I took the ferry across the Hudson River on a recent chilly morning to meet Scandinavian artist Mikki Nylund. Sitting there in his characteristic black, he was silence personified - but as he says, he put language into a tin box a long time ago and instead chooses to share his thoughts through composing his paint brush. Mikki has lived in New York for just over 2 years. The journey so far has been one of exploration and unpredictability validating just why he left Sweden in the first place. I first came into contact with his work at his event at Soho House hosted by Enskilda (a leading Scandinavian Bank) and his New York-based gallery, Element 6 Arts. His work tells a story that is richly infused with so many different aspects of his life such as a folkloric childhood in Scandinavia, the impact of popular culture, his political points of view and later on, his life as a Scandinavian in New York.
Whilst the banter was clearly at a minimum, when it came to his work there was volumes to discuss. Here’s what he shared:
Saira Malhotra: Why are you an artist?
Mikki Nylund: Good question. The truth is, I don't really know and I am glad that I don't know. I think if this question could be answered easily, the magic would be gone. It started when I was very young, sort of an urge to develop something to express strange thoughts (for a young boy). Although back then, I did not have any kind of vocabulary to explain any of this, it was mostly visions I had before going to sleep, always laying awake late at night, creating, in philosophical terms. Then I was hooked and there has not been a moment where I don't sketch on a piece of paper, in a sketch book, or anything else at hand. I am not seeking answers, but rather posing questions. There are none. I am here, I have one life, then I am dead and gone. Fin. Art for me is about making life more interesting and I always think in artistic terms, whether it's on a painting, a piece of music, or a philosophy and writing. I am not choosing art, art choses me.
SM: Tell me about your paintings (Scandinavian/ American/ culture)
MN: I've always had a huge imagination. Perhaps to deviate from the norm and create something unique for myself. My art are little stories woven from diffused pictures from my own past, but I also read a lot. I am a historical junkie and of course moving between two such different cultures has to have its imprint on everything you do. I don't think it has a huge impact in reality but believe it's more about what's in my head. Yes, Scandinavian mythology and folklore is very interesting to me and explains who I am – (and with that I don't mean I believe in trolls!). Stories that have been told for thousands of years, from generation to generation. They in some way end up impacting who you are as a person. How can this not reflect in my work? With the backdrop of Finnish Tango music played by a grandpa, it's not surprising that in later years when I depict Brooklyn through my art, it is with Folk dancers that dance in the night by the Brooklyn Bridge. It is my perspective and I view things with the eyes of my past, a past from which I cannot disengage.
You are born and walk out in to the world trying to make sense of things, create your own understanding, perhaps develop a new set of understanding's – but bottom line is that you never have 100% control over any of this.
I am who I am. I am from Scandinavia but living in New York. While living here, a part of my soul will always be in Scandinavia: the melancholy, the food, the light summer mornings and dark, cold, winter nights – and even with all the neon of New York – they will always both be there. That's partially why I paint both of the worlds, using symbols to create modern stories that relate to me, whether the occupy movement, music, religion, sex, TV…
SM: Who influenced your work?
MN: Originally, my mom and dad. They both were/are very creative although they aren't active artists.
SM: How does art influence food?
MN: In the same way as food influences art. When I was younger I was like so many others having to make choices at some crossroads. I had to choose between becoming a chef or an artist. Well, I chose art. But that does not mean I could give up my love for cooking or food because they're both lifelong loves. It's difficult to say how art influences food or the other way around. On a deeper level, both are needed for survival. Growing up, food was an anchor that tied my family together. There was always food in the middle of political discussion, artistic discussions, philosophical discussions. You can't have one without the other.
When I cook, I am not trying to think in terms of art at all. Cooking is the most liberating activity of them all and I shut everything else out. I cook for hours, just because I can, not because I have to. This is where cooking becomes like art, when you give yourself to it and become one with it. Sometimes when I cook I just close my eyes and let my nose do the work. Sometimes I add classical music and a glass of wine. It's process without rules. Yes, there are cook books and there is nothing wrong with them as there are books on painting, and manuscripts - but since I am not responsible for anyone but myself and my closest, I prefer to cook without recipes.
SM: You seem as passionate about your cooking as you do art. Who is the one person that has influenced in the kitchen?
MN: Without a doubt this one goes to my grandmother Ragnhild. Her iron stove, her basic ways of preservation through pickling and salting – ways that today are considered ‘artisanal’. She was a great cook and like many women in Scandinavia, she prized herself on her meatballs – perfectly tight yet moist, with a touch of pickling juice to liven them up.
SM: Which artists are you inspired by?
MN: Oh, probably more than I could count or even know about. Of course many artists, from many genres. I don't have a favorite style or artist but I know when I see something if I like it or not. There are other things that influence me as well of course, many authors, composers and musicians, nature, food, the course of life, dreams…etc. As a composer and a musician myself, there are of course very little borders between visual art, music, cooking and writing. Indeed they tend to melt together and I believe they do so very well.
SM: You have a series of work on Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street. Are you protesting through the paintings or simply depicting what you see?
MN: Both. Although I am depicting things I see, I did not of course come face to face with death on a circus horse. I have participated in several demonstrations, but would not call myself active because I don't work well with crowds. However politics and awareness, morality (not strictly in a religious matter), are issues and subjects that have always stood close to my heart. I worked with political movements back in Scandinavia, and have always been active no matter if it's in demonstrations or today's online political movement.
It's important to compare, and to care. Of course, it's quite mind boggling to see how so many things are so absolutely upside down and wrong here and elsewhere. I believe in good, and love, guys like John Lennon, that's where I stand. I believe in good even in bad times like these. If I wouldn't, I don't know if I would be able to carry on
SM: If you could paint the ideal world, what would it look like?
MN: Oh, that's an easy question…NOT, ha, ha. I don't know, but I have this old Swedish song that I often think of..
"Mother, why so sad, why don't you smile today, do you want me to paint you something? I have many beautiful colors left, don't cry little Mother, everything will be just fine. I shall paint the whole world little Mother, filled with sunshine every single day. If it rains and it is gray it doesn't matter, sunshine in your window you shall have…"
To see more works from Mikki Nylund, visit www.element6arts.com/mikki.html