An angle grinder is making an ear-splitting racket on a warm autumn day. Large vessels and smaller boats have been lifted out of the water for renovation. We are near the dry dock of Suomenlinna, which is the favourite spot of visual artist Verneri Salonen on the island.
“Harbours have fascinated me since I was a child. I have spent summers in Hanko and my father used to work at a shipyard. These smells and sounds are something familiar from my childhood,” says Salonen.
The dockyard is an inspiring environment for Salonen. “When you walk around, you see all kinds of odd piles everywhere. Something is happening all the time, and there’s always some kind of process going on. This is an exuberant place.”
Salonen will work in Suomenlinna for one year on a scholarship from the University of the Arts Helsinki Foundation. The grant has been made possible by a bequest left by a private individual to the Academy of Fine Arts. The scholarship covers the rental of the studio, other maintenance costs and the residency organisation’s services. Grant applications are accepted from artists who have graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts.
Part of an international community of artists
Salonen graduated as a Master of Fine Arts from the subject area of Time and Space Arts in December 2022 and was immediately selected for the residency. His previous studio was a dingy room in a basement and did not serve the artist’s needs. According to Salonen, Suomenlinna opened up opportunities for doing all kinds of things.
“The place is aesthetically pleasing; surrounded by nature, a great number of old trees and buildings dating back to the 18th century. Although the island is inhabited, it is not overly refined. Many people think that this place is populated by tourists, but the tourists do not visit the locations where the artists are,” Salonen says.
In addition to the beautiful nature, Salonen appreciates the sense of community in Suomenlinna. Many families with children and other artists from different parts of the world live nearby. Salonen does not live in his studio, but he usually goes there for several days at a time.
“I’ve decided that I’m only here to work. The responsibilities and hustle and bustle of mainland life stay on the mainland. This place gives me the opportunity to focus solely on art.”
From moped enthusiast to mechanical engineer and artist
Salonen mainly uses moving images, sculpture and installations in his work. Since childhood, he has been pottering about with mopeds, motorbikes and cars. “Fossil machines” as he calls them. He has always been fascinated by sound and speed, the experience of danger.
“I bought my first moped with my birthday money when I was 5. The desire to drive a bike was inbuilt in me. I’ve always been fiddling with engines, tuning them and repairing them. I was so familiar with those kinds of things through my leisure activities that I studied to become a mechanical engineer. I thought it was my job to design engines and do product development.”
When negotiations on possible layoffs began at a steel foundry where Salonen was working and he was made redundant, it was time to rethink the future. Salonen applied to study photography at the Voionmaa Institute, discovered art photography and became interested in art. After a few attempts, he was elected to the Academy of Fine Arts, where he had a chance to experiment with other methods alongside photography. In Salonen’s words, it was like a “candy store” for him. Studying at Uniarts Helsinki helped him understand what art is.
Salonen has frequently addressed his relationship with engines in his art. He gave up riding motorbikes a long time ago, but he is not done with the theme yet.
“I have many fond memories of riding motorbikes and a passion for it. I have given a lot of thought to what makes it so difficult to give it up. I do not think about bikes or engines in a utilitarian way or as consumable goods, but as beautiful objects and design. A motorbike is like a piece of clothing, a style through which you express yourself.”
Recycling of materials is driving the work forward
Salonen is currently moving from engines to new themes in his work. Environmental issues and ecological aspects are taking on an increasingly central role in his art. Salonen is currently working on a piece for a group exhibition of nine artists at Gallery Augusta in December and making use of the material found on the island.
“While walking through the dockyard, I found a huge old advertising banner. The workers at the dock gave me permission to take it. I will use it to make a prop-like sculpture for the exhibition,” Salonen says. The set of works is based on the principle of Found objects. It will be complemented by a sound work, for which Salonen is searching for open source audio material online.
Work conducted in Suomenlinna is strongly guided by ecology. Artists only use materials found on the island, and all materials are recycled. If something is built, it is dismantled and recycled for the next artists to use.
Salonen also continues to take photographs and explores the topics of his projects through them. The artist’s Instagram account is full of photos of cars. “I have photographed details in the cars, such as tape used for fixing bumps. For some people, a car is a sacred cow, while others are ok with leaving their marks on their cars,” Salonen explains his photographs and realises that he is, again, dealing with the problem of giving up fossil machines.
A new chapter in life is about to start
Next spring, Salonen will still be working in Suomenlinna. He would like to focus on learning new techniques such as TIG welding and spray gun painting. He has secured an artist grant for the spring. In addition, Salonen works as a technical writer in a translation agency a few days a week in order to support his family. He is about to start a new chapter in life, as the due date for his first baby is approaching.
In the future, Salonen would like to work in an international environment, such as a residency in New York.
“I would like to make art and receive funding as an artist. You have to be careful with your career dreams and take one year at a time, one step at a time.”
More about Verneri Salonen: @inevitabledeathinsocialmedia and vernerisalonen.com