Sag Harbor Express Interviews Virva Hinnemo

Artist Virva Hinnemo at the opening of "Affinities for Abstraction: Women Artists on the East End, 1950–2020," at the Parrish Art Museum. Jenny Gorman photo.

By Annette Hinkle 

Virva Hinnemo (b. 1976), an artist  in the Parrish exhibition “Affinities for Abstraction,” was born in Finland and now lives and works in Springs.

Q: As a female Abstract painter, did you face hurdles in what was initially a very male-dominated field?

I think this is a difficult question to answer. Yes, in some ways, the issue of being a woman painter has always been “there” for me. In school, the boys/men muscled their way. Many women students found a way to turn their womanhood into their artistic subject. I never wanted to hit the viewer over the head with that kind of a subject. I ask a lot from those who look at my work. My husband would call it “the long, slow look.” I was always aware that I had stepped into a male-dominated world, and as a very young painter, I was conscious of not wanting to “paint like a girl.” A young painter does think some silly things: “Why can’t I paint like Guston? I don’t want my work to be pretty.”

Simultaneously, even though I have always lived with insecurities, I also have a very stubborn mind. Becoming a painter had nothing to do with common sense or reasoning. It was just going to happen.

Q: You were born in Finland and have spent a lot of time in Scandinavia. Do you find female painters are perceived differently there?

I grew up just outside of Stockholm but spent my summers in the deep woods of eastern Finland. In both these countries, there is a very different approach to being an artist. In general, the life of an artist is less expensive, and there is a fair amount of state support for artists — this goes for men and women artists. Crafts are very highly regarded in both countries as a form of design and fine art. My Finnish grandmother was a textile artist, and she made both utilitarian objects and beautiful wall pieces using different quilting techniques. Several of my female contemporaries in Sweden live a successful artist’s life with a gallery that supports them and part-time teaching jobs that help support their artistic career.

When I think about equality, this one story comes to mind; Growing up in Sweden, boys and girls did the same thing s— Girls were encouraged to like the colors blue and brown, boys were happy to bring their Barbie dolls to daycare. Boys and girls had to study woodwork, boys and girls had to study sewing, boys and girls took home ec, girls got good at soccer and hockey, boys were into “Fame” and learning jazz ballet.

Q: What are some of the influences that inspire your work?

Since I can remember, I was always drawing. As a young art student, I was obsessed with wanting to have the ability to render the world, to make marks with paint that would translate on a canvas into something that looked real. I was never that into photorealism, but I wanted the brush marks to become magic and fool the viewer into thinking that they were looking at the thing itself. I still keep a sketchbook, and I love drawing from life, but I have learned that sometimes the abstract is the most real. The paintings I make now come from the inside. I remember glimpses of sensations. I pretty much have one goal when I step into the studio. I want to surprise myself. I make marks on the surface of the canvas, and they lead me to make more marks. Each time I am reacting to what came before, I hold my breath to see if I will make what I did not know I could make. It’s a complicated recipe.

Q: Have you had an opportunity to meet some of the female Abstract painters from the earlier generation?

I have had the opportunity to meet several brilliant woman painters who came before me. In many ways, Louise Fishman has been an inspiration for the longest time. I have never met Louise, but while we lived in New York City, I made sure to see every exhibition of hers. Her work never appeared to cater to anyone or anything. Standing in front of a Louise Fishman, I knew that I was not alone and that I could always keep going no matter what. I am in debt to her.

When we moved to Long Island 10 years ago, [my husband] George and I reconnected with his old friend Louisa Chase who lived right around the corner. Louisa was already sick with cancer, and we became an essential part of each other’s lives. Louisa was a storyteller, a force of life, and a big fan of our boys until the end.

I also want to mention Mary Heilmann. When I was living in New York City, I had not yet met Mary, but she had a show up at the New Museum in 2009 called “To Be Someone.” If that isn’t one of the best titles for an exhibition, I don’t know what is. Walking through the show was one of the most extraordinary experiences for me. Mary is a painter, sculptor, inventor; she speaks through color and shape as few can. Her feeling for the visual and color just makes me smile. When I saw her at the Parrish Museum, we looked at her glowing painting, hanging right next to Louisa Chase’s. She said, “Let’s see your painting.” So, we did. As we walked into the next room, I pointed to my black/white/gray painting and said, “no color.” A moment went by, and then Mary said “I love the color!”

At that moment, Alicia Longwell’s intention for this show came to me. That history and our shared language are handed down like a tribal rite of passage. And most of the time, women carry that burden. The maternal lineage matters and speaks to the shared nurturing that belongs to them. In that brief moment with Mary, I felt inducted into a bigger world.