The Saturday morning breeze waltzes into a large, open studio, seemingly attempting to fill the entire room as if it were the only guest invited to the weekend art session. After blowing thousands of eraser dingles off the front desk, the wind dashes through a thicket of spirally brown curls looking down leaning over a canvas. The owner of the curls continues to paint. Perhaps she begins to imagine where she could insert lights and shadows, or where there needs to be more color. Maybe she is just trying to figure out how to make her picture look genuinely realistic, or perhaps she is trying to do just the opposite.
Nina Ollikainan, who teaches art at my school, is a woman whose creative and intriguing personality seems to flow right onto the canvases of the artwork she constructs. However, her art is more than just creative; it is insightful. After spending almost three months in AP art class with Nina, I have come to understand some of the unique qualities she possesses, both through observing her creative mind, and listening to her retelling of her life experiences.
“I used to be a pathologist,” Nina told me one day, in the perky, high-spirited fashion in which she speaks. Wildly confused, I asked, “What’s that?” She responded tentatively, using her typical, innocent-sounding voice, “Well, you know, someone who cuts up dead bodies.” An immediate “whoa” shot from my mouth. Looking at her, you would have expected her previous job to have involved working with kids or puppies – something much less grim than performing autopsies. But maybe that is what makes her artwork more than just paint on a page. She has perspective.
A couple weeks into class, an interaction I had with Nina typified this perspective. She said to me, “You know, you should really draw something – not just take photos.” For the longest time, I could not wrap my head around why she was so passionate about me picking up a pencil and a piece of paper when we both knew that my drawing skills are limited. Perhaps Nina believes that an art utensil can serve as an extension of the human soul, a direct link from heart to hand. Perhaps the infectious and inviting smile she bears each day comes from her understanding that her artwork is an expressive mirror of her own self. When a girl in class asked Nina one day, “Does anyone own art?” she responded, “No. Art is just a reflection of life,” and my question about the role art plays in Nina’s own life was answered.
What does she really draw, one may ask? Many would look at Nina’s paintings and react to them simply on their aesthetic value. However, in my eyes, Nina’s paintings are more than that. They serve as a collage of her experiences and her own, unique viewpoint. Her persona manifests itself in the squiggles and shadows of the paintings she produces. Art is all about creating something from nothing, but really, Nina’s masterpieces are all about revealing what is hidden, and only revealed through paintbrushes and pencils. They paint a picture of her life’s tale and spark inspiration for all whose minds are colored by the imaginative, thought-provoking works this special woman creates. In truth, we all have the power to creatively express our own stories; it is just a question of how we do it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.