At the end of the 1800s, Finnish artists of the so-called Golden Age sought folksy, realistic subjects, and in the hope of finding inspiration, also the company of common people. The trips popularised by the Kalevala boom were often to eastern Finland. Albert Edelfelt was one of the painters who travelled to Vuoksenlaakso in 1877 to look for and paint common country folk. He stayed for some time in the home of Elli Jäppinen, the folk healer renowned in Finland and Russia. One of Edelfelt’s best-known paintings ‘Women of Ruokolahti on the Church Hill’ (1887) dates back to his time in Ruokolahti; it was admired in big cities around Europe – and later also in Finland.
The woman keeps a wary eye on her visitor’s antics. He walks in little, stubby steps, measuring the room. Stops to look at the view opening up from the window. Nothing much there, the woman thinks, fields, forest, a few hens. The visitor says something in his broken Finnish. He smells rather nice, the woman thinks, of the big wide world.
It is a while since the stranger turned up in Elli’s cabin. Elli has seen his kind before. At least in Russia, when she took trips there, to relieve people of their aches and pains. Golden carriages and white teams of horses waited at St Petersburg station. Horns sounded and lackeys bowed. In Moscow, the wife of the Sultan of Turkey uttered tearful words of gratitude. She has come across all sorts, but perhaps not quite like this one. He is very young, a glint in his eye, a cockerel. That kind will string you along if you don’t watch it.
He wants to paint people from the village, that much becomes clear. Says he is looking for new faces, no matter what kind. The uglier the better. Elli wonders if she has understood quite correctly. It is hard to make sense of the young man’s speech. He shows with his hands what he can’t get across by other means. Uses his fingers to stretch out his mouth, lurking under the moustache. This makes them both laugh.
Elli prepares the sauna for the visitor. He grunts in the dark when Elli calls to tell him it is ready. After a while, a sweaty, red face settles on the treatment table, towel around his waist. Elli uses her fingers to plough her guest’s back, presses her knuckles into the pale skin, kneads the knots formed over the tips of his shoulder blades with her rough fingertips. The visitor makes grunting sounds of feeling good, smacks his lips and mutters unclear words.
After the sauna the visitor sits down at the table, picks up a pad and pencil and asks Elli to stand near the fireplace. Elli stands there for a moment, stock-still. Looks up at the ceiling rafters. Swings her arms slowly, not quite knowing what to do. Her hands are wanting to brush away a strand of hair getting into her eyes. The visitor smiles and Elli sees what beautiful fingers that cockerel has. They move through the air so prettily.
They make a plan to go to the church hill tomorrow. Elli promises to ask authentic people to come along. That is who the visitor wants to paint. Old Ruokolahti women. That’s where you’ll find ‘em, Elli says, and carefully studies the picture the visitor has made of her. Looks pretty solemn, Elli thinks. Stands there stiff as a poker.
Text: Pekka Vartiainen
Pictures: Anu Nuutinen
Translation: Annira Silver
Location on map
The story and the pictures are a part of Tarinajoki book (River of Stories), made in Rural Explorer project. As part of a culture tourism project, stories arising from the body of folk narratives and history also have a function in relation to the productisation of tourism. The stories are linked to real locations.