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September/October 2001


The Haavistos of Helsinki
by Carol K. Russell

Mother and daughter have traveled their own paths from their Finnish forebears' textile traditions to success in creating textiles-as-art.

Anna-Riitta Haavisto, Spring Migration of Birds, 1996; black currant branches, silk, stones, metal; 32 by 17 by 17 inches. Photo: Ulla Paakkunainen.

Trekking through a dense forest in central Finland, I came upon a clearing pierced by the Nordic sun, whose sole purpose at that moment was to illuminate a lofty sculpture composed of native tree trunks linked here and there with wrappings of brightly colored yarns. Deep scars in the wood forged by powerful antlers and teeth asserted their supremacy in this wilderness over the incursive marks of the human hand. Unusual? Yes. Surprising? Not really, considering that my intrepid Finnish guide was artist Anna-Riitta Haavisto. The sculpture, viewed rarely in its permanent installation, was Elk's Crown, presented by the artist to the forest she had loved since early childhood. So began this adventure of unfolding two remarkable careers in fine-art textiles: those of Anna-Riitta and her mother, Riitta-Liisa Haavisto.

In Finland, it is not unusual for a mother and daughter to practice traditional textile-making techniques. The epic poem The Kalevala, expressing Finnish national identity in its oldest and purest form, stipulates that bridegrooms:

Fetch a fit shuttle
a decent batten
a proper breast beam
cut handsome treadles
fetch all weaving tools
put the maiden to the loom
the batten to her grasp
only then will the reed slam
the loom thud, the clanking be
heard in the village
the reed's rattle further off.

Finnish girls are expected to learn and eventually pass on to their daughters the skills of weaving, embroidery, spinning, sewing, and knitting. For generations, Haavisto women made all the requisite samplers, until the 1920s, when Riitta-Liisa's renegade aunt, Laila Karttunen, strayed into the seductive realm of fine-art textiles -- and never looked back. By 1952, Karttunen had developed an international reputation for her abstract paintings, tapestries, and embroideries, influenced in succession by the karelian motifs of Finnish folk art, cubism, the Bauhaus, and eventually the strong lines and colors of her own mature poetic vision. It was this highly evolved artist who inspired first her niece, Riitta-Liisa, then her grandniece, Anna-Riitta, to set free the threads and structures of handcrafted textiles to assume deeper metaphors and meanings as fine art. If Karttunen were alive today, she would be pleased that evidence of her artistic lineage now extends from the remote forest in Finland to galleries in London, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, Philadelphia and New York.

Riitta-Liisa Haavisto, Green, 2001; silk, cotton; embroidery; 5 by 5 by 1.2 inches. Photo: Matti Huuhka.
Before venturing forth into fine art, Riitta-Liisa Haavisto enjoyed a long career as an award-winning fashion designer. She designed clothing for Finnish industry and special garments for the disabled. Eventually she began teaching, first at Helsinki's University of Art and Design, then at Häme Polytechnic. In their own ways, these pursuits were rewarding and allowed a creative woman to find definition as a Finnish artist. Throughout these years, however, Riitta-Liisa seemed always to be tucking away design ideas for the day when she might at leisure execute them in her uninhibited style of embroidery. By the time she retired and could make whatever she pleased, there were so many ideas competing for realization that she typically works on several pieces simultaneously.

Riitta-Liisa's figurative embroideries are inspired by people -- of whom she makes endless piles of sketches -- and by the shadowy creatures, hobgoblins, and fairies she, as a child, imagined inhabiting the Finnish forests. Even backgrounds and negative spaces, potent elements in all Riitta-Liisa's compositions, intensify her enigmatic subjects, portrayed with minimal but convincing facial expression. In the hands of this virtuoso, layers of fragile, yielding threads suggest pensive revisions of dreams portrayed in waking terms. Her geometric and sculptural works are similarly spontaneous yet assured. Nothing seems willed here. It is as if each form or color reveals the next logical note in the music of her personal sphere. Present always though is the unmistakable equilibrium of a master conductor.

Anna-Riitta intentionally skirted her mother's considerable reputation in the fashion industry and pursued diplomas in fabric design from England's Central St. Martins College of Art and Design and the University of East London. However, even as a young girl, she experimented with making art in the textile medium. There were dreamy summer days spent weaving on her little loom and chatting with Aunt Laila, who would be sketching or painting designs for tapestries. Her aunt's cottage, the site of this idyllic era, was painted black. While a most unusual color for the clapboards of a summer home in Finland, black audaciously set off the red roof, green trim, and white roses growing all around. Later, in design school, Anna-Riitta would study the formal hue systems and quickly reject them as too predictable. Inevitably, she would embrace the vivid, sophisticated contrasts of her childhood.

Laila Karttunen, Three, 1953; linen tapestry, damask.
As in her mother's, one senses in Anna-Riitta's art the aesthetic influences of the cubists and the Bauhaus; however, both Haavistos clearly depart from the emotional neutrality of those movements. Seeking inspiration in culture, religion, or her generation's political and environmental tempests, Anna-Riitta -- today an established artist, though still with an experimental inclination -- transforms vast, interconnected human dilemmas into taut, focused fiber sculptures. Her approach, less descriptive than either her mother's or her aunt's, reflects a rare inner consonance with an unpredictable and often discordant universe. In a manner not unlike Mondrian's, she vents personal or societal realities through an orderly visual language.

Over the years, the Haavistos have shown in solo or group exhibitions throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. Then in 1998, at the urging of an appreciative art critic, London's Coningsby Gallery offered them their first shared exhibition, "Two Generations-Two Visions." Their captivating embroideries and sculptures led viewers through the gallery's sleek, elegant spaces with a rationale and poise seldom pulled off in mixed-technique fiber shows. Here, perhaps for the first time, a lucid succession of works from both Haavistos made it possible to appreciate fully their complex creative impulses. Anna-Riitta's fusions of brilliant yarns with natural materials such as rocks, twigs, and water describe compelling entanglements of interior and exterior landscapes. Characteristically, her sculptures draw additional pictures in the overlapping shadows of their provocative elements. With impossibly fine threads, Riitta-Liisa suspends viewers in an elusive vista somewhere between recognition and sensation. Critic Matt Potter wrote of the pieces in the show, "They are often marvelous, in their composition and craft as much as in their conception. But the whole creative endeavor is unified to the point where one ceases to stand apart and regard such things as craft or materials."

For the most part, the Haavistos create independent of each other's company, while collaborating on the practical matters of making their exhibitions run smoothly.

In 2001, they will have exhibited in Vienna, Austria; Newport, Wales; Madrid, Spain; and Logan, Utah. Recently they were given a grant to live in New York for three months and further expand their sensibilities with the art and culture of that great city. Traveling nearly halfway around the world by airplane, train, jeep, and finally the New York City subway system, I chased after the Haavistos. They agreed to sit still for one last interview, the final leg of my fascinating, if a bit circuitous, journey through three generations of their talented Finnish family.

Anna-Riitta and Riitta-Liisa Haavisto. Photo: Anna Kaisa Huusko.
Work by one or both Haavistos will be on view at the Ex Church of San Francesco, Como, Italy, from September 22 to October 27 and at the Finnish Cultural Institute in Berlin, Germany, from November 15 to December 21. Anna-Riitta Haavisto will speak in a panel discussion at SOFA Chicago on October 6.

Carol K. Russell of Morristown, New Jersey, is a teacher, writer, and curator.

Additional images available only on

Anna-Riita Haavisto, Colorful Reflections, 2000; steel, wool, cotton; 11 x 10.6 x 0.275 inches. Photo: Johnny Korkman.


Anna-Riita Haavisto, Colorful Reflections (detail), 2000; steel, wool, cotton; 11 x 10.6 x 0.275 inches. Photo: Johnny Korkman.


Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Family Gathering, 2000; linen, cotton, silk; 12 x 12 x 0.8 inches. Photo: Johnny Korkman.


Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Fountain, 1998; linen; 5.75 x 4.75 x 4.75 inches. Photo: Matti Huuhka.


Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Orbit I, 1999; metal, linen; 3.2 inches in diameter. Photo: Johnny Korkman.


Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Harvest, 2000; silk, cotton, embroidery; 5.75 x 5.75 inches. Photo: Matti Huuhka.

This profile first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2001


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