With a strong eye for detail and precision, Heini is one of our painters who meticulously helps us perfect each of our bags down to the last piece. Here, Liz interviews her on growing up in two countries and her love of all living things.
You’re originally from Finland and actually just became a U.S. citizen—can you share more about your story and how you came to live in little Rhode Island?
I was born in Finland, but when I was almost four, my family did our first of many big moves to the U.S., which happened because of my dad’s job. Before my eighth birthday, we had already moved coast to coast within the US and then back to Finland again. At an early age, I had to experience a lot of movement as well as the discomfort that comes with entering an unfamiliar culture. Because of spending my childhood in America, even so briefly, I returned to Finland with this kind of feeling of not completely belonging to one country or the other. But that feeling also made me want to be really good in English class!
When I was 17, my dad was like, “Hey, let’s move back to America!” I had always had that strange feeling of displacement… which meant that I did want to go back to America, but because I was in high school at the time, I had to totally uproot my life again. After I graduated, I tried out a Virginia university for a year, but I wasn’t getting the experience I’d hoped for out of it. I really wanted to be in a place where people were serious about the work they were doing, and that’s how I applied to RISD and ended up coming to Rhode Island. I graduated in 2016 with a major in illustration and a concentration in science, but I initially went there thinking I would do graphic design. I switched last-minute! It ended up that I really loved finding the connections between such different disciplines and finding ways to make sense of these things that are seemingly disconnected.
I became a U.S. citizen recently, and it’s something I don’t want to take for granted by any means. I’m excited to be able to legally call myself Finnish-American, but this is a very interesting time to become a citizen and I’m very wary of being seen as the “golden child”, the “ideal immigrant” who did everything by the books. Emotionally it’s been a journey, but in terms of actual procedures, it’s all been effortless compared to what many people deal with. My legal status now just matches what people already assume about me, which is a privilege that too many people don’t get to have.
I hear you want to set up your own studio practice sometime soon. What are your hopes for that, and what’s been inspiring your plans for the future lately?
I’m definitely focusing on continuing to do my own work. I don’t currently have a studio—so my studio is my bedroom (laughs). This has been a weird, crazy year where I’m kind of just scrambling around, but it is the ideal dream to really be able to work on my own projects in my own space, whether it generates money or not.
As for my work itself, I figured out pretty quickly during my time at RISD that I’m not actually into commercial illustration, so I do mostly fine art now—not just drawing but a lot of photography and printmaking and writing. I’m very conceptual and process-oriented and tend to focus all my attention on that rather than the end result. That’s probably why illustration never felt very natural to me. I’m really into layering different processes and materials, which I like to think is a metaphor for the layering of memories. My work in general focuses on memory and translation. It has a lot to do with this idea of a universal search for a metaphorical home, which I guess is where my whole life story really comes in. I am so in love with human beings and their journeys and am dreaming of getting together a publication of different people’s ideas on “home” as a possible larger next project.
My science concentration from RISD is something I’m still trying to work into my art, too—it speaks to my general sense of curiosity. I took a ton of varied classes there, from psychology to expressive arts therapies, and even some entomology. I also got really into the STEAM movement, which is all about connecting ideas and disciplines and bringing the arts into the STEM curriculum. One of the coolest classes I took was this one little research-based class where the whole premise was researching how artists and designers and scientists and engineers could best work together. There was a lot of focus on design thinking processes and the importance of having both the scientific and creative worlds be a part of decision-making in companies.
I’ve done a little bit of teaching and actually worked briefly at a middle school before coming [to Lotuff], but I pretty soon realized it wasn’t quite my thing. My mom was a teacher though, and education is something I really care about. In the future, I would still like to be a part of that in some way. I’d love to go to grad school at some point and would be super interested in doing some research on the psychological and philosophical effects of early displacement and change.
In general, I am very curious and kind of scattered, but I feel that all makes a lot of sense to how and why I am an artist. So I’m just going to go with whatever comes my way!
Is it true that you have a flock of chickens at home? Tell me about them!
The chickens are nice! It’s great because we always have eggs, and it’s a good way to bring the community together. Kids from the neighborhood always come by, like this one little girl that always rides past on her princess bike and tells me what the chickens were doing that day while I was at work. I really like animals. Back home we have a family dog, a Bichon Frise named Hertta who’s always moved around with us. She’s turning 11 in August, and she’s very intelligent and well-traveled.
I’m also a hoarder of plants! I love plants, and I like to think that it’s a love that’s been passed through generations. My grandma used to call herself a “tree person,” and she always had so many plants growing up. I would always be the one to water them and take care of them whenever she went away. I’m that person walking around to be like, “Look at this plant! Look at at this flower!” I’m easily excited by things in general but especially by what’s in the natural world. I think surrounding myself with houseplants is definitely one way of creating my own little comfort space in the midst of everything. I’m even interested in bugs in an existential way, like “Where are you going? What are you doing?” That’s why I took entomology (because I was interested in learning about science), but it was also a way to inform my work. I feel like there is value in knowing things like how far a fly can travel, for example… I think it’s so interesting.
At Lotuff, you mainly do painting. What do you enjoy most about it, and is there anything else you’re looking forward to learning?
I love how meticulous it is. I very easily get into a focused space, and it’s very calming to me to do these repetitive tasks with so much detail. It’s sort of therapeutic—like meditation. And it’s a funny, fascinating thing to be putting so much care into these little things that will eventually become part of bigger things. I bet I could make some crazy connection between that and my art…
I did start learning buffing recently—which is very closely related to painting, because the steps go back and forth—and it’s been nice to expand my skills and get one step closer to having a better understanding of how things continue down the line. There are plenty of things I’d still like to learn, like assembly or even stitching, as textiles are another interest I have. I just took a weaving class at Slater Mill in Pawtucket, which was really exciting. I got so into it because it has a lot of connections with what I do at Lotuff, and it’s that process, that repetition, that I really like.
Besides the near-constant presence of donuts and tacos on our conference table, what do you enjoy most about being a part of our team?
I think it’s just exciting to work in a place where everyone is so into what they’re doing. You have to have this certain kind of love and care for the tactile actions you’re doing while working here, and that passion really excites me. Everyone here is so interesting and cool—I actually knew Anna beforehand, which is how I ended up working here, and I’m happy I did! This is just a really nice environment to work in… and there are plants (laughs).
I love being able to listen to NPR while I work. A lot of times I’ll put on Finnish radio talk shows because it’s really interesting to get their perspective on things. Finnish night radio is on while I’m here during the day, so there’s a lot of weird things on the air, like reruns from the 1980s. Just yesterday it was a show from the 80s about the hosts exploring the station’s audio disc collection, and they were just going through this collection of CDs with this man who’s like, “This is the future!”, which is really funny to think about now, years later. I’m also very into music and I like creating playlists. Music in general has been something of a custom in my life since childhood… it was always there, even before art. I’ve been meaning to put a sign on the fridge [in the studio kitchen] where people can write their recommendations of what they’re listening to so we can all get ideas!
It was just overall the biggest contrast ever to come to Lotuff from working at a middle school. In the first few months I was so blissed out; it was the best thing ever. I was just so stressed before coming here, which makes this kind of work so good for my mind and soul and general well-being. This is a casual environment, but at the same time everyone really does care a lot, which is why we’re able to function as a system. It all relies on people who are really obsessed with their work.