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Blog - Learning Disabled Art Studios

Kaarisilta – A hidden gem in the woods of Finland


In late August Tanya and Jennifer traveled overseas to Kaarisilta in Finland, near the small town of Lahti. What we found trapped between trees were some beautiful old farm buildings that, since 1986, have been transformed into the centre that supports disabled artists today – the chicken hut is the pottery and textile studio, and the cow shed is the sports hall, gym and swimming pool!

The Founder found a lack of choice and cultural activities that her disabled daughter could do upon leaving school, and with some very passionate people around her, got money from the bank to buy the main building on site and it has grown and grown since then. Presently around 60 people attend daily with a further 30 on vocational courses there too.

A wooden building with white window frames, amongst trees

One of the huts within the grounds

Why here you might ask? Well Tanya explains,

“It was because artist Mark Lloyd of ArtStudio01 exhibited in their Art Biennale two years ago now. I wanted to explore what, if any, common threads we could seed for future collaboration and to experience a completely different way of learning and thinking that a different culture could bring to our studio. It was both enlightening and exciting to begin this dialogue.”

Johanna Immeli spent the day taking us on a grand tour around the site and all it has to offer, and we got to chat to some of the tutors and artists along the way. All the tutors are specialised in the subjects they lead on, and diversity in talent is important to the management at Kaarisilta. They currently don’t have any volunteers helping on site, but this is something Johanna mentioned that they might try to implement.

One of Paul Gustafsson’s fantastic woodcuts of camels

The breadth of activity available on site was also impressive as Tanya explains:

“They are so much more that just an art studio. Music and sports are also very important too! They also perform their music and take part in concerts. Whilst on our tour of the music studio it was an honor to hear the angelic voice of one of the music students singing a folk song specifically for us. It was incredibly uplifting and moving, perfectly pitched and professionally performed.”

At Kaarisilta lunch is served at 11am and everyone goes to the main building to eat together – we had a delicious plate of chilli con carne. The nice thing about this is that tutors and those that attend, all sit together with no hierarchy of people, and we found this happening at Intoart in London as well. Using lunch and break times to challenge the use of hierarchical models within learning disability artists studios and leadership is also an approach that ArtStudio01 has embedded and will continue to embed in other areas of the studio too.

The room of looms, reminiscent of Garvald in Edinburgh

There are three sessions across the day from 9am-3:30pm, with some people choosing the same activity all day and some choosing to split the day with art, music and sport sessions. Johanna is based in one of the art studios, with each artist having their own distinct style of art. Once a year Johanna sits down individually with each artist to agree on goals for the artist, which is reviewed periodically across the year. This is a great model to bring back to England, with Tanya looking at whether this could be implemented within ArtStudio01.

A row of self-portraits outside the pottery barn.

A row of self-portraits outside the pottery barn.

The local authority pays for the individuals to come, and it is down to their families/carers to convince the authorities about their need for going to Kaarisilta. It is then ultimately the decision of the local authority on how many days they will pay for the individual to attend. The fee to attend varies on how much support the individual needs, and whether they want transport to the centre on top too. This fee from everyone almost covers the running and staff costs of Kaarisilta each day.

A pencil drawing of a man in a top hat in the foregournd of the inside of a victorian building

One of the artists drawings that is currently on the vocational course – that is him in the top hat at the front!

Since 2003, Kaarisilta has been running a full-time three-year vocational course in art (open to anyone with a disability across Finland), where the individuals receive a qualification at the end. The Finnish Government finances this course. Once completed, those that are local can see if they are eligible for the local authority to cover their fees to attend the art studio on site. If from further away, the staff team looks to find opportunities closer to where those artists live.

exhibition of a series of red paintings on a white gallery wall

A snap of current show in the Helsinki Kaarisilta Gallery

The main Gallery, that is located on the ground floor of a newspaper house in Helsinki, programmes over ten exhibitions a year, half of which are used to showcase the works of artists from Kaarisilta. Anyone can apply to hire the space, and team meetings are held to review the applications and decide who gets chosen each year. Mark Lloyd from ArtStudio01 had his work shown here during the Biennale in 2017.

We had a great trip to Finland and Tanya and myself will be keeping a keen eye out for the call-out for their next Biennale!

These blogs are co-written by the producer for this research project, Jennifer Gilbert, and Director of ArtStudio01, Tanya Raabe-Webber, sharing what they have learnt during their studio visits.

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