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Studio Visit: Jurri Arrak

I first came across the work of Estonian artist Jüri Arrak through friends of Kuriosas 50 Watts in the US who unearth all kinds of beautiful and crazed book illustrations from around the globe.  

These images of Arrak's children book from 1975 entitled Panga-Rehe Jutud (The Swamp Ladies of Estonia) left me completely spellbound with their 70's psychedelic glory.

 Source:50 Watts

With two days left in Tallinn, it occurred to me that Jüri could still be alive, and perhaps based in the city, maybe still even creating these creatures.  After a bit of research I found he was indeed still around, and actually very highly revered, having recently been comissioned to paint the Estonian president's portrait.  

I emailed the tourist office late at night on a whim and to my suprise, they sent over his phone number the next day at 6am.  At this point I felt I had no choice but to pursue the trail so I dialled it, apprehensively, with no idea what to find.  Happily, after a few rings a merry sounding voice answered; we muddled through the language barrier, I tried and failed to describe my blog and he finally asked if I wanted to visit his studio later that afternoon.  Already cheered by his description of his diary as his 'paper brain' and massively intrigued about meeting him, I paced around the city in anticipation with thoughts whirring; willing the day to pass and wondering, based on his psychedelic artwork, what the hell this studio was going to look like.

At 5pm I lingered slightly tentatively near the Soviet era cinema I'd been directed to, admiring the typography of KOSMOS and stark exterior as a way of distracting myself

A lofty smiling man approached and I realised it was Jüri, he immediately hugged me and seemed entertained by my age, laughing that I could be his granddaughter.  I was instantly struck by how youthful and vibrant he seemed, he somehow didn't fit the mould of a pensioner.  We then walked up to the top floor of an aging nearby apartment block, heading to the studio he has kept since the late 1970's.  Now 77, Jüri told me with relish how he climbs the 110 steps to his studio at least 3 times every day (in fact I embarrassingly struggled to keep pace with him as he scampered up them)

At the top, I did wonder what his next door neighbours must make of him upon seeing his front door

Once inside it was almost like entering a cave; religious artifacts, photographs, paintings, sculptures, books, old artifacts, archives, masks, keepsakes; an eclectic topsy turvy haven yet also, I sensed, a meticulously run operation.

Sitting at his desk together, he asked me if it was okay if he kept on organising his slides as we chatted.  I obliged as I found his industriousness amusing, and we started to talk about how he first became an artist.

Born in 1936 in Tallinn (back then in the Soviet Union), he told me how he was sent to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) for the army from 1955 until 1958.  Following this he stayed on in the city and became a taxi driver.  Frequently corresponding with his brother back in Tallinn studying art,  Jüri received regular advice and encouragement from his sibling who urged him to try drawing and taught him via letters, step by step "how to draw Picassos."  Quickly developing a passion for art,  Jüri was spurred to return to Tallinn and enrolled at the Estonian State Art Institute in 1961, studying Metal Art for the next five years.

Alongside other students from the Institute, and inspired by the pioneering artists they had discovered such as Kandinsky (which must have been tricky, since the Soviet Union had banned abstract art) Jüri formed a group called ANK'64 who were the first group in the Soviet Union against the style of Socialist Realism; at the time the only permitted artform.  This must have seemed incredibly radical and risky given the strict climate they were operating in at the time, but perhaps it was inevitable that the growing spirit of dissidence in the West at the time started to filter through on some level. 

 Upon leaving college, he made jewellery and then also started making miniature paintings.

When asked about his other influences, Jüri answered without hesitation, "The Surrealists" and mentioned artists like Magritte.  This strand of influence in his work seemed very clear to me in this very early painting he showed me.  He told me liked paintings with doors, as they act as "windows to other worlds."

Jüri joined the Graphic Art society in the Soviet Union in the late 60's, providing him with the only chance of ever having an exhibition since art shows were only permitted through membership of such groups.

In 1970, the society offered him an exhibition based on their knowledge of his practice as a metal worker.  Jüri then daringly chose to exhibit his abstract paintings instead.

Since it was at the last minute it all still went ahead, but he was reprimanded by the head of the society, stunned at this apparent artistic turnaround and obviously worried by the stark discordance to 'acceptable' aesthetics these paintings posed.  Jüri told me how he placated the head by saying he was 'just a decorative artist,' cleverly convincing the society that this radically different, challenging and unfamiliar artistic style was completely benign and for the sole purpose of adornment.

I was left feeling quite affected by this tale, realising just how trying it must have been to have had any freedom as a creator of any artistic works in such a climate of censorship and suppresion, but also thoroughly impressed at Jüri's obvious abundance of chutzpah to attempt something so risky and subversive.

Jüri's work moved on to the development of characters in the 1970's.  He likened his creating of these characters to "like handwriting" since they have such a signature and consistent style, and come so naturally to him.

When we talked more about his work, he explained that he wasn't drawn to still life or landscapes, for him, creating characters helped him feel closer to human beings, "I like people!" he exclaimed.

 Source:50 Watts

In 1975, he was commissioned to create the Panga-Rehe Jutud children's book, which had a print run of 40,000.  To keep the powers that be happy, he insisted that the psychedelic story was 'just meant to be a dream,' again, just a whimsical, unthreatening creation, and nothing to concern them.

I was thrilled when he produced an original copy of the book and read it to me

He told me he painted the pictures using gouache and that were all produced at actual size - the book being around an A5 format.

It interested me that some of Jüri's work seemed to reflect the pagan roots that are still apparent in the Baltic regions through their Midsummer celebrations, beliefs I was intrigued to learn still live on in Estonian pagan religions such as Maausk (despite Estonia apparently being the least religious country in the world).  It also clearly draws on mythology abundant in both the Baltics and Scandinavia centring around the existence of trolls.  All religion would have been suppressed in Soviet times but it's intriguing how these ancient belief systems and underlying affinity with nature were still seemingly having a subtle (or not so subtle, looking at the image below) influence on creativity.

Jüri also showed me his one animation Suur Toll, made in 1980 and based on Estonian mythological figure Toell the Great a giant hero who lived on the Estonian island of Saaremaa in the Baltic sea.

It took him a year to complete and he revealed, unsuprisingly, that it was very hard work.  The 16 minute film is here and really well worth a watch, it's fantastic to watch his creations move and there are some really very far out visuals and inventive character design that make it hard to compare with much else.


He also released a second children's book by the same name, Suur Toll, in 1982 which he showed me the original copy of too - with creatures in far more aggressive looking incarnations than his previous tripped out publication


Jüri and I talked about a number of topics, including his passion for filmmaker Bergman as well as writers such as Dostoevsky, "I love Russian emotion!" he enthused.

As we chatted he busily unearthed numerous prints, paintings and sketches from his vast and carefully kept archives to show me; he has exhibited all over the world consistently since the 1970's and enthusiastically showed me various newspaper cuttings and exhibition catalogues about him from over the years.

Many of his later works have the same fantasy elements, but depict battles, slayings, apparitions and mythological looking figures.  Curiously I talked about similar imagery on the Soviet pin badges I found in Tallinn in my last post; they also featured dragons, wizards and images of powerful beings.

Some also bordered on a little bit menacing 

With the amount of iconography in his studio, it was natural we talked about religion.  Jüri likened belief systems to ladders reaching to the skies, searching for meaning, "The problems come when people think, 'My ladder is better than his!'" he declared.

He also handed me a book of his own philosophical essays to read, in order, he said, for me to properly understand what was behind his work.  Exploring themes of consciousness and metaphysics with a healthy dose of 70's mysticism, it was obvious to me that Jüri was quite a spiritual, questioning kind of person, and I wasn't suprised to learn from other sources later on that he helped introduce strands of Buddhism to Northern Europe

I was really tickled to find this picture of him after our meeting, dating from the late 70's and looking like a bit of a bohemian maverick, it made me wish I'd met him back then too, whilst possibly wearing a great kaftan.  I got the sense I only really scratched the surface of his life stories, and that he had been a pioneer in all sorts of ways.

Now married to his third wife "I am an artist you know" he shrugged by way of explanation, Jüri's energy and playfulness really fascinated me - he explained that he doesn't ever think about age, or what convention dictates he should or shouldn't be doing.  We talked about retirement and he insisted he would keep on going to his studio every day as long as he could do because "everyone needs a problem to solve."

We finally bade farewell and he left me with a bundle of books, exhibition catalogues and postcards, which he kindly signed for me; I loved the weird star eye, which he said was there to bring me good luck.

I left feeling very alive and full of ideas after meeting Jüri - learning about his massively productive creative career, his independent and nonconformist spirit, innovation and determination to create for years in such a restrictive environment was inspiring, and humbling, and I was charmed by his age defying mischeviousness, eccentricity and charisma.

I really hope I'm climbing 110 steps to a magical creative hideaway every day when I'm 77, creating psychedelic worlds, in fact I might make that my goal - Jüri is now my blueprint for youthful older age.

Tallinn Russian Market / Soviet Union pin badges

I've recently returned from some eye opening adventuring around Estonia and Finland for summer, so much so my head is a bit congested with all the shiny things I saw.  I'll start with Tallinn in Estonia; my good friend Jaana hails from there so I've always been intrigued about seeing her on her home turf, especially after sipping the supreme Estonian vodka she often smuggles back. 

This building was my home for the week.  It had a rickety and austere Soviet era lift that slammed shut then made noises that sounded like they came from the Futuristic Zone in the Crystal Maze as it whisked me high speed to the fourth floor.  By the end of the week I'd grown very fond of it's cantankerous ways.

Tallinn has a beautifully preserved medieval centre which is worth a visit to see some of the buildings but, for me, lacked anything genuine anymore in terms of having many Estonian residents or a semblance of normal working life - it's simply a gilded land for tourists.  After a day there I didn't go back, and instead spent my time exploring the diverse Russian neighbourhoods, traditional wooden housing, vibrant creative spaces, and industrial landscapes reminiscent of Tarkovsky's Stalker (which was filmed in part in Tallinn).  

One brilliant place to get a flavour of the past, as well as the present mix of people who populate the city is the Russian Market (Baalti Jaama), just behind the train station.  I spent hours here rooting through the Soviet memorabilia stalls and junk shop outlets, meeting and photographing some stiking local ladies and sampling some of the technicolour cabbage salad offerings.

 The antique shops there were brimming with enough oddball Soviet toys and artifacts to keep me short on breath for a while, but my favourite finds were these metal pin badges boasting some super psychedelic designs.  After standing in a store for a good stint carefully selecting these ones to take home, I found later that other outlets I came to at the market were selling hundreds more, all with different designs, at which point I had a tiny meltdown and resigned myself to just sticking with the ones I'd chosen.  I'm definitely flying back here and snapping up the lot when I have my lotto win, and I will employ elves to tile my bedroom with them.

For now, here are the few I chose, in no particular order as I think they work best in a random fashion.  They look to date to the 1970's, but who knows with Soviet design, their aesthetic was often out of sync with the rest of the world so these could be more recent:

I really liked these next two in particular...

I think because for some reason they reminded me of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations from the late 1960's and early 70's which massively perturbed and excited me in equal measures as a child. I still love them as an adult and think they had a huge impact on my fledgling mind:

I was interested in general to see trends in the imagery towards powerful and wild animals, 'heroes' fighting dragons, images of courage, ferocity and dominance.  This might generally have helped perpetuate the sense of a world with enemies, one with constant threats, where the reality of combat was (supposedly) real and tangible, learning then to harness a kind of fierceness within oneself was perhaps the clearest way of preparing for this.


I also found these energetic Soviet posters in the corner of one second hand outlet, photographed at weird angles as I was sardined against military uniforms. There were lots more but I chose to cease photographing when I caught the Russian owner shooting me a seething look, oops


I was amazed at the playfulness of some of the Soviet toys I came across too.  I had to restrain myself from buying a squeaky rubber cockerel since it was half my budget for the last couple of days, but I realise now he was an essential purchase.  Am still thinking about all of these guys, they all had such character, I'd love a room full of them.

Welcoming market ladies

 This chic dame was called Zoya, I put a little more about her on my Luminous Eye blog where I collect intriguing people

More to come soon anyway - I started interviewing people on the trip and met Estonian artist Jurri Arrak well known for his beautiful and insane 1970's swamp ladies illustrations, animations, paintings and more; will post the full story shortly!