Photo by Katja Hagelstam

Helsinki-based textile artist Melissa Sammalvaara’s works are modern takes on ryijy, a traditional Finnish woven tapestry. Her latest work Tuohi (Finnish for ‘Birch bark’) was commissioned by Institut finlandais as part of the exhibition Écoutons la forêt pousser, currently on display at the institute. 

During the setting up of the exhibition, we had the chance to interview Melissa on her practice and the process of crafting her biggest work so far. 

 

How and when did you get into making ryijys? How did it become the core of your practice?

I have always been into crafts. I have had periods where I was very into jewellery making and others where I did lots of knitting. I started my studies at Aalto University in the BA Interior Architecture and Furniture Design program, and after that proceeded to the master’s program in the same subject. 

During my studies, I did many different types of optional short arts courses from ceramics to photography. The ones that I liked the most were the ones in textile design. I fell in love with designing patterns and working with textiles and colour, something that was in contrast with minimalistic style at the Interior Architecture and Furniture Design course. Soon after I decided to transfer to the Fashion, Clothing and Textile Design course and that’s where I got into weaving.

In the textile classes I fabricated my first ryijy, a very small piece that I named Naava (usnea). It is to this day one of my favourite works, and I find that it has some similarities with Tuohi. Although everyone on the course was doing all kinds of crazy projects, getting assistance in weaving was difficult. I felt that I had to insist on wanting to learn the technique and to justify why I wanted to do something that tedious. I see the slowness of the process of weaving as something positive, it demands concentration and is very meditative. 

I graduated from the Fashion, Clothing and Textile Design Master’s programme at Aalto University in 2019, right before the pandemic started. The months that followed provided me a perfect opportunity to take a moment to reflect on what I would like to do and to shape the practice that I have today. 

 

How was the process of fabricating Tuohi for Institut finlandais? 

It all started when I got contacted by Johanna Råman, the director of Institut finlandais asking  if I would be interested in fabricating an artwork for Institut finlandais. I got very excited about this request and thought that this would be a wonderful project. I was already familiar with the Institute, but had never visited the premises. We went on to discuss the project in more detail, I showed some reference photos that I had taken and drew some sketches that I then presented. 

All my propositions were somehow related to nature, but together we came to the conclusion that Tuohi was the one to go forward with. I was delighted, as it was also my personal favourite. The work was shaped by the dialogue I had with the institute and I designed it to both fit the new exhibition Listen to the Forest that Grows thematically and the institute spatially. As the Institute presents the Finnish culture in Paris, I felt like bringing a piece of Finnish forest to the wall of the big hall was just right. 

For Tuohi, I used different types of yarns that I thrifted from flea markets and second hand shops in Helsinki. It was a challenge to find enough yarn in the right colours, and finding all the material that I needed took a lot of effort. After finding the materials, I then combined several different types of yarns together with a yarn swift to obtain more thickness as well as variation in shades. Although you can’t necessarily point out all the shades of yarn that have been used in the final piece, the correct use of colour in different parts of the design was important to get the envisioned end result.

Still, the process went very smoothly, and there were no obstacles or adversities in my way. Sometimes projects evolve into outcomes that are completely different from the original idea, but this time the idea remained unchanged throughout the process. I am very happy with the result, the artwork resonates with its surroundings the way I intended.

 

Your artworks examine the human–nature relationship of today. How do you see this relationship? What thoughts do you intend to evoke with your artworks?  

I find that people have gotten alienated from nature because they are constantly surrounded by productive thinking and mass production. Less and less things are done by hand, although crafts have lately been trending. The information and image overload has caused us to no longer be able to concentrate on anything. Throw-away culture is present in all aspects of life. When working with textiles, the questions regarding sustainability are particularly important. I often ask myself, isn’t there any way to prevent the planet from being destroyed?

Slowing down and focusing on what I do is very important to me. I spent a lot of time in nature, and have always loved to wander in forests, ever since I was a child. Still, being in nature is not limited to bushes and forest. Here in Paris, when I’ve looked outside my window, I’ve seen vines that grow on the facades of buildings and mosses covering the stone foundations of houses. People have beautiful balconies that are filled with marvellous plants. The city has beautiful parks, although they are curated and not in a natural state.  The man-built environment is not an island, and I don’t think it’s even possible to fully separate yourself from nature, it is always present somehow.  

By using recycled materials, I want to promote the idea that making new things doesn’t necessarily need to be done with new materials. Why wouldn’t we use the materials that already exist? Through my works, I want to communicate how important it is to preserve the diversity in nature. Weaving rugs is my objection to the throw-away society, the constantly accelerating pace of life and prioritising productivity over everything else.

With Tuohi, I have intentionally played with scale, zoomed in on something that is not easily noticeable in nature. As human beings, we often tend to think that the scale in which we see things is the norm. Still, even in the tiniest piece of moss there is a lot of life to be discovered. We often forget that those tiny organisms that can’t be seen by the naked eye all add their valuable input in the functioning of an ecosystem. Through my works, I want to bring this unnoticed part of nature on display to people’s homes and exhibition spaces.

 

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share?

One of my upcoming projects that I am planning is related to pollinators, where I am using embroidery as a technique. It is part of a bigger theme I’m working on, and the idea is to create spatial installations with tapestry. Another project I have in mind is experimenting with tufting, a modern ryijy-making technique that is carried out with a special machine.  

This summer, I am going to Åland for a 2-month artistic residency. My works will also be displayed in a few upcoming exhibitions in Tampere, Helsinki and Kumlinge in Åland as part of my residency.

 

Tuohi is displayed at the institute’s Café Maa, open from 11 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Saturday. The exhibition Listen to the Forest that Grows is open until 30 July at Institut finlandais.