it, to reveal or to conceal) it gradually transforms into something or other. That’s how I became interested in the process of the work, the contrasts, the tensions. I really don’t care what it really looks like in the end, I enjoy the process itself. I like the physicality of the exercise, it makes me happy. And I learn a lot, too. It’s a discovery that can lead to who knows where…

How do you begin a work?
I paint directly on the canvas, because I don’t like boards (they’re too hard) and I often turn it around for different perspectives. Of course I have certain intentions beforehand; I want to raise certain emotions. But I just want to start by doing something, and then see where it leads me to.

I suspect in abstract work the right brain may have certain predominance. Are you aware, while you work, of left and right brain interaction?
Sometimes I paint with both hands at the same time, if that’s what you mean.

Yes. Although I was thinking more in terms of creation / evaluation interplay.
Well, at first I don’t want to think about what I’m doing at all, I want to start doing something as soon as possible. And I make a conscious effort not to evaluate what’s going on there. But eventually the critic comes in and then I go “oh, what a mess I have done!” and change everything around. Sometimes there may be about ten paintings in one.

Are you happy with your current style?
No… I’m always evolving. I believe you should get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to find something new.

Where does it all come from, for you?
I believe you don’t have to have so many intentions, just go for it. Of course you must have something in mind, things that turn you on, drive you, or arouse feelings and emotions, but that is enough. And to go for the unexpected; I like surprises!

This is Merja’s website.