I've been back in Los Angeles for two weeks since an incredible whirlwind adventure in Finland! Needless to say I only was able to write ONE blog post while I was actually in Finland (I'm sorry-- My great grandfather's homestead didn't have wireless and it's really hard to compose something thoughtful using the iPhone keypad).
Below is an album highlighting some of the exciting moments from the trip. There is so much more to write than a few captions, so I'll continue to blog and post more as my project continues.
Tonight my relatives invited us for delicious meal at their home. It was nice to see what life is like for a family outside of Helsinki. We played with the family dog and talked about languages, heavy metal festivals and Russian summer homes.
As the coffee was brewing our host brought out his son's ceremonial knife belt or "puukko". This particular puukko had a red strap with brass plates and ornamentation. It had two knives attached-- a short one used for cutting meat from animals, and a larger one used for settling "matters of principle".
I have come to learn that knives are an important part of Nordic culture. There is a great sense of pride associated with carving one's own knife handle, or being gifted a knife on an important occasion such as graduating high school or certain birthdays.
As we talked, I mentioned that one of my unanswered questions for this trip was to learn the circumstances surrounding the death of my great grandfather. All I have to go on is a handwritten note in the margin of a family tree that reads "illegal bootlegging". In the 1900s (even in Fairport Harbor, Ohio) a Finn wouldn't have gone anywhere with a knife. The chances of a dissagrement leading to a knife fight seems to be a likely hypothesis for how he met him end. Whether it it true or not, adding a knife fight to the play would certainly up the dramatic action.
Antti Ojala, one of my Finnish relatives (the grandson of my great grandfather's brother), is a prominent painter based in Helsinki. When my family visited Finland in 2006, we toured his studio and got to know a little about his work. Many of his paintings are inspired by traditional pauper statues found outside of many churches in rural areas of Finland. These wooden sculptures double as collection boxes for the social services of the parish. Every since that trip I have been intrigued by his work and interested in the history of the statues myself.
Here is a map of the journey we will take to attend the second exhibit.
Along the way we will stop to see a Finnish castle in Savolinna and then continue on to Kerimaki, Finland. The exhibit is displayed in the largest wooden church in the world and will feature 42 of 180 pauper statues known to exist in the country. It is a rare opportunity and it couldn't be occurring at a more perfect time. You can read more about the exhibit here.
I'll be in Finland in 6 days and it's all because of this portrait. . .
This is an image of my great grand father, Johannes Ojala (seated in the middle), his wife, Maria (my great grandmother), their son Adolph, and Johannes' brother, Kustaa (standing).
For as long as I can remember my mother has had a strong passion for her Finnish ancestry. She learned to make nisu and baklava from her Aunt Alice, frequently said (or perhaps butchered) a Finnish blessing before meals, and dreamed of visiting the small town of Isokyrö, where her grandmother was born.
In 2006, this dream came true. On a sunny afternoon in August, my mother, father, and I found ourselves in Helsinki, waiting on the east side of statue in the main square for distant relatives to find us. We spent the trip learning the ins and outs of Finnish customs, straining to understand one another, and trying to figure out exactly how we were related. I also came home with an amazing story about sharing a sauna with my long lost great uncle, Antti, but that's for another post. . .
It turns out the familial connection was through my great grandfather's siblings. Of his six brothers and six sisters, Johannes was the only one to immigrate to America. He settled in Fairport Harbor, Ohio in 1900 to build houses and start a family. According to our Finnish relatives, he was rarely mentioned after he left his homeland. It is unclear as to why- or what the exact circumstances were regarding his decision to move to America. We do know that his brother, Kustaa, traveled to Fairport to "search for gold" within the next year. He remained with his brother for a period of two years and then decided to return home to Finland. The portrait above along with an oil painting, that hangs in the family home in Kauhava, exist as record of that important moment in my family's history.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in Ohio for a conference, so I extended my trip by a day to visit Fairport Harbor. I met with the Finnish Heritage Museum with the hopes of learning more about my family and what my great grandfather's life would have been like in 1900. The discoveries of that trip unraveled in an amazing series of coincidences that warrant much more attention than I have time for in this particular post. A spark has been re-lit and my desire to create a theater performance based on my ancestry has moved to the top of my artistic "to-do" list.
Ever since the visit in 2006, my family has talked about returning for a family meeting that occurs every five years. This is the year and while the date has been on my calendar, the reality of the visit has arrived much quicker than expected! I'm looking forward to hearing more about the two brothers and their choice to move or not move away from the place they called home.
Wish me luck!
Updates about my current and ongoing projects.