Always, always have a plan A.

Hello! Who are you?
My name is Tiina-Maria Aalto, and I am a visual artist from Helsinki. I was born here and grew up in the eastern suburbs.

What did you study?
I attended Pekka Halonen Academy for a year, but then left for Turku University of Applied Sciences’ Arts Academy (I was 23). Turku Arts Academy is well known for its visual art department, also known by its old name ”the drawing school of Turku” (Turun Piirustuskoulu in Finnish). The school was “old fashion” and in addition to the figure and experimental drawing classes our main subjects were painting, art graphics and sculpture. We had to choose a branch from these three after the first year, and I went for painting. At first we focused on studying painting media and practical studies with given classical subjects like portrait art, but we were encouraged to explore more and more along the studies. I’m so grateful I’ve been able to study there.

Was it easy to leave Helsinki and begin a new life in Turku?
I had lived on my own in a small town (Rauma) before, so moving or living elsewhere was not a big issue. I was happy to study art in one of the oldest art schools in Finland, and I joined the board of students and the Academy’s gallery board, so I didn’t really have time to feel lonely. I met animators, circus artists, puppeteers, musicians, film-makers… Many of them are still close friends. But I did miss Helsinki.

Since when were you interested in producing art?
My parents sent me to art school first when I was five, and I know I already liked it; I always wanted to do art. As a young adult I did question it for a while, because the reality of the profession is tough. I contemplated something else entirely for my profession, to support making art on the side. But then I realized that we only get one shot at life, and I didn’t want to settle for a Plan B. So I decided to pursue plan A and get an art education. And in 2009, while still at the Turku Arts Academy, I volunteered for an exchange to France, which I had always wanted. I didn’t speak any French, so I learned a very valuable asset: to be quiet and observe. I had a terrific time there, their methods were really different, and I was a bit anxious of coming back home. I had a surprise chance to leave to the UK, and I went. I worked there as a volunteer in a gallery and did some projects too, then finally came back to Finland to finish my studies and graduate.

Did the experience abroad nurture you?
Oh, absolutely. I grew up, I matured. And I also made new friends from all over the world! Also, before I left for France, I had certain issues with my painting; I felt I was stuck. But in France I had this kind of, um, revelation…the colors came into my work. Before I left I’d been doing self-portraits as a way to explore how people see themselves, and my works were often almost monochromatic. But in France something gave way. I turned my focus on others, and started to do portraits. After that I really painted. I just couldn’t stop.

Was there a particular moment that triggered this epiphany?
There was a very defining moment, yes. It was when we had to present our personal projects in performances. Mine was to appear in front of the class and name myself… stark naked. The idea only was terrifying! At first I thought I would keep my underwear on… A few moments before the presentation I was at the cafeteria, having a cappuccino and thinking “am I really going to do this or pretend to do it..?” And then I just went and did it, which was incredibly liberating. I remember that at the time I was writing a personal diary, and I was so reserved and shy and vulnerable, but I wanted to be more open and unconstrained; artists have to be honest! So I stood there in front of them, took my clothes off and introduced myself in English, French and Finnish, and then let them sink it in for a while.

Wow. What was your mood during the presentation? Serious, funny?
Very concentrated and determined. And terribly nervous! Being Finnish, it’s not a big deal for most of us to take off our clothes to go to the sauna or swim on the lake, but getting naked in front of a class of international people … was quite scary. My knees were shaking, but unfortunately it doesn’t show in the video.

I’m sure you became very popular after that…
(laughs) I got encouraging comments from many people, especially from women, and even from those who were not very comfortable speaking English before. It was a very positive experience.

Well, you lost all your fear of criticism in France; now you can do whatever you want!

Let’s talk about your current medium. When did you pick watercolors?
Right after my graduation in 2012. I noticed there wasn’t a lot of work being done on watercolors in fine arts, and I began to explore that because I found the medium diverse and unique. At the time I was also into portraiture, which was the subject of my degree work.

But watercolors are not exclusive for you; you have worked in oils and acrylics.
Yes, I haven’t discarded that nor other media either. I worked a lot with acrylic because it’s so easy to work with, dries up quickly and so on. And oils is something that has been tickling my mind for a while, I want to go back. But right now I’m into watercolors, because I know how to bring the medium alive and express myself.

Is that what led you into the mannequins project?
Yes. I had been documenting mannequin dolls on display windows, and making portraits of them using watercolors. I was intrigued by the mannequins, and how they somehow represent scenes from a theater play. And people don’t usually notice the mannequins themselves as they walk by or look at the products, but there are things happening there. I shoot several snapshots with the low-quality camera of my mobile phone, and take it from there. It’s very exploratory, because I approach with an idea, but suddenly the work takes me in another direction. And balance is important as well, because watercolors are strict. The choices while painting are not so many.

Are you interested in the people who arranged the mannequins too?
Not really. I’m interested in exploring what can be seen. There are some incredible displays in Helsinki, people get really creative with them. It can be amusing to think of their mannequin-stories, or what they may be talking about. And when I paint them they become more human-like, and less objects.

I notice you include the glass reflections on the windows as well.
Yes! I’ve been told that some people can recognize the places by looking carefully at the reflections… On some of them I include reflections of their environment, in others not. It depends on what I’m focusing on.

Do you ever ask for permission? How do you compose the angles?
I don’t ask for permission because I shoot as a passer-by, from the outside. The photos are my sketches, something to begin to work with. And since I can’t change anything in the display (and I wouldn’t want to, I can change things in the actual painting!) my only choice is the angle and position of the perspective. So if you see someone hanging from a fire-ladder while trying to take a shot of a display window, it’s probably me.

Do you see yourself as a commercial artist?
I definitely want to exhibit, it’s important for me. If someone wants to buy, much better, but my priority is to let others see my work, and not work in a vacuum.

Plans for the future?
Many! I will continue working and enjoying it more and more every year. It’s becoming easier and easier as I know my rhythm of work. And I have plans to go abroad and explore the mannequins project within other cultures, like Japan. I imagine myself out there looking for creative mannequin displays! But I always have ideas in mind, and I’m waiting for them to mature and see the light.

Tiina-Maria will be exhibiting her delightful watercolors of mannequins at Galleria
Saima (Neitsytpolku 9, Helsinki) from the 15th of April to the 4th of May, 2015.