Sini Kunnas has painted nearly a thousand artworks over the past twenty years. Walking alone, becoming rejected and facing outright malice in the field of art funding led her to years-long sadness. By stepping out from galleries, she finally found happiness.
Text and photos: Miika Koskela
Translation: Jaana Etula
SINI KUNNAS is an expert in classic portrait painting, and she is also known for her sketch-like line drawings and acrylic collages. Today, Kunnas also makes abstract art and performances, and presents her work more and more on the streets and on the internet.
Kunnas debuted as a professional artist twenty years ago in galleria Artegrafica in Helsinki. In her early work, she sought for inspiration in calligraphy, traditional Asian art and classics of Western modernism, such as works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
Since the early years, Kunnas’ works have been exhibited not only in Finland but also in Paris, Shanghai and New York. Already in the early 2000s, Espoo Museum of Modern Art, EMMA, chose three collages of Kunnas in the museum’s permanent collection.
Kunnas’ collage art originated from the observation that the artist made at the turn of the millennium: the media and school education convey a very fragmented and carefully selected picture of contemporary history.
Kunnas went through large numbers of magazines from the early 1930s to the late 60s. She chose pictures that touched her personally. Kunnas cut out both well-known and historically marginalised characters of the magazines, and made surprising new juxtapositions giving rise to often powerful interpretations.
”By doing collage, I freed myself from the naive views of contemporary history that I had been taught. I understood that there is no truth. There’s only a collection of chosen stories, and a lot remains untold.”
After years of collage art, Kunnas applied for the Repin Institute in 2007. The institute’s classical artist training brought her the ability to move freely between different techniques and genres.
The study program at the Repin Institute in Kotka follows the traditions of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. Discipline was military-like. In less than a year, the artist lost eight kilos, but learned to love painting and fell in love with romantic but strong portraits.
“The Repin Institute hit me hard. I was happy but beaten inside. I greatly appreciate the traditional Russian perspective on art, but Slavic melancholy doesn’t fit my way of thinking about art.”
THE EARLY years of Kunnas’ career were not easy. For years she struggled with grant applications, and she felt that she was walking alone in the field of art.
”I worked 14 hours a day. I painted, travelled, talked and gave interviews. Yet I was continuously rejected in the funding field, and I often experienced outright malice.”
The artist was not at home in the art galleries of Helsinki either. According to Kunnas, gallerists rarely succeed in creating genuine encounters with artists and their audiences.
“For fifteen years I painted alone, and I financed my exhibitions mainly myself. I met my audience only in the openings of exhibitions, which were followed by an empty feeling. I travelled home by bus – alone, with a bouquet on my lap – and I thought that I couldn’t continue like this.”
As an artist, Kunnas wanted to get closer to her audience. She reasoned that it was possible to meet the full spectrum of people on the streets of cities.
”I decided to step out of the galleries – to the streets where the rich and the poor walk side by side. This has been one of the best decisions that I have made as an artist.”
Then, when Sini Kunnas’ 10-year test membership with the Finnish Painters’ Union came to a close, the collaboration was not extended. The artist started looking for a support network, audience, and funding from outside the traditional art scene.
Street art freed Kunnas mentally but also financially. She no longer had to pay for expensive exhibition spaces.
“It makes no sense to pay thousands of euros to gallerists who don’t value me, my audience or my art – and they don’t even get my works sold.”
IN 2013, when Kunnas found #HCPSPIRIT as a partner, the digital leap and moving to the streets received an extra boost.
But the first fruit of this collaboration was a more traditional joint exhibition with actor and artist Jyrki Nousiainen in the office of Helsinki Capital Partners. However, the artists’ work with #HCPSPIRIT was different from traditional gallery projects from the very beginning. Now Kunnas had an exhibition space and audience for free, without financial risk.
The first collaborative project was soon followed by another. In the Manhattan Street Poster Art project, Kunnas was able to exhibit her art in the streets and on the internet at the same time.
This project combined traditional portrait art, street art and conceptual art. In May 2015, Kunnas travelled to New York with a stack of black-and-white portrait posters. The artist spread the posters on the streets of Manhattan, and she herself focused on recording the reactions of passers-by who encountered her art.
”Manhattan was a social psychological test where I found strong reactions from people. I surprised passers-by by throwing my works in front of them. Some people looked at me like I was selling myself. They thought that the poster was litter. Others were startled to see valuable art lying on the ground, and they rushed to save my works.”
While Kunnas adventured the streets of New York, posters were also exhibited at Arabia Street Festival and the artist’s studio in Helsinki. The whole project was documented on social media.
Manhattan Street Poster Art proved that street art is not just art that is created on the streets. Above all, street art is about the fact that people and art meet. Kunnas herself learned limitlessness and freedom from control from the project – people’s reactions may surprise completely. A genuine encounter requires giving up all expectations.
“The best feedback about the project was when people later asked whether the posters trampled in Manhattan were available somewhere.”
The next project by Kunnas, Peaces of Light, was already completely digital. On Epiphany in 2016, Kunnas travelled from Finland to the Spanish sun. She wanted to send pieces of light to people struggling with winter darkness, and she photographed people in the sunshine of Malaga.
DIGITAL ART is a continuum to the effort to get closer to audiences. According to Kunnas, the internet is today’s street, where people walk and meet.
“On Instagram and the internet, I make my art freely available, and all interested are welcome to view it.”
Kunnas has continued her work in the digital world by publishing a series of #saapua art speeches on YouTube only. The artist’s next actual art project is a video performance, which is also published solely on YouTube.
”I’ve taken safety training and practiced self-defence skills. In my video work that will be released next summer, I combine painting, performance, and self-defence.”
After just turning 50, the artist celebrates her over 20-year career with confidence. As an artist, she has found appreciation, freedom and joy among art supporters that operate outside galleries. Almost a thousand published works, her experience, technical skills and extensive support network bring confidence to her work.
“As an artist, I’m kind of a funny amoeba for changing my technique always according to my mood. Sometimes I make classic portraits, sometimes abstract drawings or modern conceptual art. The ever-changing sound of each moment is also reflected in my works.”