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Elsa Bekkala: Art, Community, and the Sauna

Elsa Bekkala, a doctoral candidate in art and art education, faced a moral dilemma as an artist and a person.

Bekkala, who is also an instructor for Painting I and II in the Department of Arts and Humanities, was brought up in the tight-knit community of Hancock, Michigan, with its strong Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian roots. She lived on an apple and dairy farm where her brother and his family of ten still live. "I can still walk into a bank and cash a check without any identification," Bekkala says.

Hancock, with a population of approximately 20,000, is strongly influenced by the Finnish Apostalic Lutheran Church, which Bekkala compares to the Amish of Pennsylvania in its desire to hold on to its traditions. Bekkala says that the Church and the community frown on women who wear jewelry and put on makeup. "Television is now permitted but the Church still forbids moviegoing," Bekkala adds.

So, when she was invited by the Suomi (Finnish) International College of Art and Design in Hancock to exhibit her paintings at the annual Contemporary Finnish-American Artist Exhibit Series (October 20-November 28), she knew she had to walk a tightrope.

The subjects of her paintings ranged from life in New York City, where "you see things that make you laugh one moment and experience shock the next," to natural settings, which for Bekkala represents her "grounding by way of land," to figurative art, where she concentrates on the human figure "as an absolute form of nature."

Bekkala says that as soon as she started gathering her collection for the exhibit, her brother gave her a signal of things to come.

He told her that if she was going to show a painting entitled "A Man and Woman Near a Boxing Ring," then he and his children would not attend the exhibition. He said the painting was a blatant exhibit of nudity, which both he and members of community see as abhorrent. Though he was speaking for himself, he reflected the sentiment of a large majority of the residents of Hancock, according to Bekkala.

After some thoughtful planning, Bekkala decided on exhibiting a group of nudes, among other paintings, because she was brought up to believe that the "human body was a natural form." She accounts for this because the Finns are inveterate users of the sauna, and as a child she always felt comfortable with the fact that family members were nude in the sauna. There is a Finnish proverb, Bekkala recalls, that says that "The safest way into the world is through the sauna." According to Bekkala, "Probably my own regard for the human figure as an absolute form of nature came about by virtue of the sauna."

Bekkala added that "I wanted to give something back to my community without hurting them. I needed a hook and the hook was painting and imagery they had never seen--including nudity. And to show them it wasn't hurtful . . . that even children can look at them and learn about compassion, conflict, and simple pleasure."

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