Niko E. Saari changed careers from IT specialist to artist
Who are you and how did you end up studying at the Academy of Fine Arts?
I’m Niko E. Saari and it’s my first year of studies at the Academy of Fine Arts. Before this, I worked in the IT business for 10 years, and a year ago I got the chance to decide whether I was going to continue in the same profession or whether it was time to pursue studies in a different field. I decided to follow my heart and apply to study photography, which has been my hobby for five years. I hadn’t studied art before this, but photography – and art photography, in particular – became somewhat of a calling for me over the years. I consider myself a good example of how a person without years of artistic experience can be admitted to study art.
What was your entrance exam like?
In the spring, the applicants sent in their work samples, and based on the samples, 50 applicants got selected to the entrance exam. The entrance exam lasted six days in total (Mon-Sat), and during that week, all applicants had to prepare at least three art works for the jury. I completed three photographic works, and I’ve got to admit, I wouldn’t have had time to do more. It’s a good idea to decide right in the beginning how many works you want to complete and stick to your decision and not overexert yourself with too much work so that you end up panicking in the end. It’s better to do less and focus on good quality.
What is it like to study at the Academy of Fine Arts?
So far it’s been really interesting. From the very first day, it has seemed like this is the thing I want to do. Students here get fairly free rein in their own artistic work.
How would you describe your first autumn semester?
In the autumn semester, all new students go through a six-month course called Mylly (Finnish for Mill), during which we explore all the different fields of visual arts. We learned about observation and drawing, time and space arts, printmaking, sculpture and painting. We were taught the basics of making art, and during that time, I have also had to jump out of my comfort zone. I have had to draw and paint, for example, which I’ve found really difficult because I don’t have any sort of background in visual arts. But I’ve cut myself some slack and come to the conclusion that you don’t have to master and learn everything in such a short period of time. I’ve just tried to do everything as well as I can, and that’s enough.
What do you do on a typical weekday?
I wake up at 8:40 and rush over to a train that leaves at 9 o’clock. My lectures usually start at 10:00 and then in the afternoons it’s time to work on our art independently. I usually have evenings off and spend them at home or on my cigar hobby.
What has been the best part of your studies?
My class mates and learning new things about art.
What’s the most challenging part of studying?
The financial aspect of studying: not having regular income and having to learn how to live on a student budget. The second biggest challenge has been settling into a specific routine as a student.
How did you prepare yourself for student life after having a paying job?
A year ago I decided to quit my job and start from scratch. It paid off, because if I had still been working I don’t think I would have made as much effort to do well in the entrance exam. I also terminated the lease for my flat in central Helsinki and moved to Hyvinkää. So the biggest changes have been financial, but all of it has still paid off.
What kind of plans do you have for life after graduation?
I’m interested in independent artistic work, and at some point, I might also want to get involved in teaching. I would like to share the knowledge that I myself have learned with others.
How did you prepare yourself for the entrance exam?
I prepared for the entrance exam mentally by going through possible assignments in my mind and visualising how I would complete them on time. I also reflected on possible shooting locations. I decided to have a clean slate so I didn’t check out the old entrance exams beforehand. But I did read the student interviews on the University of the Arts Helsinki website because they offered a lot of solid practical information on the entrance exam. The preparation paid off and I got in on the first try.
Do you have some advice for future applicants?
Have a clear vision of your goal and don’t waste time on irrelevant things especially during the entrance exam. Focus on your own effort and don’t think about what everybody else is doing. Give it your best shot and don’t do things half-heartedly, people can notice those sort of things. And remember to sleep!