Visual artist Minna Suoniemi: “You can read more complex emotions from Schjerfbeck’s portraits than sorrow, happiness or anger”

Minna Suoniemi is an artist and lecturer in art pedagogy at Aalto University. On half term she will lead a Helene Schjerfbeck -inspired drawing and photography workshop for families at the Royal Academy. In this interview she explains what to expect.

What do you do in the workshop?

“The workshop has three parts. First we do a silent walk in the Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition which helps us get set. Through this exercise we explore how it is to be together silently and what kind of communication emerges in silence. After the walk we will talk about the experience.

The second part of the workshop is a drawing exercise that also focuses on being together without using words. Participants are looking at each other and drawing without looking at the paper. In this exercise it is important to observe details as carefully as possible. Hand is trying to follow what the eye sees without the drawer looking at the paper. The goal of this exercise is to let go of the learned idea of what a person should look like. The other drawing exercise is a haptic self-portrait where the drawer uses their other hand to feel their face and draws what they feel with the other one. These exercises focus on different senses.

The third part is a photo collage that is made in pairs. Participants design a photo of their pair that expresses a certain emotion. The photos are then printed and turned into collages where this emotion can be seen.”

What is it like to work with children?

“It’s very rewarding to work with small children because they are often open-minded and brave towards all the material. From my experience children are talkative and have initiative until secondary school. Later on they get more reserved and aware which sometimes makes them unable to be open-minded. Children and young people are usually open to what art can be and what is happening in art. They don’t have fixed ideas of what art is or isn’t. They don’t think that art is difficult or pointless like some adults do. When working with children the timetables must be vigorous and the instructor must always know what happens next. You must also be more flexible and have discretion when working with children.”

Schjerfbeck is known for her self-portraits. What new can children living in today’s selfie culture learn from them?

“Usually in selfie culture people present a certain public image of themselves like ‘Look how cool I am’ or ‘I’m doing so well and I’m happy’. Children can learn, see and reflect a wider range of emotions from Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits. That’s why the workshop includes an emotion exercise. You can read different emotions from Schjerfbeck’s portraits that are more complex than just sorrow, happiness or anger. Schjerfbeck’s portraits don’t necessarily show these basic emotions but something in between or something harder to define. In the workshop we can discuss what emotions or presentations the participants observe compared to selfies.”

How do you think that the London workshop differs from the ones that you have led in Finland?

“I can’t say if there are any national characteristics. Of course London is a much bigger city. There is also a selected group of participants because there is a fee. That’s why the workshop can be very similar to ones I have organised in Finnish museums. The context of the workshop has a big effect. The relationship with Schjerfbeck is definitely different in London because in Finland Schjerfbeck is an icon. In London the incidence angle probably focuses more on the fact that she was a female painter during that time.”

What kind of an experience would you like the workshop to be for children and families?

“I hope that it will be good to work in groups. I’ve thought that the families would work as small groups or pairs. I hope that the workshop opens up new ways to see others and that self-portraits would be seen as a means to acknowledge emotions. The collage workshop is definitely going to be fun. I hope that the workshop doesn’t become too serious and that there is also a playful element throughout the workshop.”


Family half-term workshop: picture this, Royal Academy of Arts, Clore Learning Centre, Burlington Gardens, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/event/family-half-term-workshop-picture-this-photography, 21 October, tickets: £13–18

Text: Kaisa Paavola Photo: Salla Keskinen


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