INTERVIEW OF NATALIE SALMINEN RUDE
Your last name, Salminen, is definitely Finnish.
My Finnish heritage stems from my father. My great-grandfather, Alfred, moved from Vaasa, Finland to Toronto in 1903. He fled Finland as a young husband and father because the Russian army was kidnapping young Finnish men to serve in the Russian army. He sailed to Toronto, moved to North Dakota, and then to Virginia, MN to work in the iron mines. Great-grandfather Salminen then moved his wife and four children from Finland to Virginia, where my grandfather, Bernhardt Veikko Salminen, was born. He grew up speaking Finnish and English and taught his parents English. Eventually, my great grandparents received their citizenship, of which they were very proud. My grandfather then met my Swedish grandmother in Denver, CO. He’d been drafted into WWII and stationed in Denver. They married and settled in Mahtomedi, MN.
My mother’s mother was Swedish. Growing up with a robust Scandinavian heritage was a defining element of our family. Ancestral reminders came from nursery rhymes sung by our grandparents in Swedish and Finnish, from the food they made, the slang they spoke, the sauna’s they stoked, and the stories they told. It came from the artwork on the walls and from the napkins on the table, from the needlework and the candy dishes and the glass birds sitting on their shelves. It came from the morning kahvi and pulla bread and from the salty black licorice I’d sneak from the glass dish besides my grandpa’s arm chair. Although my grandpa did not teach my father Finnish because they were “American”, the pride of that heritage was clearly felt and celebrated.
I recently interviewed watercolorist John Salminen and he confided you’re not related …
It’s wild that John and I aren’t related given our shared surname and love of art. I met him at my first solo show in the George Morrison Gallery in 2005. I was honored he attended. He told me that when I was in high school, he received many phone calls at his house looking for me! We’ve crossed paths at other events. His work is a true gift to our community and the world.
How did you become involved in art?
I wasn’t overtly artistic as a child but I always had a very, very strong aesthetic conviction. In kindergarten (ask my mom!) I had an eye for design and beauty. In both middle and high school, I was blessed to have Tom Rauschenfels and John Harder as art educators at Hermantown. Their encouragements became confirming voices. As a young person, I formed the image that artists were selfish, solitary beings, who were out of touch with their realities and communities. After a few years of international travel, I pursued a BFA from UW-Superior and worked as a studio assistant for Jay Steinke and Lisa Stauffer. Even so, I still didn’t want to be an artist. But I knew it would be the only thing I’d enjoy pursuing at UWS. Timothy Cleary was my sculpture professor at UWS and he sang the same beautiful encouragements I’d heard earlier. His mentorship was also paramount to my artistic unfolding.
After more travel, I met two accomplished artists in south Florida, Clyde and Niki Butcher. They mentored me and helped me get started as a professional, working artist. My youthful idea of what an artist is matured while witnessing their lives. They worked hard and hand-in-hand with their community, as well as with conservation agencies around the country, to document “the last of wild Florida.” Their example gave me the vision of the arts at work I needed to see embodied.
I’ve been continually inspired by fellow artists and supporters. When someone is willing to invest in you, when someone believes in the work you’re doing, there’s no greater agent for motivation and living out one’s purpose.
What have been the disciplines in art in which you’ve concentrated?
My BFA concentrations were ceramics and oil painting. I love the physicality of ceramics, but the color that came from oil painting was the language I wanted to speak most. I also began exploring encaustic medium: a marriage of physicality and color. Encaustic has become a primary medium for me: its versatility is mind-blowing. It’s an ancient medium of beeswax, damar resin, and pigment, fused by heat. Encaustic is created by painting in layers. Within each layer, the wax may be carved into, sculpted or have mixed media embedded. The possibilities are endless. (The Egyptians painted funerary portraits with encaustic: it’s impervious to moisture. These Fayum portraits are still with us today, almost 3000 years old!)
My studio is multidisciplinary. I work in both two and three dimensions, incorporating printmaking, sculpture, oil, encaustic, mixed media, collage, photography, and haiku poetry.
My current passion is my forever passion – which is to follow my curiosity. Wonder is my creative fuel! I’ll never not be amazed. I’m grateful that I’m able to follow what intrigues me and work out these ideas in whatever medium communicates the ideas best. I truly love what I do. And whatever I seem to be exploring – whether the work of the Finnish design house, Marimekko, or of the late French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, and his work on the sociological impacts of technology, writing fables celebrating the North Shore of Lake Superior, or creating encaustic paintings of the BWCA to pair with the writings of conservationist and author Sigurd F. Olson – all of these explorations are nuanced and layered, just like my work. I want to be a bridge builder and draw more people to see their own place within the arts. Creativity is everyone’s birthright.
What a gift this humble poetry has become for me! Haiku is an ancient Japanese literary form that traditionally follows the form of three lines in seventeen syllables – five, seven and five, respectively.
I started writing haiku to go along with photographs I was taking. Haiku captures an essence, a moment in time. In my studio practice Haiku has become a doorway to so many things! I had a brick-and-mortar studio and showroom in Hunter’s Park a few years ago, aptly named Studio Haiku.
a poetic atmosphere
for creative acts
With all the clanging cymbals and noisy gongs that fill our cultural climate, haiku gives us space to think upon one idea slowly, contemplatively.
like a small smooth stone
rolling thoughts around with care
quietly, I see
And isn’t that what we crave more of today amidst this hectic pace? Start writing little poems with your higher power and see what happens! Here’s one for the Finns amongst us:
to be determined
commitment sans flamboyance
is haiku Finnish?
That one made me laugh out loud! Reminds me of the Finn who loved his wife so much he almost told her!
Have you been to Finland?
In 1993, my great aunt invited me to Stockholm where she and my great uncle lived. She also took me to Finland. I was struck by the similarities of landscape to my Minnesotan home. I remember thinking to myself, “This is why all my ancestors moved to Minnesota! It looks exactly like home!” We visited many in Helsinki as well as Turku and traveled mostly by ship and train. I was so at peace in those familiar woods and waters. In 1997 I traveled to Norway. I’d love to return again to Scandinavia. I’d like to visit Finland to explore the strong Finnish-Japanese connection and investigate how haiku fits into that relationship. I’m so curious to explore how the Scandinavian and Japanese people express of their strong love of the natural world through art and design and to explore how this cross-cultural love affair began.
What Finnish heritage themes did you experience as a child and growing up in NE Minnesota?
Sadly, I don’t write or speak Finnish but Finnish heritage was something we were brought up to be proud of. On my father’s side, we heard our grandparents speaking both Finnish and Swedish and my grandparent’s home was full of culturally significant items. Everything had a story. Everything had meaning. Textiles, glasswork, portraits, maps, needlework, jewelry, food. Each artifact told me a little bit about who I was. At their home we ate krupsu for breakfast and mojakka for dinner. And of course, there was kahvi and pulla every midmorning. We grew up with sauna: it was a cultural, familial rhythm not only at my grandparent’s home but also in my own childhood home. Now, in my own home, I share that heritage with my children. Keeping my last name was also critical in terms of staying connected to my heritage. It has brought wonderful Finnish connections in art and I’ve been able to participate in a host of Finnish-American exhibits. For example, I recently exhibited work for Finlandia University’s 31st Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series and I’m looking forward to participating in Finn Fest here in Duluth at the end of July.
You’re the mother of three, your husband is a pastor, and we just came through a Pandemic. How did that affect your kids, your art, your ability to create?
We have three phenomenal children who all needed to be home at some point during the pandemic. Josh works as a pastor, a chaplain, and owns Glørud Design: a woodworking design studio. There was so much upheaval for us, like there was for most people, but the pandemic was also illuminating. For me it has been the Great Exposition of sorts. It’s been difficult, but cleansing. It steered me towards celebrating our humanity (and our limitations) and continues to steer me away from dehumanization.
The beginning of Covid was the end of my retail energies: I knew I was being called to part ways with the “hustle” culture. My shop was doing well but I wasn’t making much art. I just didn’t have the bandwidth for it all. Covid came at the perfect time for me to make my exit from bending to the demands of the market. I knew that if my authentic studio practice was to survive, I’d have to say no – even to good things.
I also chose to take that first year (2020) away from the internet and social media. It wasn’t until I stopped the online noise that I was more able to hear my own thoughts.
You collaborated with Jordan Sundberg on a book, Fables of the North Shore.
The Fables of the North Shore has been a joyous riot. Jordan Sundberg and I were asked to collaborate on an exhibit. When we talked about what we wanted to do, “play” was the word we both heard. We took that call to play and joy ensued! We had so much fun working together. Initially, we wrote five fables that highlight the treasures and lore of all things North Shore. These are timeless stories for all ages and all lovers of this amazing place we live in.
After we wrote the stories, we made any art that came to mind in terms of illustrating the fables. It flowed easily. Jordan and I had both wanted to stretch our studio muscles so we explored new mediums. We created seagull mobiles and dioramas complete with (encaustic) thimbleberry candies, Glørud canoe paddle collages, lovely drawings of the harbor in Grand Marais, paintings of smelt tacos with a side of blueberries, and a rouge taconite pellet … it was just pure visual delight.
We had an amazing response. Many requests were made for a book. We self-published the fables along with photos of the art work. The book was ready by the closing of the show in September. There was such an amazing energy and joy around the project, we just kept going with it – and in the end, we commissioned eight talented puppeteers to perform the fables live at the book release and closing party. You can find the book in many places: REI (their Bloomington location); Zenith Books and the Bookstore at Fitger’s in Duluth; Duluth shops (Frost River, DLH, Siiviis Gallery); up the Shore in Lutsen, Silver Bay, and Grand Marais; or on my website.
Where can folks see your art?
I’m excited to be a part of a group show of Finnish American artists for Finn Fest this summer. Our show, “Inspiraatioita: Finnish Art and Design in Minnesota” will take place at the Nordic Center in Duluth from July 26th-30th, with an evening reception date of Friday, July 28th from 7pm-9pm. All are welcome! I will be showing prints from work I created for Finland’s 100th year of independence that celebrate the Finnish design house, Marimekko, and the creative women at its helm.
I also show my work on at Lizzards Gallery in Duluth. I sell art giclée prints, books and haiku at www.nataliesalminen.com. I’m working on a new painting series for a show at the New Scenic Cafe, as well as work for a multidisciplinary show on technology that I hope to bring to Chicago in 2024.
(This interview first appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Finnish American Reporter)