By Laura Palotie
Helsinki-born Rea Nurmi moved to the US in the mid-70's, and transitioned from a job as a designer at an engineering firm to visual art a decade later. Drawing much of her inspiration from living, evolving nature, Nurmi has gained international recognition through her Healing Walls murals in hospitals and nursing homes around the world. Her latest exhibit of pastel and acrylic paintings, Sea Change, explores the vibrancy of water.
Last week I sat down with Nurmi to find out about her career, her work ethic, and what she considers to be the most rewarding aspect of her job.
What made you decide to transition from a career in engineering to being a full-time artist?
Nurmi: For better or for worse, I was looking for a change after too many years of doing straight, black lines. My body told me that I needed a change. This is called burnout nowadays, but I didn’t know then what it was. I was studying at night [to become an electronic engineer] and working full-time, and knew that I needed something else in my life. So I decided to start painting then, in 1986.
Before the mid-80's, you had little to no experience in painting or visual art. How did you transition into this new career?
Nurmi: Having been in a technical field, I already had a strong eye, and an understanding of proportions. I began by painting portraits, because they involve a lot of measuring. If you don’t achieve the accurate proportions, your subject stops looking like a real person. So in a way, I was using the skills I already had. By adding color onto the picture afterward, I was able to breathe life into it and make it feel less like a technical task.
Did you study art formally?
Nurmi: I took courses in painting and art history at Southern Connecticut State University, so I could gather all the required information, but I took these courses based on whatever I needed at the time. Later, when I received a grant from the Pastel Society of America, I studied with independent artists in New York.
What made you focus on Pastels?
Nurmi: I feel that pastel colors allow you to be more closely attached to the work itself. Pastels also have the brightest colors imaginable. In watercolors the paint is partially dissolved by water, and even with oil colors you add something else, but with pastels, there is just the color itself. Real red, for example, can only be achieved with pastels.
Where was your first exhibit?
Nurmi: Martha’s Vineyard [in 1988]. I was painting sea shells at the time; they were a challenge because seashells are round and then hollow, so they are difficult objects to paint. I’d set up the shells onto the sand and paint them like I would paint a landscape. And because of its island location, Martha’s Vineyard was a good place for the exhibit.
How about your current solo show, Sea Change? What was the artistic motif behind this exhibit?
Nurmi: I painted water. It’s the idea that everything moves and changes, just like I, as an artist, have changed, whether I was changing my career or changing my artistic subjects. Nothing stays the same–people get older, have children and change careers, and life moves forward. Water is an element that constantly changes. I portray fish swimming below the surface of the water and birds flying above it, but water is always part of the process.
What’s your work routine? When and where do you paint?
Nurmi: I paint at home, never outside. But when the mood strikes, I produce a lot. And then sometimes there are several months in between where I don’t paint. Running my own company, I need to reserve time for marketing, so I can’t paint all the time.
Do you do other work besides paint?
Nurmi: Sometimes I do contract work because I speak Finnish–for example, I’m an interpreter for the U.S. State Department, so every once and a while I get a call from there. Sometimes I also do translation work. I love meeting people and talking to them, but as an artist you don’t meet anyone or talk to anyone. You create the work yourself. So having a chance to meet people is wonderful.
Where did the idea for Healing Walls come from?
Nurmi: I decided that art is more than just for the rich galleries and the well-to-do people. Art is healing as it is. You look at something beautiful and you feel calm and peaceful, and of course some images make you enraged as well. Pictures generate emotion. I thought that art should be taken to places in which it’s most needed, as a calming idea. I wanted to bring nature, the outdoors, into places where it’s most needed, so now I paint healing gardens and seascapes in hospitals and nursing homes. It’s been my most rewarding work because I either paint alone or with the nurses, doctors, patients, or residents at nursing homes. These people aren’t patients like at hospitals, they are residents because it’s their home. It’s been absolutely the most rewarding work for me, and I do a lot of it now. Through Healing Walls, I’m sharing the process of art, which was so meaningful for me when I started that it literally changed my life.
What are some of the responses you get for your work, particularly your murals?
Nurmi: Most of the time they love that I do it. Many elderly people at these nursing homes want to be part of the painting process, but most people are absolutely afraid of it. And my healing technique in the world is ‘just try it.’ When they say they can’t paint, I take their hand and say ‘oh, it moves up and down, that’s all you need to do in painting.’ I need a lot of blue and green in my work, and anybody can help me with that. And then if they are interested and eager they can do flowers or whatever, and I can add the details. I just help them take a brush in their hand, and some people have actually continued to paint on their own, which is the greatest thanks for me. That I’ve gotten someone started.