SAARALIISA YLITALO

ARTIST INTERVIEW WITH SAARALIISA YLITALO

Saaraliisa Ylitalo’s three-month personal residency generated work and conversation about artist books, joomchi and the power of art to heal. We share Saaraliisa‘s fascinating life as a Global Nomad and the influences from her years in Japan, Costa Rica, Peru and South Africa.


You have spent a great deal of your life living abroad. Tell us about where you have been and how this has influenced your art.

Both my father and husband were in the Foreign Service, which made me a world traveler (also known as a Global Nomad).  Here are some places and things that have a power and wonder that have gone straight into my heart and come out in my work:

I am in awe of all forms of ritual and gratitude whether secular or spiritual and I am moved by places where our shared connection is profoundly evident.

  • Pre-Columbian gold work in Peru
  • Daily offerings and personal altars everywhere in Bali
  • Milagros all over Latin American churches
  • Historical ruins in Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, and Sacsayhuaman, all in Peru.  
  • Hieroglyphics, cave paintings and nonverbal forms of communication from many old cultures
  • Magical cites of the world that are special to me: Kyoto in Japan, Oaxaca in Mexico, Cusco in Peru and, Chichicastenango in Guatemala. 

 

 We would love to hear about your mentors, education and artists whose work has had the most impact on you.

In my twenties I studied with Walter Nottingham and taught various fiberarts in Illinois and Wisconsin. Then I began 25 years of travel on four continents–living, teaching and exhibiting in Costa Rica, Japan, Peru and South Africa. During five years in Japan, I fell in love with washi paper and apprenticed with a master papermaker in Kyoto. Paper remains my chief passion but I combine it with many other textile techniques including  spinning paper thread (koyori or kami-ito) and a Korean technique called Joomchi, in which layers of paper are agitated together and form a strong paper felt.

I love so many artists but here are some of my all-time favorites: Magdalena Abakanovitz, Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo, Lenore Tawney, Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois.

For many artists who work in fiber, there are childhood experiences that have drawn us to working with particular materials or aesthetics. Tell us about some of your fiber lineage.

Textiles have always fascinated me. I learned to sew when I was nine, and everything else followed: knitting, crocheting, weaving, spinning, dyeing, tatting…. By the time I got to college, I was ready to explore textiles as art.

Transparent Japanese paper appears as thin and fragile, but is so much stronger than other papers. Working with these contrasting qualities fascinates me and reflects how I feel about finding strength in each fragile moment. My Finnish background and many years in Japan have made me aware that these two disparate cultures both have an esthetic sparseness and “less is more” quality that I am deeply drawn to. Ethereality in my work is just part of how I speak visually. The Scandinavian esthetic is in my genes but my materials are distinctly Asian.

There are some persistent visual themes in your work: aged and rusted surfaces, grids and series, text and thread and using gold.  Tell us about these aspects of your work and what you love about them.

Using text conveys the maker’s hand, our universal need to communicate and the healing process of journaling. I often use text from Rumi’s poetry, which is full of sensitivity and grace.  The hanging threads reference an unfinished thought and a stitched line, the written word. I have used rust in my work for a long time. Its beauty speaks to me of the impermanence of everything and the beauty in aging and decay.

I always work in a series, until I have exhausted the thought or idea.  It is a part of the philosophy I learned from Walter Nottingham about structuring my freedom.   I take an idea and work with it in all different manifestations of the theme within my chosen limitations. I always use paper as if it were fabric, use textile techniques (so dye and not paint), and I almost always use gold. I am always trying to depict a moment of joy or a moment of despair, and the tension between the two.  Gold has a larger voice in some work and barely a voice in others. Yet even in the bleakest subjects I use gold to signify a way out of despair. I strive to translate our internal weather systems into visual form.

Everyone needs support for their art. Tell us about your artistic support network when you lived abroad and who supports you now that you have returned to the US?

From the beginning my husband was always my best cheerleader.  He was very well educated in all the arts, not because he was a maker, but because he was a voracious reader and curious about everything and he often helped me with references.  We all need a place to air thoughts and ideas where it is safe and where we are completely seen and not judged and he provided this for me. Since his sudden death in 2015 I have struggled to find support and I realize that I will find it in many different places, not just in one person.  For an introvert, this is not easy, but I am working towards extending my circle, and bringing new people into my life to share my art, ideas and feelings.

You are on a three-month personal residency in Chapala. Tell us why you are drawn to Mexico and how you visualize your time here.

Choosing to be in Mexico was easy because I speak Spanish and feel at home in this culture.  People are kind and friendly in Chapala and it is a very welcoming place. It is no surprise I feel more at ease outside of the US. This residency is about art and healing.   My best survival tool is my art, so I needed a space to take the time without the responsibilities of home life.

Read more about Saaralissa:

www.saaraliisa.com
saaraliisa@saaraliisa

Instagram: @saaraliisa


Testimonials

We were new to Mexico and had no idea what to expect from the Residency or Chapala. Both were delightful! I was able to work successfully on two projects that have been germinating for some time, and also enjoy the friendly, lovely and accessible town with its many colors and flavors. Our casita was comfortable, spacious and nicely furnished. It included a studio, patio and a private balcony perfect for an end-of-day cocktail. Deborah, Christian and colleagues were the perfect hosts who fostered a very satisfying creative experience in an environment that was at once stimulating and restful. Muchisimas gracias!

Diana Leidel, Visual Artist Brooklyn, NY

Our residency at 360 Xochi Quetzal was more than we had hoped for! The time and space to work, think, and explore–without deadlines or requirements–opened up our practice in a way we had not imagined. The town is lovely, easy to navigate, with everything within walking distance. The locals were so welcoming; we felt at home right away. Our accommodations in Lopez Cotilla were clean, comfortable and allowed both of us to have our own studio space. We really enjoyed quiet evenings on the patio watching the sun set over beautiful Chapala and meet ups with the other residents. Muchisimas gracias!

Suzanne Stroebe, Artist Bernard Cousins, Musician Brooklyn, NY

After a beautiful and adventurous journey from Europe, we found ourselves in a taxi descending the hills of Sierra de San Juan Cosala with the full moon reflected in the lake. The word “magia and maravilla” crossed my mind and I got goose bumps.

Chapala is indeed a magical place, colourful, charming and very safe with friendly people everywhere. We were blown away by the bird life, vegetation, architecture, which are so different from ours in Hungary.

Our casita was a for us: comfortable, well-equipped and authentically Mexican. The Residency Handbook answered all our questions before we even asked them. Cobra and Christian are very attentive and kind, and their hospitality was unmatchable.

Zsuzsa and Istvan visual artists from Hungary, Europe

As painting and writing residents during 2017, we both would like to thank you for the opportunity to be able to focus and collaborate on a project, entitled Immigrants. We had been thinking about it, had discussed it, but never quite got around to doing it until this residency. The atmosphere, encouragement, feedback and like-mindedness of all involved in Chapala gave us both the inspiration to move forward.

It was a productive and great experience for us both and we thank you.

 

Joyce and Hector DeCordova

I visited the 360 Xochi Quetzal Artist Residency in Chapala, Mexico for the entire month of April 2017.  It was a perfect retreat for me.  I loved watching the cowboys ride in on their horses.  My work flourished, inspired by the other visiting artists and the tranquil nature of the town.  I went to Ajijic and attended figure drawing and portrait sessions up to three times per week.  I made new friends and felt encouraged in my writing and art making.  I am so glad I had a chance to participate in this program. Chapala is a perfect place to get your work done with little distraction.

Anna Roach, Mixed Media-Seattle,WA

360 Xochi Quetzal was my first residency and I loved every bit of it. The opportunity to get away and single-task toward my writing instead of routinely multitasking was priceless. My studio was cute, clean, and well-equipped. Deborah and Sandra were very approachable, helpful, and I loved connecting with fellow-residents from different disciplines too. Most of all, the location of our residence across from the Malecón buzzing with artisans, vendors and restaurants offered to me just the right balance of isolation toward focused work and a community around. I hope to return soon.

Namrata Poddar, Writer-California

My time in Chapala was pivotal for me as a writer. You can’t understand the effect Chapala has until you arrive. Its splashes of color, rhythms and scenic beauty will inspire you. Scribbling away at Café Paris, locals ambling by, a cool glass of beer sweating on the table… I felt like Hemingway. This residency gave all that to me and more. It is a gift I continue to cherish; a feeling I look back on when in need of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation.

Sean Hammer, Writer – New York City

Everyone comes to the residency for different reasons. For me it was a time to reflect upon this whirlwind past year. I lead a hectic life and often feel like I run from exhibition to exhibition without time for contemplation. I really needed to slow down and think about the next direction for my work. I got that and a lot more! I finished two small projects and reveled in the beautiful environment. I was able see the Monarch butterfly migration and experience an indigenous fiesta with my fellow artists. I left the residency refreshed, with new friends and purpose!

Jenny Angus, Installation Artist - Madison, WI

I had no expectations when I headed to Mexico for a personal residency, and the entire experience was a wonderful surprise. I loved Chapala: its realness, its people, the lake, the restaurants, and especially my casita where I could work outside on the patio. I met wonderful people that made my trip even more enjoyable. I had no agenda as I worked, but I was pondering an exhibition for the following December.  I didn’t realize until I returned home and began working on the show in earnest how beneficial the weeks in Chapala were.  I will certainly return.  http://loribgoodman.com/

Lori Goodman, Artist – Eureka, CA

My personal residency at 360 Xochi Quetzal was wonderfully productive and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has a creative project that requires some quiet, focused time.  The casita was lovely – spacious, fully furnished, very clean and stocked.  The residency hosts, Cobra and Christian, are welcoming, fun and engaging.  My casita was steps away from the Malecón and within walking or bike riding to Ajijic.  The locals are friendly and engaging-quick to suggest a favorite taco stand or even invite you to join them for a hike.  I will definitely be back!

Lenna Minion, Writer-Dubai

The 360 Xochi Quetzel Personal Residency Program was a perfect place for me to focus on my children’s book. I wanted an authentic Mexico experience where I would be submersed in the culture and language. Chapala was easy to get around and affordable. The Lopez Cotilla casita was cool, breezy and comfortable. It had everything I needed. I woke up in the morning to hummingbirds buzzing around a tree outside my window. Sunsets were beautiful from the outdoor terrace and an occasional dramatic thunderstorm just to let you know who is really in charge around here. Muchas Gracias!!

Kristin Balouch, Writer-Brooklyn, NY

We have one word to describe the our experience here at 360 Xochi Quetzal, and that is MAGIC! The casita is very spacious, allowing for lots of room to create. It is very comfortable and clean, and has everything you could possibly need for your personal residency. We especially enjoy spending time on the relaxing balcony. Cobra and Chris are available and very helpful. The Residency Handbook in the casita addresses all of our questions in detail and offers suggestions for things to try around the area. You will often hear live music in the early evening from the Malecon. It feels very safe here, and even more secure having the Red Cross right across the street. It has been a wonderful experience, and Kristen and I  would like to return each year.

Orion Kugel, Photographer-New Hampshire

We have one word to describe the our experience here at 360 Xochi Quetzal, and that is MAGIC! The casita is very spacious, allowing for lots of room to create. It is very comfortable and clean, and has everything you could possibly need for your personal residency. We especially enjoy spending time on the relaxing balcony. Cobra and Chris are available and very helpful. The Residency Handbook in the casita addresses all of our questions in detail and offers suggestions for things to try around the area. You will often hear live music in the early evening from the Malecon. It feels very safe here, and even more secure having the Red Cross right across the street. It has been a wonderful experience, and Orion and I would like to return each year.

Kristen Pobatschnig, Painter-New Hampshire
“Applying for the free Winter residency of Xochi Quetzal was the start of many positive transformations. The silence I found for myself during the residency, allowed me not only to write the best last chapter I can write at this stage of my evolution, it also granted me a most sought-after introspection moment during which I read my dreams and studied ancient Eastern writings. The serenity of the lake and presence of other artists inspired me to get mentally ready and organized for my future as a novelist. I am particularly fond of spending the holidays abroad with ‘strangers’. It always infuses me with these wild insights and whims. Our group was just lovely, the artists one by one very interesting. Cobra and Christian are warm and graceful hosts who made life easy. All in all, Xochi Quetzal was a weighty meditation, a poetic experience that carried me through the rest of Mexico in newness and will resonate long after.”
Heidi Souffriau, Writer-Brussels
“I was partly inspired to apply for the Xochi Quetzal residency by The Retro Cocktail Hour — a popular Saturday night radio show on Kansas Public Radio 91.5 that features exotica music (a form of tropical jazz).  My hope was for the palm trees,  lakeside sunrises, and culture of Chapala & Mexico at large to inform my creative process.  These elements did precisely that, and the generous hospitality of Cobra & her partner Christian provided me with a cozy composing environment.”
Note from Staff: Listen to the music created during Andrew’s residency -Winter 2016
Andrew Morgan, Composer-Lawrence, KS

Chapala is a safe, spiritually charged, beautiful place. Wild horses run through town.  It’s a place where you greet strangers on the street.

I walked along the lake in meditation a great deal. I hiked the looming cerro overlooking town. I biked all over the countryside. I wrote, documented, created composed soundscapes utilizing field recordings, and built small maquette light sculptures based on my experiences. I attended traditional temazcals, and sat alone in cathedrals.

It was pivotal for me in a spiritual sense more than a career advancing experience. I’m very grateful for it, and Deborah Kruger is a wonderful advocate to keep in contact with. I truly recommend the residency.

Justin R. Lytle, Sculptor-California

My residency at 360 Xochi Quetzal in summer 2015 was both restorative and productive.  I was inspired by the beautiful studio and the surrounding Chapala  / Jalisco region.  The setting worked well for me in terms of inspiring and completing new work, and learning the history and customs of the area.  The flexible residency requirements allowed an easy engagement with other residents, and encouraged me to participate in Chapala and Guadalajara communities.  There are many contemporary art venues in Guadalajara, which are an easy bus ride from Chapala.

Michael Pribich, Sculptor-New York City

“Not only was this residency situated in one of the most beautifully mystical, culturally resonant, and stimulating settings imaginable, it also managed to be both peaceful and galvanizing: the perfect combination for immersing oneself in a creative project without hesitation or distraction. Deborah and Christian’s home was an oasis. One of my fellow residents remarked to me that “this place has amazing energy for getting work done,” and I wholeheartedly agree: the atmosphere seemed to hum with a low-key, generative productivity, one that helped me get closer than I’d been in many months to actually fully realizing and finishing a long story. I wish I was still there among the bougainvillea, the jade vines, the dogs and the pelicans.”

Suzanne K. Rivecca, Author-San Francisco, CA

Chapala has become my home away from home. The Xochi Quetztal residency is run efficiently. Cobra and her team are friendly, accessible, and professional. My stay in Chapala is enhanced by the personal relationships I have developed with several of the team members. The casita I stay in is very well maintained and fully equipped. The studio area is large and ready for me to engage in art as soon as I arrive.  The weather is always fantastic. The lake, the town(s), the life, the restaurants, the view, the very friendly local people all call me back again and again. I love it!

Zahava Sherez, Sculptor-Oakland, CA

“This was the most work I’ve ever done in a single month in my life. I will never forget what an incredible experience this was and I thank you for honoring me with a residency at 360 Xochi Quetzal. The reference material I gathered throughout the trip to Chapala, Mexico is going to fuel my work for years to come. Thank you for everything! You run an incredible residency program!!!”

Santiago Galeas, Painter-Philadelphia, PA