Jana Simackova interviews Estonian artist Anna Kõuhkna – a painter, illustrator and a photographer whose works, as the artist herself says, focuses on women’s soul and is embraced with nature.
Anna Kõuhkna is a rising star in the Estonian art scene. After studying at the Tallinn-based Baltic Film and Media School and Tartu Art College, she is currently honing her skills at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Anna has already had a several solo and group exhibitions of her photos and paintings – and her works have proved to be immensely popular and are also selling well.
We met Anna at her exhibition, “The new circle”, at the newly opened Solaris art gallery, right in the Tallinn city centre.
Anna, your art includes paintings, illustration and photography. What would you say your art is about?
Yes, I like to keep my options open when it comes to different mediums to do art. But I do love painting the most.
I would say my art is mostly woman-based and embraced with nature. It is deeply feminine and tender – but at the same time, it has this power that comes from telling the truth or being sincere or authentic. My art tells inner stories – kind of like a visual diary of different life situations and existential problems and different ways to solve them. They are mostly oil paintings and the style is a bit like a form of contemporary cubism, a bit naive and the colours are bright and pastel.
Was there someone or something that inspired you initially?
I think the road to becoming an artist has many factors. The first one is that my father is an artist inside and studied and practised it when he was young – in a way I feel I continued something he didn’t pursue professionally. But he encouraged and taught me when I was young – and sometimes to this day.
Then there is little spark inside us that pushes us towards our life goals. I think it is felt when you feel inspired and passionate about something, even if there are different fears and hesitations. I am also truly inspired by different artists and movements – art nouveau right now, for example – and the sources for inspiration continue to change all the time, just like the art you create.
Your work focuses on flowers, nature and humans, mainly females. Some of your work reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work – big sensual flowers – but your paintings have also a female character. Is that your search for a meaning? Is that you?
I love her!
Yes, I think in a way all the women on the paintings are me, but also universally interpretable. I have noticed that, in many ways, the favourite artworks of the people who purchase or like my work choose the ones that remind them of themselves or their wife or daughter. So, the girls are everyone at the same time, even when they are initially interpreted from myself. I think the main character on the paintings does not mean I especially want to portrait myself, but I wish to forward the feelings that the woman is going through.
Could you go over your design process?
The painting always starts on paper before canvas – the sketching process is very important and it usually determines whether the painting will work or not. I like to research sketching inspiration from photographs – my own and from fashion magazines or from wherever that seems interesting to me. When the base for a painting is ready, I focus on other things – the details and solutions so that the piece can come together as a whole.
How do you see yourself evolving as an artist? Would you say that each painting was a search for who you are (as an artist)?
Absolutely – not only as an artist, but first as a person and then the artist part defines itself. I see the evolving is everlasting and is a flowing, self-trusting process. I could not say how I see it, because I never have, if I look back – it has just taken its course and I have trusted whatever comes to me and what feels right – conceptually or technically.
Do you see yourself doing curating in the future? Can an exhibition itself be considered a form of art separately from the individual works on show?
No, I don’t think curating is for me. I have done it, when needed, but I see people who have a real gift for it and I like myself trusting my works to these kind of talented people. So yes, an exhibition itself is absolutely an art form in itself – a creative work – and it does determine, in a big way, how the works are perceived.
How to bring art more from the galleries and museums to public spaces? Is that perhaps what the gallery at Solaris is doing?
Yes, I do think Meelis (Tammemägi, a curator and gallerist of the Solaris gallery) is doing a good job at it; it involves a good knowledge of marketing. And I don’t think I have a right answer for that question as an artist, because I believe an artist should do art and the people who have the ideas for exhibiting can develop innovative ideas for presenting that art.
You are experienced as both, a poetic painter and a photographer. Do you think the interest in more classical paintings is disappearing now that the poetic is being supplanted by photography and technology?
I think (or hope) that the more technology evolves, the more handmade and lively things gain value (or in the worst-case scenario, just remain the same value). We can already now see how much photography affected the world of painting, but I do not think it affected the value. The value of art does not depend on how easily or fast it could be made – today I think it is mostly about the idea and what the artist is “saying”, whatever medium the artist wants to use.
Is art the mirror of the society?
Why do we need artists?
I ask myself the same question often. Once I asked that from my friend who is a musician and he said, people just need feeling of relating to something, they need beauty, feelings, joy, pain, all of it and that people like us are in this world just for that. That made me feel warm in my heart because I knew that is true.
Do audiences matter to you?
Not really – all of those who have to come, see or experience my artwork, those will find me. I don’t think we have any real control over it, or if we do, then we’d be focusing on the wrong thing.
If you look around today, are there any particular artists whose work you appreciate and with whom you feel rapport and commonality?
Sure, there are. An Estonian architect and painter, Vilen Künnapu, said to me earlier this year that “we are the white artists” and it made me think about it a bit. Of course, I was moved that he considered me to be one of “those” or “them” who focus on sharing beauty, authenticity to this world. In a way, I think he meant we are not just the traditional contemporary conceptualists, which is true. I don’t think it is important to think about “where you belong” as a movement when you create art, but it just finds you in due course when making and sharing it.
What experience and thoughts do you hope visitors will take away from viewing your paintings?
It is always a compliment when someone shares how my work has affected them or what it makes them think of. People have shared that they find some kind of comfort in the tenderness in my works and they feel hopeful and thinking of their own personal stories, experiences, feelings and overcomings. I do not hope that everyone have to relate to my stories, but I do feel blessed when some people feel touched.
Do you think people have certain expectations of what art is?
Sure, it has been a discussion for a very long time, but I do think the best kind of art is born when the artist does not focus on what is expected from them, but what they think is right. It is the only way the message of the art is powerful because the boldness of the originality and individuality. And maybe it more like this: not certain expectations but certain people with expectations.
What is your personal philosophy? And how is that reflected in your work?
I don’t know if this can be called philosophy per se, but I just believe in listening to your heart and knowing your own truth. I believe in wisdom, light and love and I do feel like life is a big opportunity for growth and learning to rise as a person all the time.
I think all my art is a reflection of searching answers for existential questions and how to cope with all of what seems like a struggle to us. I do believe in the “ego versus our heart” ideology and paint my paintings a lot about how to acknowledge our ego and get closer to true wellbeing as a human.
Have you made any self-portraits?
Yes, I think all of them are self-portraits in a way. Not so much visually, although they all have brown hair, brown eyes and similar facial characteristics to mine, but the women in my art are more as my experiences or feelings. And when the person on the painting is forwarded as a universal story, it becomes the viewer’s story, not seen as me, Anna.
What do you enjoy most about being an artist?
I feel blessed I have the opportunity to do what I love.
What would you say is the most interesting project you’re currently working on?
Maybe it not a “project” yet, because I don’t know what will come of it, but I have almost 30-40 drafts for new paintings. So most likely it will be an exhibition one day. That means I am working on a new series, surfing on a whole new creative wave.
Your artwork was exhibited for a month at the Solaris gallery in September 2020. What was the exhibition about?
The exhibition was called “The new circle”.
The series also had a big painting, which had the same name. There was a girl standing and looking back to the mountains she had climbed over for so long and the sea she had to swim over to get where she is now. There are flowers blossoming all around her and she feels thankful for all the difficult lessons and feels ease and gratitude for all good things that came from such a difficult and long period.
This title and series were inspired from a clear feeling that a period or cycle has ended, one that had been going on for 10-15 years. And the girl on the painting is already standing on a new mountain – so new experiences await and this circle will contain new opportunities for growth, almost like a higher level you get to when you learn you lessons.
All the paintings in the series are like a graduation or summary for the experienced cycle and also manifestations for the new one.
Where can we see your artwork now that the exhibition has ended?
My artworks will be exhibited in two places until the end of the year: at the Mandala gallery (Tallinn) and at Restaurant Fellin (Viljandi).
Cover: Anna Kõuhkna at her studio. Photos by Anna Kõuhkna.