Anja Salonen: I dream of waking up in the world where everybody is conscious
Anja Salonen (b.1994) is a contemporary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Her education includes studies at California Institute of Arts (Valencia, LA), Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI) and a summer school at Pharos (Greece). She also does music gigs in LA, composing and performing her own music, and is interested in spiritual healing practices. We met with Anja in July 2019 during my visit to California and talked in her studio, surrounded by paintings. Before the opening of her solo exhibition in Los Angeles at 5 Car Garage on 26 October 2019, this interview delves into Anja Salonen’s identity and world outlook with the aim of showing how art is always a reflection of an artist’s personality, inner integrity and value systems. Anja Salonen presents her vision of the modern world in transition, speaks about the ways to fight ego and reveals her acute sensititivity of human energies and subconsciousness.
Anja, what in your opinion distinguishes the artist from a ‘normal person’ and why did you choose painting as a form of self-expression?
I think that the role of the artist is related to situations where he or she develops a hightened sensitivity to certain things and through that you see things in the world that other people might not see and then find a way to express this vision. So yes, I do think being an artist is tied to hightened sensitivity and awareness. Being sensitive to energy and nuances of situations – I think that’s something that a lot of artists have. And that can be both a blessing and a curse. It can create a lot of suffering, too. And so art for a lot of people becomes a way to channel that sensitivity in a productive way.
Have you always had this sensitivity?
Yeah, I was always a super-sensitive kid. I always drew a lot when I was a kid, and then took an oil painting class when I was 13 – it was a night class near where I lived. And we were just painting all of master copies. It was the first time I was doing it, but it felt so natural. The connection just really clicked. It is funny – I think people just find their mediums of expression, so there is no certain intellectual reason for why I paint. It is just that for some reason this particular form of expressing things worked for me.
Do you think that art is created in general or in your case specifically at moments of anxiety and self-doubt or is it the jubilation of positivity, energy and achievement? Is is a way to regain personal balance or is it giving the world the results of harmony that you have achieved?
I think that it functions as both at different times. It depends on where my conscience is at that moment. Also over the years the function of my work has really shifted. For a long time I felt really sensitive to environments and had that extra-sensory experience of the world, so painting became a way of putting that feeling out, but there is also some kind of darkness to it, a sort of alienation. It was also tied with mental instability as the way that sensitivity was expressing itself in my life was difficult. There was an element in my painting that functioned as the way of materializing those really abstract sensations and energies that I was picking up on, and it was like having a format in which to map them out and see them in front of me instead of them being just nebulous and abstract. So I think that was what my paintings were doing for me for a while. And I’ve always painted self-portraits a lot. And at first that felt like a method of seeing myself, of understanding selfness that always felt really confusing to me as a concept. And as my understanding of selfhood changed, my paintings did, too.
Could you imagine finding yourself on Mars, without any known surroundings? Would the absence of ‘normal’ visual things around still allow you to paint your inner world?
Yeah, because it is all coming from inside. Of course, I have a lot of references, and I like looking at paintings and reading and researching all kinds of ideas, but I feel that the way this process works for me is that yes, I am constantly gathering materials and resources, but then they become the way that I see the world at that time, and unconsciously all that information is channeled into the paintings when I make them. It feels like research for my work is my life (laughs) and everything I am doing. And then paintings come out as pictures of my subconsciousness at that time.
As a teenager, would you say that you were self-taught in art or were these oil painting classes the beginning of your formal education?
It was the beginning, yes. I took art classes throughout high school – both in school and extra art classes, too. My family moved to London when I was 15, and there I met a portrait painter who lived near us, and would go to her house every Saturday to paint. So it was never super formal, but I found painting teachers everywhere.
Do you remember who were your guiding masters from the past when you were copying paintings? The ones that you looked up to and appreciated when imitating them?
Hm, a tricky question... I think that Pontormo and El Greco and mannerists were always really appealing to me. And for a while it was also Renaissance and old Flemish masters. I recently did a copy of an old painting – my own interpretation – it felt good doing it again.
Do you remember if there was feedback on your paintings? How did you begin to think about doing it professionally? At which point did you decide to further your education in art?
Before I discovered oil painting, I always loved art and was really good at drawing as a kid. But I think it is when I got into oil painting that I thought that this is my thing (laughs). It felt really natural for me from the beginning. When I was really young, the first thing I really wanted to be was a vet, an animal doctor. But pretty early on I felt I could be an artist, yes. And coming from an artistic family – my parents supported it – so there was no reason not to believe that it was possible.
When did you start to have some recognition? When did you have your first exhibitions?
I started showing when I was at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] – it is an Arts School in Valencia, LA, which is north of the valley. I went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] – I studied in Providence first – and then I left after a year and a half because I didn’t really like it. I came back to LA and I finished my study at CalArts. So while I was finishing my study at CalArts, I was living in LA and painting, and I started showing here.
And you also spent some time studying in Greece?
Yeah, on Pharos island. It was just a few months – after I finished school in London, I took a year off before going to study further. There was pretty classical and traditional aesthetics in that school, and they wanted to revive classical arts there. So yeah, we did a lot of studies of past masters and formal oil painting.
So you do have earlier paintings that don’t make part of your current style and technique?
Yeah, totally. I definitely painted in a more classical style when I was learning. And then I went through phases of breaking out of that as I was studying and after that. In the past couple of years I’ve been feeling that it is coming full circle. I’ve moved from previous types of paintings I’d been doing and have been focusing on technique more than I did before. But also I have been using the technique that I’d learnt to create new worlds.
If you think about your style now, when did it start to develop and how can you describe it? How would you define your own style in art and who do you feel close to if to anybody at all?
I think when I was at RISD studying painting. It is then that I started to develop my own form of painting. I was inspired by a lot of different groups – surrealists and Chicago imagists who made cartoon paitinings in the 1960s. I was really inspired by comic books and graphic forms of visual images – so I was using comic books as my references a lot at the time. And then I adopted a sort of cartoony style in my work for a while, using really saturated colours there. And that was when formal figuration came away for a while. I was paitining more quickly and in a more loose way (goes to another part of the studio and shows some of the earlier paintings).
From what I see, your paintings have a human figure – mostly female – in their centre. Why is it so, and whom do you feel inspired by or close to in this choice? Where do you think in the world of art?
I think that trying to paint a female figure came organically for me like doing self-portrature. I always felt like – ‘paint what you know’ (laughs). Especially with figuration I don’t want to create images of bodies that I don’t know and so I am using my own experience without trying to make any generalisations. It is my inner world that I am trying to put on canvases.
Is your inner world full of these women that we see on your paintings? Or are they representations of yourself or your friends?
Yes, they are representations of me and my friends who model for me sometimes. For a while I was using models, now I am not doing it so much – but these (showing some paintings in the studio) were close friends. So yes, I paint other people, too.
Can you think of periods of development in your style, like phases or something?
This piece and that red one (showing two paintings) belong to an older group for me, and are something that I moved on from, but that was very much a time when I was more focused on figuring out my own image, dealing with myself, and new pieces are those two in the corner (showing them) and the one I am working on for my new show, and there are more elements to it than just figuring out my image. Now I feel that I’ve understood it and could move on to the next phase.
It is normal in modern times to put the body on the forefront of the painting in a very open, even sexual style, but I guess it hasn’t been so for a long time in the history of world art, unless the paintings were dealing with historical or mythological themes. At the time Edouard Manet’s Olympia created a true scandal. Your paintings have a lot of nude or partly nude figures and distorted female images – how do they work in your paintings?
I guess it is not so much about the female body as such, but the female body is the one that I was born into, and it interests me more (laughs) – just the psychology of it. And also the history of women’s bodies is much more complicated than the history of men’s bodies (smiles). I think, yes, there are feminist undertones in my art just by virtue of the fact that it is something I believe in.
Are you trying to be overtly political about it? To show a woman as an object of a man’s attention and subvert this ‘normal’ male gaze at a woman?
I don’t think so – my art doesn’t have any open political agenda rather than my own beliefs projected into it. It is not pointedly about that, but it is more like everything I think about naturally finds itself in the paintings.
What are the activities and interests in life that have been feeding into your art and how do you think they have changed you as an artist?
A lot of it has been my own reading and research. The sphere where my biggest interest lies is in the intersection of psycho-spitirual practices and healing. It has become more and more clear to me over the years that I have some work to do in that field.
Do you mean to heal yourself or improve others?
It’s both. Largely over the past few years it was figuring this out so that I could heal myself, and now after learning it I feel that it has been transitioning outwards. The paintings that I do know also function as energy objects. I want audiences to engage with my paintings. It has always been a big part of my practice. What I am trying to do in my work is to evoke these sensations – through space and colour and light, all these elements that people perceive as part of their reality – to distort them to create the kind of sensation that I aim at.
What was the feedback of people visiting your previous shows? Do you ask them, do you like to know what they felt?
Yes, I do like to know. People read them in different ways. I don’t usually get that much feedback, I wish I got more. The last show that I did had a very magical quality to the way that I set everything up. I tried to evoke the sensation of enchantement. So part of the effect was feeling transported into another world, into another reality. There is always an installation aspect in my shows. I get help from my friends in working that out and preparing the show. They are sculptors and carpenters, and they are my team, helping to install a new exhibition.
Is LA an art-frienly place? Is your professional network here wide enough or would you have liked to move elsewhere?
Yeah, I feel really happy here with the art community. It is really supportive. Although it is a big city, it feels small and everyone knows each other. People are always helping out. Especially now the LA arts scene is exploding. For a while New York has really been the centre of the art world, but LA has its own thing going on now. For now I am pretty happy, I don’t really know what the future holds.
Is it difficult to promote yourself and exhibit here? How does it work? I saw that you often do joint shows with others. How do you find venues and slots for exhibitions?
It is a tricky thing, because with most galleries you have to really wait for them to come to you. Most galleries are not open to submissions of work. Big part of it is going to openings and becoming part of the community, meeting people, inviting people to your studio. And then someone knows someone and they will connect you to someone else. It all happens organically, but there is not much you can do directly (laughs) to get your work shown, at least in my experience. You have to make the work and then wait for someone (laughs) to want to show it, which sometimes feels weird, of course.
What is your self-discipline? Everyone today is so much a victim of dependance on social media, with procrastination being part of our daily lives. How do you avoid that and how do you set yourself a schedule for coming here to your studio?
For me it really depends. I go into phases with this. I feel that I work best when I have a project. I work intensively when I have a certain painting to finish or a show coming up. After that I usually take a break and step back, so my work usually comes in phases. And that feels good for me, because then I don’t feel burnt out. For a while I was working with a gallery here, and I was showing a lot and going to fairs and always needed to produce new work. It didn’t really feel good: I felt that my work suffered and I didn’t have time for developing process that I needed. I just needed to produce things full stop. I think that as a creative person you can’t force yourself to be creative all the time. It is a tricky thing about being a professional artist – you need structure and schedule, but there are some days when I feel that I just can’t make it.
But are there certain days that you schedule your visits to the studio for or do you sometimes just wake up and go?
I work at a part-time job two days a week and try to be in my studio pretty much every day that I am not working. Other things come up, too, but this is something that I am for. If there is nothing else that I have to do, then I go to the studio. I have always had it, but if I had an area at home, it could work, too, it is just it never worked out that way. I think it is nice to have a studio – especially with paintings, as there are some toxic chemicals involved, so to have them away from your home is always a good idea (laughs).
It is a paradox in a way: I perceive you as a young American woman living in LA, but your roots are Finnish and British, and your life involves periods of living in Europe, while you like to travel extensively. How does this feed into your identity?
Yeah, it’s tricky (laughs). When I was a kid living in LA, I always felt European because my family was always a little bit different. We were always going to Europe, and a big part of my life and identity was being European but living in LA. But then when I moved to London, it was really funny, because it was the most American I ever felt. Having American accent in England is immediately noticed by others. There I was really aware of being labelled as American. As for my Finnishness – my Mum is actually Welsh, but I spent a lot of time in Finland and I speak Finnish, so it is a huge part of my identity, definitely more than my Welsh side, just because I spent much more time there. So in the end I am American, but I have multiple passports and could be called a global person, too, I guess.
I am Russian, but I have lived in Britain for more than 10 years, and I have researched Russians who moved out of post-Soviet Russia to live in the West. So my question is can you trace how all these travels and living abroad changed you as a person and an artist? Would you like to boost yourself with new travels – to go and live in another country, to do a world tour?
I like travelling. I think it is a very important thing for humans. A big thing that being raised bilingual and multi-national did for me was that it ingrained in me the plurality of truths in the world. I just always grew up surrounded by cultural diversity, and I am very grateful for it. It was always a part of my regular life, and that has informed a lot of who I am and what I appreciate. I think that I would be hard now to live in a place that isn’t culturally diverse. LA a culturally diverse place, and so was London. At some point you realize that the constructs and culture (or cultures) that you were born into are just one ideology, so this feeling gives you flexibility to play with different ideas, as you now can see that they are not rigid and everything is changing, and there are overlaps. It gives you space to get distanced from any dogma, and you feel not attached to any culture. I am investigating from a distance.
You seem to be very open to various sub-cultures also: singing in different fringe venues or exploring LA club culture. Is it your hobby or another project that you are involved in?
We have a project called Dovestone. It is related to a lot of what I am trying to do with paintings. It is me and my good friend Allegra making music together. We compose this music together, it is all very collaborative, and then there is a big performance aspect to it, it is all very theatrical. All the lyrics, all the energy that goes into it is related to spiritual awakening process. We perform at different venues. The music scene in LA is very intertwined with the art scene, and I’ve found myself almost more involved with the music scene at times, which is funny, partly it was because of always dating musicians (laughs). Whenever I had a musician boyfriend, I was thrown into a new music world. So I have a lot of musician friends, and when we started making music, people started to ask us to make a show before they even heard our music.
In the beginning you said that you painted to overcome your extra-sensitivity and to come to terms with yourself, but now you are an accomplished young woman who has found her way in many aspects. What are hidden challenges of your current life, the sides of the medal that are not so obvious to an observer?
It took me a while to get to where I am now. I grew up playing piano, but was always terrified of performing. I was never a natural performer. I always had an intense anxiety when performing, although I still had to do recitals, and I hated it. It was definitely not my natural inclination to perform, so it was very difficult at the beginning. I was always freaking out and tried to get myself together. Then it got much easier just through doing it. Then I realized that pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone is the only way to learn that these things are not actually dangerous. Your mind functions in the way that it needs to experience fear and adrenalin and then see that nothing bad happens. And this applies to what I later learned about healing: you have to walk through the fire to get to your goal.
What does healing involve? And how does it help you to develop as a person and artist?
A lot of it comes down to letting go of ego identification which is where most people live most of the time. And that creates a pathology, a psychotic state that most people are in, and larger systems are in, and you always look for external sources of validation, and it totally disempowers you, and different groups of people are then othered as enemies, because ego loves to compare itself to others and put yourself above or below. Then envy and jealousy arrive – they are caused by ego identification. When you are totally defined by your small self, your life ends up in protecting that image of yourself that you think you have. And often you are not being authentic to yourself, because you think that whatever you are at that moment is not acceptable based on some system of rules that you’ve been taught. Through meditation and different healing practices you learn to experience oneness of the world, and you realize that ego battle is insane and is hurting you from inside, and that everything that you have been looking for outside you can find within yourself just by tuning in, sitting in silence, being present and feeling yourself as more than just Anja. The interesting thing is that once you release your ego, you are free to be yourself all the way, and you don’t have to be afraid of it anymore. There is no space for shame and anxiety about what other people think about you, and you are less ashamed of yourself, so this is a freeing realization.
Don’t you think that there is a paradox here – if you are an artist, you actually have to establish your own name, uniqueness specifity built on your image and personality. We expect artists to be ‘themselves’, ‘true to their own identity’, as we have already created a certain fixed image of them. And then you say that the way forward is to go beyond yourself - so how do these two demands co-exist? Are you the first non-egotistical artist to emerge in this world?
(Laughs) I think it is about not taking much credit for the work... I feel that I’ve worked hard to develop the means of expressing things visually through painting, but what actually comes out is beyond me. It is like channeling. Anything that happens – any criticism, any mistakes that you make – are no longer perceived like attacks, as they no longer touch the essence of who you are because you are not just that, you have other things, too.
You are quite active at Instagram, but social media seem to target our egos and make us dependent on people liking us which is used commercially, too. You are also quite open there – it is not a fixed image, but it is you through your life, travels, IG stories. Then what are social media for you as a means of self-expression?
It is just a way of communicating on a large scale. Communicating visually has always been the easiest way for me. IG has definitely caused me some anxiety sometimes, and I felt at times that I was addictive to it, because it literally becomes an ego reward system. You get chemical response when you get likes, and it affects you on physiological level, which is terrifying. But I guess it is all about doing it consciously, just being aware of how you feel when you are on it, and when you begin to realize that it is not healthy. So it is a question of being aware and tuned in for it not to grow an addiction.
I realize that we begin to lead our lives sometime thinking of how this or that action or a thing we see could become an IG shot, like framing ourself with somebody else’s objective view before we even live through that moment. A certain schizophrenia of a sort...
Yes, I realized that, too. For a while IG was helping me to get a lot of opportunities, and it felt that a lot of galleries found my work through IG. And then I got that feeling sometimes that I have to finish this painting so that I could post it on IG, and I would rush to get it done to post it today. So I was asserting some random and meaningless rules because of my perceived audience. It is really interesting when you become conscious of that and its influence on your mind.
I feel that you are leading a life that many young people would probably have liked to have. But is there a pressure for you to become yourself? Do you usually mention who your parents are?
Not really. To me it feels pretty disconnected. I am sure it would have been different if I was in the classical music world. But thankfully the worlds are pretty separate. If I am working closely with someone, they will probably learn who my father is, but it is not really part of the conversation, which is really nice. It is important for me to have my independence. I feel really grateful for growing up with artist parents, as I have a lot of artist friends whose parents were not so supportive when they wanted to go to an art school. The amazing thing about my parents is that they always said ‘Do whatever you want’ in terms of what I was interested in pursuing. They were always open to letting me be who I was.
Now that you have reached a certain kind of balance and have found your means of expression, do you have any ideas of what comes next? Do you want to be involved in changing this world and some social projects, or do you just want to travel the world, exhibit your works in LA and elsewhere? Do you have a plan for future?
I guess it is flexible in terms of a fixed plan, but I definitely have some non-specific goals. I am interested in changing the world from a place of suffering and violence to a place of equality and peace. I think it is going to happen on the level of consciousness first, and I can kind of see that happening, as people are waking up to more compassion and protests, especially as the political situation is getting more and more insane. Changing the grass-roots level of consciousness is where the social power of artists lies, as the conversation if always being held in art about how people are perceiving reality. As that shifts, public consciousness makes its way out, and it is not only in art – it is the way you treat people, the attitude that you have, these things make a big difference. So it is on a small scale now, but hopefully it can be really effective.
I also believe that world is changed by internal energies – like there was a Russian scientist Vernadsky who developed a theory of noosphere – that is the spiritual energy of the earth to where every human being has input, and thus we contribute to this energy field.
I actually think that even what Putin and Trump do is the expression of this shift that is going on, from an extreme egotic state to consciousness-oriented state, but their actions are the final freaking out of the ego. The extreme horrors are happening, but on the other side of that there is also an extreme awakening. People all over the world are standing up and protesting against the governments for piece and equality in an unprecedented way. So even if it feels like the worst time ever on earth (laughs uneasily), there is also an equivalent positive movement that is not as powerful yet, but I think and hope that this is going to change.
Do you think that #MeToo movement was part of it?
I think that all of these movements hold their part in this awakening. And it is really an awakening of people realizing how fucked up the governments have been for so long and how they have been controlling people, and not accepting it anymore. It just feels like all these kinds of horrors are coming the surface, and always the first time of a healing phase is when you become aware, you become conscious of what has been going on and you realize that it is not nice to look at and horrifying. But it is only through seeing it that you are able to change it, like treating a wound with a doctor.
Do you think that here the solution could be downshifting, meditation and a certain kind of escapism, or, on the contrary, political involvement, responsibility, various activities and engagement?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because I don’t feel very drawn to politics and political engagement, but I have a lot of desire to change the world. My role is not in politics, but sometimes I feel like how can everything else even matter when there is extreme human rights injustice going on. Should I just give up art and become some kind of social activist? So we need people in different roles: we need activists and those who change people’s consciousness. Everyone has their different roles.
What is the ideal world that you would like to wake up in one day?
I think that it would be the world where everybody is conscious. And then naturally through everyone being conscious, the world would be built on respect, quality and piece, non-violence and joy. I do think it is possible (laughs).
Coming back to your show - have you been successful in selling your art?
Occasionally, yes. When I was working with a gallery, I was selling quite a bit, yes. But being in the gallery was not a good situation for me artistically as I described before, so I left – but the job of the gallery was selling paintings, so I indeed sold some of mine, too. Hopefully during this show in October I might sell some paintings.
But I guess the strive to sell and become a successful commercial artist contradicts your stance in the world, as it would be enpowering your ego, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, completely. And that has been a struggle at certain times, for sure. Especially it hit hard after having had a taste of success – I was pretty young and suddenly I was going to fairs and going to New York, so it all went to my head. And then it all dwindled and changed as things always do. But when I had that and was represented by a gallery which I always thought I wanted, I actually wasn’t very happy, as suddenly the demand was very high and I was stressed all the time, and I mental health took a hit, for sure. So it was part of learning experience – to learn how to live as an artist. Right now I am not dependent on selling art for making money, as I have this other work that I do. So it would be fine if my painting sell, but I am allright if they don’t.