Saari Well, Illustrated

Canadian playwright and translator Alexis Diamond writes what it was like to live at the Saari Residence with other artists for two months during the darkest period of the year in November and December 2016.
From left to right: MIRKO NIKOLIĆ, MARIKA TROILI, ANA MEJIA MACMASTER, SERENA CHALKER, MARJUKKA ERÄLINNA, HILJA ROIVAINEN, ALEXIS DIAMOND, MATTHEW COWAN, MIKEL R. NIETO and SAMI HILVO. Photo: PIRRE NAUKKARINEN

Invitation to the Dance

The first full day we were all at Saari, Estate Manager Heidi Lapila and Jani gave us a tour of the property and all the spaces, inside and out. When we saw the Dance Studio in the Big Barn, Sami Hilvo and I gasped at the endless space, cavernous compared to our little dance spaces at home, next to our computers, where, we both discovered, we liked to shake it when we were facing writer’s block or our own demons.

Now, this, this was a Dance Floor. It beckoned, called, cajoled. It flourished a hand in invitation…

Of course, the Dance Studio was Marjukka Erälinna’s domain for the duration of the residency. How could we intrude?

But Marjukka, being the angel she is—for what else could that circular perch descending from the heavens mean?—said, “Of course. When I’m not using the studio, I’ll just hang a sign on the door.”

That sign said, “FREE.”

Which is exactly what we were. Free to dance, free to dream, free to cry, free to rail, free to celebrate, free to create.

And so we danced. We danced for birthdays and for disappointments, for pure pleasure and from raw pain. We danced with Jone San Martin when she came to work with Mikel R. Nieto. We danced singly, in pairs, as a group. We danced to salsa, to song, to sound, to noise, to silence. There was a lot of dancing. And why not? We were free.

Full Table

Once a week, on Tuesdays, we all got together for brunch, lovingly prepared by our Residency Hostess, Iiris Lahti, and held in the beautifully refurbished and restored Manor House dining room, its windows giving us a view of the woods and the bay beyond. Sometimes everyone at the table was drawn into a single debate or discussion; at other times, we broke off into individual conversations. Even after Hanna Nurminen, Saari’s esteemed Executive Director, excused herself to return to her desk, we would stay at the table, chatting, consulting, scheming, planning, ranting, joking, asking Residency Coordinator Pirre Naukkarinen a dozen logistical questions…

In the Farmhands’ Cottage, Ana, Sami and I would often run into each other at the breakfast table or at the coffee pot. Since Sami and I were working in our Cottage living spaces, we often met for yet another coffee and a chat around 2 or 3 p.m. in the afternoon, happy to have a break from our internal landscapes and to hear the voice of a real person instead of the voices in our heads…

There was also dinner together in the Big Barn. Sometimes just two of us, or three, four or five, sometimes most of us, occasionally all of us.

After checking in with Community Artist Pia Bartsch and trainee Hanna Väätäinen, who were toiling away in the work space just beyond the door, we would commandeer the Big Kitchen and go over our day, our progress, news from the outside world and from home, continuing stories or starting new ones. These meals were potluck, or if they weren’t, more than one person would help with prep, or set the table, or offer to do the dishes, or help clean up.

And then we would eat. Together. En famille.

Dinner together. Photo: Alexis Diamond.

Landscape

The light changed moment to moment, let alone day to day. Everywhere you looked, it was like a landscape painting. Walking alone was entirely different than walking with someone else, and what you noticed would change likewise.

Walking out with Ana Meija was all about light and shadow. Sometimes, she would stop you, direct you to take a step back, or move your arm, or turn slightly, so she could catch your long shadow against the ground just so.

Walking out with Hilja Roivainen meant seeing the landscape itself as composition, noticing the change in colour, perspective, the contrast of foreground and background.

Walking almost always meant talking. Serena Chalker and I talked about self-producing, and the systems and structures set in place for the arts in our respective countries, and writing and dancing and Gilmore Girls.

On Finland’s Independence Day, in tribute to our temporary home, Invited Artist Matthew Cowan and Saari Fellows Marika Troili, Mirko Nikolić and I went for a long walk in the midday sun, talking the entire way about art, research, writing and holiday traditions.

Another quartet—Hilja, Serena, Ana and I—went on another long holiday walk, on the other side of the highway (!) on Christmas Day, following a route plotted by Hilja, exploring another side of Saari, and talking all the way, naturally.

Sometimes, though, walking meant silence. Ana and I went out with Mikel one night. After Mikel planted his microphones in the snow and sheathed them in plastic, the three of us walked single file through the dark woods, just looking and listening.

Oh, yes, the landscape. The sunrises through my bedroom window. The sunsets over the bay. The bay frozen and unfrozen. The birdsong. The frost and the snow and the green grasses and the fog and the rain. All of it.

Sunrise from the Farmhand’s cottage. Photo: Alexis Diamond

The Work

Making art is work. We all worked extremely hard.

We needed the time together—eating, walking, talking, dancing, working—because we spent so much time apart each day, lost in worlds of our own making.

When we were together, we talked around, about and through our work—a challenge, a problem, an issue, a moment we’d lost ourselves in. Other times, we asked for help, and we received it.

Everything I created at Saari, both the planned and the unplanned, bears the imprint of these interactions, large, small, major and miniscule. Each and every artist, experience, encounter and exchange is right there, on every page, in every word.

Humans are social creatures, and art is a social act.

Serena Chalker, Hilja Roivainen and Ana Mejia Macmaster. Photo: Alexis Diamond

Wellspring of Ideas

We drew magic waters from the Saari Well until we were full, and then we began the trek back home, alone.

But not alone, not now, not really. Because now, we have each other, as colleagues, collaborators, champions, sounding boards, friends.

The real question is, did we draw any ideas for future projects from the Saari Well?

Oh, yes. We have those too. A wellspring of ideas. Just you wait and see.