On Practice and Concepts

Elina Merenmies


Doubt goes with the territory. Anger is quite amusing when it’s like a slash that helps you finish the work. These kinds of fits happen quite regularly. I can’t help wondering how it really happens. First you are stuck for who knows how long, then you begin to doubt if the work is even worth doing, and then suddenly you have the brush in your hand and you’re working away furiously in the last moments. Sometimes the final result looks rather deliberate, even though it’s actually been done without any forethought, and the action is something more akin to boxing, or some desperate messing about or struggle, than painting.
Every work involves at least some subtle, constricting doubt. It goes with the territory and in general it’s very well justified – it’s quite normal for a work to be out there at the border and often it’s not wise to proceed, you just have to give it time and see if something will come out of it later. Or sometimes you can just feel that this is never going to work. In that case the rubbish bin or the fire offer the only solutions. There is an understanding that the work has got off on the wrong foot or set off in the wrong direction, but in the best case you are simply proceeding too fast, and there is no way of knowing how the story ends before some time has passed. It’s essential, whether it makes sense or not, that something rises to the fore to become the main focus, and then a lot is sacrificed – sometimes too much and everything is lost.

I always think that creative work involves both constructive and destructive power, otherwise it won’t be completed. Anger can channel itself quite awkwardly sometimes, so that the rubbish bin gets a little too full of impaled drawings. There’s nothing you can do about that. It comes down to the fact that you’re angry with yourself. As a hobby, the destructive frenzy is quite expensive because drawing paper doesn’t come cheap.

Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge? It’s really a good and interesting subject. Saint Porfyrios Kafsokalivi (1906–1991), who was recently declared a saint, is a very important sacred person to me. He didn’t attend any schools, but he knew (and also learned from books) an incredible amount of information about medical science, astronomy, engineering and chemistry, and he later exchanged a lot of ideas with scientists. He was able to find wells and waterways and was astonishingly well-informed about geology and construction.
He was diagnosed with over 20 diseases, and at the end of his life, despite being blind, he was able to pray in his quarters and receive an unending stream of people, and phone calls in particular. With the phone beside his bed he could call his spiritual children and warn them of dangers or comfort them, or give advice before he was even asked. He cautioned on the dangers of environmental toxins and bad eating habits and founded the organic farm at the Chrysopegi monastery in Crete. He said that the church is a spiritual hospital that everyone could come to to seek healing. He encouraged everyone to confess their sins fundamentally and throughout their entire lives with their Father confessor if possible. I could write many pages about him, but this is the first thought that tacit knowledge brought to mind.
I have thought that such a man is like the universe taking a step in the right direction, considering the way that industry and the destruction of the environment has gone and is currently heading. That’s perhaps enough said about the most important saint of our time and the miraculous knowledge that he had. My own knowledge is very limited in comparison and applicable in very different situations, if any. In my youth the first thing I noticed in my works was that they expressed an upward shift and internal movements that I hadn’t intended. I thought: I’m making moving paintings. Often, when I produced a large amount of pictures on different materials and drew on small pieces
of paper, future events began to form in the paintings, and it was quite an uncomfortable realisation. That kind of thing can give you a fright. On the other hand, during the creation process for the works, I felt very strongly that I was in a certain place and encountering someone, and that was far removed from any rational view of the world. Painting gradually led me towards quite miraculous experiences.
I’ve always shied away from the idea that people would take prophesising seriously, unless the fortune-telling is useful to someone, which it usually isn’t. To a certain extent I’ve also loathed the concept of the subconscious because it’s given too much power, as if all instinctive human behaviours and bad behaviour would be natural. It’s not. In a way it’s been very difficult for me to believe in anything, I’ve been very critical, but despite that I became a Christian.
I believe that everything that strives for peace and freedom and love and purity is tacit knowledge, but it doesn’t function properly in irresponsible and undiscerning hands. I can’t say any more about that yet. There’s a certain difference between good and evil that is always revealed; it does come to the fore. It’s very difficult to achieve the ability to be discerning; it’s a huge, lifelong goal for people. I still have a long way to go. I would also say that, at least in my own experience, it’s impossible to achieve without God’s help.

Prayer and Painting

Every work or job is a prayer if it’s blessed by prayer, no matter if it’s peeling the potatoes or emptying the outside toilet. According to certain standards, painting could be compared to prayer, or even playing the violin or gardening. But it is none of these.
It’s a mistake to claim that painting is prayer because painting can spring from any starting point, from sadism or hedonism, for instance, but prayer is a significant area of life, and dedication to it requires purity (I myself am nowhere near that). That’s if you really want to enter the Kingdom of God, to adore and become like God, as I suppose the New Testament apostles did.
I have noticed that, as I age, the relationship between the amount of prayer and the quality of my work is quite clear. In other words, if my work is not of a high standard, it’s likely that I haven’t been praying enough, and it can also be concluded that I’ve been otherwise self-indulgent, and all that is probably revealed to the spectator.
When I was young I lived in a time of grace with my work. I suppose all young people experience that in one way or another at some stage. I strongly believed that God wanted me to work artistically, even though I didn’t try to justify the idea to myself at the time, and faith didn’t mean anything to me; rather it was really quite embarrassing. But then I was able to paint such wonderful things that I didn’t know I was capable of, and I could work tirelessly and persistently. I didn’t need sleep, food or my comforts, I just ploughed bravely ahead through the dangers I lived a rough, gypsy life for many years.
The desire for comfort is quite an enemy in all of life, even if it doesn’t manifest at the workplace or when one is working. If you take too much comfort in worldly pleasures and aren’t awake any more, all your creative work can suffer. For me, it manifests as mistakes in the art, weak execution and carelessness. Unknown sins and transgressions against our loved ones can also be quite a block to activating God’s mercy. This is what icon-painters are taught. ‘First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift’, were Jesus’ own words in the Gospel on prayer and the Eucharist. It sounds very demanding and limiting, but giving yourself the easy way out is not recommended in this case. On the other hand, when a person becomes humble and confesses their transgressions, God’s power and mercy rushes in and amazing things happen by the grace that God is always ready to give us if we are ready to live according to His will.
Christ himself urged his disciples to pray increasingly, so we can think it has been a duty and a goal for all Christians. This call and idea of prayer bothers me because I’m afraid that I’ll be left halfway, incomplete, a little like a flower that grows a stem but doesn’t bloom. But to me, prayer has its own place in painting, drawing, walking, and so on. In the best-case scenario I can even pray in my dreams.
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ is the phrase I try to learn to repeat in my mind as often as possible. But no, painting isn’t prayer. Just like motherhood, which I have experienced as a great and sacred task, painting is so difficult that it’s also led me to prayer. The fact that I originally chose this profession has led me to the church and brought me closer to God. In the end, my family’s livelihood and survival was dependent on the fact that there was painting, me, and some third party whose existence I was aware of: the Truth, and everything I want to follow.
Women have traditionally been seen as people who ‘make things up’; after being the first to see Christ’s empty grave the other apostles are said to have claimed that the women had fabricated the tale. A woman’s experience is always, how would you put it: not important, and that’s good, even if it sounds odd. Women are always knocked off their pedestals and doubted. In a certain way it’s a source of automatic humiliation and ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’. I don’t know what the meek will really inherit, we’ll see (heh heh!), but a certain invisibility is useful at times. They can spend their lives off the radar because they’re not important, and they can do great things that nobody makes a fuss about. It’s also very unfair in certain ways, of course it is, but I would be more disturbed if I was always noticed and I was needlessly put on a pedestal. That’s the heavy burden that men carry.
And then: God is the power behind everything and it’s absurd that my whole life has been lived in such a way that nobody, or almost nobody else, can understand what my life is about. The whole reality I live in is just between me and God and the Father confessor and a few close friends, and the world rejects it as completely mad.

Desire and Passion

I don’t have much to say about desire. Let’s move onto passion. My passion has perhaps been strange; it doesn’t rise in a typical way. It’s ridiculous to claim that I would be enthusiastic about God, but maybe I am, even though I feel like I’m all the time chasing after worldly vanity. I don’t know. There are desires and maybe quite humiliating passions such as chocolate, beautiful things that are linked to the world and the comfort it brings. They are far away from God.
All this has something to do with tacit knowledge, but it’s very hard to put your finger on it. It’s certainly there, even if there’s no way of knowing, in the moments when you know you’re in the right place at the right time, especially at work, and I can’t wait to feel that way again.
I feel passionate about work. This year I have been drawn into a whirlwind that’s been hard to bear and I’ve hardly been able to wait to start painting. My home and my workplace in Lallukka artists’ home is getting large-scale renovations done that were supposed to be ready months ago, so I haven’t been able to follow my usual rhythm of working daily, and sometimes I can’t work at all. I’ve had to accept my lot, unbearable though it is.

The Liturgy

“We thank You also for this Liturgy, which You have deigned to receive from our hands, even though thousands of archangels and tens of thousands of angels stand around You, the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft upon their wings, singing the triumphal hymn, exclaiming, proclaiming, and saying…” Johannes Chrysostom
It’s a great joy and relief. It’s an incomprehensible power in a person’s life. An acquaintance came over last Sunday when I was going to the liturgy again, and he began to shout profanities in a funny way when he realized where I was going. Later he came back in a slightly different mood, and I said that I prayed for him and he immediately accepted it. Sometimes the Church seems to bring out very strong, unconscious reactions in people, because they have a deep, enormous longing.
On the other hand, the Church is an easy thing to talk about. The Church is this and the Church is that, and many people feel that they know it. I knew little of the Church myself before I began to attend regularly. I have found a sweet comfort from the Church and many kinds of astonishing changes in my life, for instance a certain order and balance and a kind of fragile and space-creating connection with people. The decrease or complete disappearance of bad and harmful habits from my life has also been a big thing for me.


Metamorphosis is quite a normal thing to me, in my own body too in fact, but especially in painting. A woman’s body goes through many hard phases, just as nature intends of course, but living through them is far from pleasant. A person also ages and changes, and it can happen very quickly. When you’re painting, sometimes something ugly turns into something wonderful, and vice versa, and often there’s a metamorphosis to the opposite side. Why it goes like that: all or nothing, upside down and back-to-front, I have no idea.
In my paintings metamorphosis has been unexpected from the start, but at the same time I’ve always recognized it. I’ve not thought about it or tried to push it in any particular direction in advance, but I have naturally noticed that there are some elements in a painting that set me free and are favourable from the point of view of metamorphosis and growth. It’s a little like a dance or some instinctive movement, but still a surprise at the same time. It can happen while painting icons or monsters, but of course in different volumes.
But how will my caterpillar become a butterfly, and will it become one at all? I can’t answer that: it’s directly linked to creation and remains unexplainable. The most you can say is that in order to succeed you have to believe, and that’s easier said than done. It’s as if my whole life is at stake in the painting, everything I want to say needs to be said. What if you cannot do it? Often it comes very close to that.


I have a habit of telling my students that hopelessness is forbidden. Don’t go there or hang around there, and don’t even glance at it.
I’ve learned that there is no healthy form of hopelessness. It’s difficult even for me to remember sometimes when I’m finding myself in great distress, but it’s true.
It’s best to stick with hope and get mad or don’t get mad and so on, but if hopelessness peeps out from the corner then you might as well put your coat on and leave the atelier.
Hopelessness offers me nothing.


If hopelessness is forbidden, there is only hope, as there needs to be something.
I need to say a bit more about hope as it’s a large and difficult area to understand. For me, it’s linked to prayer. A plea, an attempt to get close to God; it’s an undertaking to relinquish my own will, and in a certain way my life, and to wait. And I don’t just wait, I receive, and the experience also produces a great hope.
Suddenly I saw hope as a personal experience: hope can fill a person abundantly and make one regret and ask for forgiveness; forgive and be forgiven. This is how I see it. I’ve never found it in such a patently clear form anywhere else, and in my view nothing gives and builds hope as powerfully as forgiveness and regret and a humble attitude towards people. And if someone finds hope from the Ideapark shopping centre, or decorating or buying a ticket to Rome, in a way it’s an understandable illusion. It’s finite, however – the effect lasts maybe half an hour and then you have to get some more.
Pay attention all you kind souls: this doesn’t mean that you should immediately make up with everyone and bow to their wishes, or that all those enemies would turn into gentle teddy bears: it means that, as far as it’s in our hands, there is peace. That is how I see it. There are always two sides to the story. A truly stable hope isn’t easy to achieve – it demands humility and peace.


Being abroad has been a building block for my own identity. It happens to everyone automatically, perhaps a bit more strangely when you live a long time in another country. I have chosen and accepted things into my life on the principle that everything good is welcome. And good can be of a kind that you have to wait to find out if it’s good after all. In France, where I spent the longest time, on-and-off until the end of the nineties, I learned to speak to people I didn’t know and nag strangers and be quite pushy if I had to be. I also learned that strange attitude to shout at all times. And there’s a lot of shouting there. To a certain extent I lost my face and my cool there, but I didn’t care. Nobody knew what I did or who
I was, nobody was interested because I was female… It’s quite a wild feeling the first time you disappear in front of someone’s eyes.
Baudelaire’s book Poor Belgium! is quite an accurate description of the strange disgust-hate-love relationship that emigrants experience there (Baudelaire was a Frenchman in Belgium). Brussels was wonderful and at the same time complete nonsense. I visited for the first time at the end of the eighties. How could I express it? Later I was wiser and I understand how things influence us secretly: Belgium’s strange decadence stuck to me like a leech and I didn’t notice a thing.
It came from a peculiar sense of freedom – there was something delightfully permissive and at the same time nearly all Belgians dress in exactly the same way (an odd phenomenon that as I remember already disturbed Baudelaire in his day). I didn’t dress like the Belgians, rather I just threw on whatever made me happy. I felt like a child there, like I could do anything. For instance, a cafe wouldn’t close if you were sitting there. Once a cafe owner even fell asleep holding onto the beer tap on the counter because I’d stayed so late with my friend playing pinball.
In the early 1990s in the Czech Republic the new millennium was dawning and I could see pollution and environmental destruction, the future, the Talvivaara mine. I saw young people who were quite sick, and I lived in an environment where the air wasn’t fit to breathe, full of black smoke and ash. Terrifying landscapes, distressing realities. I think I went elsewhere to find out who I was and where I came from and the answer was quite confusing and full of additional notes in brackets. I also went to find out what was really going on, where was life and where was death and where is reality and where is the lie. I found important signposts, I met all kinds of skiers and fanatics over quite a broad scale. I lived in squatted houses and sometimes I even lived in a car.
I never need to search for a topic: they are all up here in my memory. Sad subjects, important joyful objects. Today I heard the jackdaws screeching in the yard and the sound immediately made me think that they are calling me to work. Wild birds fly and shout themselves hoarse, and I immediately get into painting. It’s always been that way and always will be. I went looking for it somewhere even though I could have found it here in Töölö just as easily. But I made a circuit, for better or worse.


Deny yourself, take up the cross and follow Christ. Striving is obedience to God. In principle. On the other hand, I don’t even really know what striving is; I can only know what I’ve seen, experienced and absorbed up until now. It’s not a lot if I compare myself with people who live in monasteries and caves. Striving is growth, movement, not staying in one place. It often goes so that several years later I am already thinking about something linked with striving in a different way than I am now. I live in abundance and comfort in the middle of Helsinki, and my life is secular and full of mostly mundane concerns. Something has stuck from all that fumbling around, and
I understand a few things from personal experience. Regular attendance at church has gradually become an irreplaceable part of my life. In the church it’s like being with family: I can always return home, always take refuge there. I have been able to experience healing and I’ve received a lot of comfort in my lonely striving and pain, a wonderful comfort that I can’t put into words.
In monasteries people pray for the whole world with a heart full of pain, with the kind of prayer that I will perhaps one day be able to reach. I have read about it. It is in a way the goal of striving, unceasing prayer in the heart. Especially prayer on behalf of something or a person or the world, prayer that brings a stab to the heart, where the soul and body and one’s whole existence are part of the prayer.
It’s not possible to pray without striving, however. Youth is a time of grace and enthusiasm, even if you’re doing it all wrong. When you’re young some things come together in a funny way, even if you’ve done nothing.

All contents © Elina Merenmies