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MARJUKKA VUORISALO ON TOM AS KNITWEAR AND TEXTILE FETISH

Petri Salo in Knit design by MARJUKKA VUORISALO

MARJUKKA VUORISALO ON TOM AS KNITWEAR AND TEXTILE FETISH

Marjukka Vuorisalo is an artist and educator who hails from the same country as our beloved Tom…  Finland! Her CV is overwhelming, with a long list of international exhibitions, numerous publications, and an ever growing list of teaching positions. She has a bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree from the University of Design in Helsinki, with an emphasis on Textile Art and Design, though she dabbles in several other mediums. Tom mastered the pencil drawing and Marjukka the yarn knit. With her extensive education on the subject, Marjukka has gone on to share her love of knitting with the world— I must admit I found this interview very educational. Most recently, Marjukka completed a book of knitting patterns based on Tom of Finland’s oeuvre (are you kidding me??), which is available at the Tom of Finland Store. Her attention to detail, and mastery of this craft is unparalleled by anyone I have ever met, and yet she remains totally humble. Still a student of the world, who encourages mistakes as part of the process, which ultimately is about joy, Marjukka is full of cheer. In an era marked by quarantine, I highly encourage everyone to check out the latest book, KNITS INSPIRED BY TOM OF FINLAND, and PLEASE, someone knit me that sailor sweater. 

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If you were to distill your origin story into a few sentences for our readers … Where are you from? And how did you become a textile queen?

I would very much prefer the term “textile-queer” to “textile-queen” as my own little kingdom (of balls and balls and balls of yarn) extends into the realms of textiles that are not often trodden or seen before by others. A very weird, and sometimes lonely kingdom, but so tempting. For all of this weirdness you can thank my grandmother Hilja, born in 1901 in Huittinen, Finland, where I was born as well. A grand old lady, who gave me my first doll, a handmade rag-doll. The same lady who taught me to knit, even though I hated the handicrafts at school!

You work in many mediums: drawing, painting, graphic design… What about textiles did you fall in love with? 

Textiles are special in that they are sensuous. A newborn baby is wrapped in cloth. The deceased are sent to rest in pieces of their special garments. Textiles are so very close to us, on our skin. I do love doing other forms of art, but textiles ended up being the most relaxing of these. Painting, for example, is a far more frustrating process.

Marjukka Vuorisalo at Helsinki Pride, 2015

I think of textiles first as utilitarian, but your work goes far beyond. Can you talk about the marriage of textiles and art? Can utilitarian objects be art?

My education is that of a textile artist with a Doctor of Arts from the University of Art and Design, Helsinki (2013). There is an ongoing debate, still even, about what art is. Add the very ordinary status of everyday textiles and you end up with a messy pile of yarn you could tangle on for the rest of your life. I wrote an article in 2010 about the similarities between music and textiles. There I mentioned John Cage, the famous composer, who heard beauty and art in everyday sounds. He stated that the purpose of art is to create joy in life. Making textiles has the very same purpose!

As a Finnish artist, what is your relationship to Tom of Finland? Is Tom an artist that always inspired you? 

Tom of Finland is one of the few special artists who has brought Finland into the scope of the rest of the world. An artist who dared to step into the untrodden fields. Courageous beyond all others. I have always been fascinated and awed by Tom’s ability to capture so much emotion and affection in small details. As I studied art and saw some of Tom’s original works in an exhibition, I was even more intrigued by his pure talent as an artist.

Holter Finn CLAD IN A TOM OF FINLAND KNIT BY MARJUKKA

I am floored by your book KNITS INSPIRED BY TOM OF FINLAND! Tom’s work is so full of texture. How did you come up with the clever idea to turn that into a knitting book?

This book could not have been possible without the courage on behalf of the publication company Avain, and the yarn company Tekstiiliteollisuus (yarns delivered internationally), the skillful hands of my loyal test knitters, the excellent eye of photographer Marjo von Bell, and the superb handsomeness and pure leather-hotness of the MSC-guys. And I cannot describe the gratitude I feel for Tom of Finland Foundation, for giving me the opportunity to do this labour of love.

As a textile artist, I tend to see the world in surfaces, textures and structures, even annoying myself. I met Durk Dehner at the Tom of Finland Seura [the biggest human rights event in Finland] in 2013 and mentioned my desire to make textiles based on the drawings of Tom. His encouraging words and heartening smile encouraged me to follow my dream, even though I did not know then that the final result would be knitwear.

When you were going through Tom’s collection, were there specific materials, uniforms or textures you were drawn to? How did you choose?

It was a tremendous challenge to turn Tom of Finland's exquisite use of details into graphs for knitting. I spent a lot of time choosing the works that would show the best knit format in Tom’s art. There are still unfinished knit ideas that did not end up in this book.

Painting by Marjukka Vuorisalo

Can you talk about the presence of sexuality and fetish in your work?

When I was studying art, we used to do a lot of “live drawing” — drawing the human figure from a live model. This, combined with the fact that I'm a Finn used to the concept of sauna, makes seeing and painting naked skin less sexual. Like Tom said: “To me a fully dressed man is more erotic than a naked one.”

I’m obsessed with the knit pieces based on Tom's uniform fetish - particularly the sailor frock. Do you have personal favorites in the book?

I do love black leather. There can hardly be a more enticing sight than a handsome man wearing black leather. My three personal favorites are: the Tom-long coat, as it portrays the artist behind all this; the Handsome-sweater, in its use of three colors and Tom's humor; and finally Tom's Club-tank top, that introduces a new technique into hand knitting, devore. I love to explore new fields of techniques.

MSC Finland Members flaunting Tom of Finland knits by Marjukka Vuorisalo. Petri Salo, and in the background Jouni Lepistö and Akusti Beaulieu

Your passion for knitting is eclipsed only by your passion of sharing it. Why is this craft something you want to educate others about?

I work as a part-time teacher of arts and textile, with students ranging from the age of 6 to 93, both female and male students. There is nothing more satisfying for me as an artist and a teacher than seeing a person— who has maybe even hated textile crafts or struggled with it—  come and show a textile work with a winner's smile on their face. That contented smile tells of another person who has been lured into preserving the craft by doing it.

With the imminent quarantine, knitting seems like an ideal vocation. For someone who has never knit, where does one start?

Knitting is a perfect way to keep yourself happy indoors. All you need is some yarn and needles, nothing more. Start with one stitch at a time, trust that knitting is not rocket science (if it was, it would be taught by another person, as I always say to my students) and before you know it, you will have in your hands a unique piece. Using this book, the piece will be even more special as it will show Tom's art. The simplest knit in the book is possibly the I <3 Tom-scarf, as it's only knits and purls. One more thing to remember is the fact that we all make mistakes. I once gloated over a new pair of mittens that I had just knit, until I realized that I would need two left hands. Back to knitting… 

Akusti Beaulieu Flaunting Tom of Finland knit by Marjukka Vuorisalo

For an illiterate-knitter, what is the process of designing a pattern like? How do you take a piece of art and transform it into something textile?

A drawing or a photo can be very easily transformed into stitches via many available computer programs, even free ones. To make the finished version look like the original art piece, one needs skills and an artistic eye. Finally, to be able to transform the piece into something wearable one needs mathematics and pattern drafting skills. A wearable piece of any kind of clothing has to fit. It's a combination of art, skill and mathematics.

How does a piece of art evolve as it is transferred to a new medium?

The maker of the original art has loaded the piece with meaning and hidden symbols, messages to the viewer of the art piece. As the medium changes via the process of another artist, the meaning evolves into something new. And as this second art piece is transformed, via the crafty hands of a third person, the art is yet again transformed, having the third layer of meaning and symbols. If this piece is then given as a gift to someone, and worn and mended, yet another layer of meaning is added. Some people say, “it's just a piece of knitting”, even though the piece can have a whole universe in itself.

 Stella in Tom of Finland knit by Marjukka Vuorisalo

What are you currently knitting?

Oh dear, the confession part… currently I have four knits on the needles (if I remember them all). One piece is for my free, In Deep Waters-blanket Knit-Along in Ravelry, two knits will become sweaters some day, and the fourth is simply a pair of fair isle socks, a new pattern I'm making along as I knit. I am pondering designs for a new knitting book as well. Never a dull day.

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