Artist Kalervo Palsa’s life in Kittilä, Lapland
The house known as Porvoo cabin in Kittilä is the home working space of Hugo Kalervo Palsa (born 1947, died 1987). Here under harsh conditions he grew up to be an artist known for his original depictions of the macabre, death and sexuality. Kalervo Palsa’s mother, Hilja Kenttälä (b.1902, d.1978)was originally from Kittilä area, working as a maid in the main village of Kittilä, living in an area called Narikka. She had three illegitimate children before meeting Hugo Harald Palsa, a forest industry worker from Southern Finland arriving to Lapland, as many others before and after the Second World War They lived together in Narikka, an area inhabited by temporary working force, and alltogether poor citizens of Kittilä.
During the Lapland war (1944-45) the German troops burned down most of the houses in Kittilä, only a few small cabins in Narikka and the main village’s church remain from the destruction. In 1946 the family moved to one of the remaining cabins and after that is was known as the Porvoo house according to Hugo Palsa’s nickname Porvoo. Hugo Kalervo Palsa, mostly known as Kalle was born March 12 1947 and was the last child of a family of six. Kalervo’s half brothers Reino, Lassi and Martti were notably older than him. During the sixties mother Hilja used to sell illegal alcohol and young Kalervo was involved in the restless bootlegging, alcohol-fused life of the cabin from an early age. The lumberjacks used to come to the house drinking and playing cards until late hours. This was not atypical in the Narikka neighbourhood, infamous for its rough lifestyle. The family had relatives living close by and the community was compact, taking care of its own.
Father Hugo died in 1963 and stayed a distant figure in the artist’s life. Alternatively mother Hilja was an important person throughout Kalervo Palsa’s life, encouraging him on decision to become an artist. Palsa was interested in drawing and arts already as a child, receiving acclaim from his teachers of his talent. He did not enjoy going to school, having troubles adapting to strict rules and being with his classmates. He eventually graduated from high school in Kittilä –the first one in his family.
Kalervo Palsa started writing and drawing in a storage house next to the family’s home. He started a journal at the age of fifteen, continuing the habit throughout his life, noting everyday events, ideas about numerous books he had read, art and life. He also wrote that general understanding for his art would have to wait after he had died and that he would face an early death. In 1966 he noted in his journal to make the storage his working space, later to become his studio. There he had the peace to work. In the studio he would deal with his dark thoughts: depression, suicidal intentions eventually leading to alcoholism. The living environment caused both anxiety and inspiration he used to transform into his art in the stillness of his studio.
There were already some famous artists in Kittilä before Kalervo Palsa. The first one, Einari Junttila gave Palsa some advice on art. Later Reidar Särestöniemi from the village of Kaukonen, was to become a close friend to the young artist. Both of them gave an example of living off one’s art, implementing inspiration for Palsa as well.
Kalervo Palsa spent seven years studying in Helsinki where he started his studies in University of Industrial arts and design in 1971, continuing to the Academy of fine arts in 1973. His first group exhibition was held in Rovaniemi in 1969 after a private exhibition in the library of Kittilä a year earlier.
Throughout his career, Palsa struggled selling his art so he had to find other sources of income. During many years he worked as a letterer of translated comics for various employers. After his studies Palsa returned to live in Kittilä and named his working space Getsemane and the Cloud castle. The studio was very cold and during the wintertime materials froze and making it difficult to work. From 1982 Palsa lived alone in the cabin, painting in it yet sleeping in his Getsemane. He received some working grants meant for Lappish artists but remained poor.
During 1986 Palsa was working in Gerlesborg, Sweden as an artist in residence, later the same year he travelled to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, even New York. The following year he visited artistic events in Murmansk and the again the Netherlands. These were an inspiration and opened up the world to the Kittilä born artist. In October he caught a flu that developed to pneumonia. Kalervo Palsa died in his studio October 4th 1987. He was buried next to his mother in Kittilä cemetery. His colleague and friend, sculptor Pekka Pitkänen designed a monument for the grave named The burning bush.
The house and studio, as well as the artworks Palsa left to a dear friend, Maj-Lis Pitkänen who later donated the works, journals as well as other objects to Kiasma modern museum of art in 1999. In 2011 she sold the Porvoo cabin and Getsemane to Kauko Sorjonen foundation. The buildings were renovated and the paintings on the Getsemane walls restored the following year. Inauguration ceremony for Palsa museum was held 5.6.2013.
text by Anne Koskamo
Kalervo Palsan archive Kuvataiteen keskusarkisto
Interview with Onni Nikkinen 20.6.2012, Kittilä. Interviewer Anne Koskamo.
Kalervo Palsa’s diaries: Kalervo Palsan päiväkirjat Merkintöjä vuosilta 1962–1987, toim. Maj-Lis Pitkänen
Kalervo Palsa : Resurrection 14.9.2002–5.1.2003 Kiasma Museum of Modern Art