“I enjoy working with drawing, painting and collage. My studio is full of little pieces of drawings, colour papers and different colour tapes. I find a piece of paper on my studio floor that has a shape of a tree. I will get to know the shape, I ask what other shapes it likes. One piece will lead me to another. My latest paintings show a world in a new order. You can find the tree there, the forgotten city, and the mountains that look soft like pillows.”
— Jenni Rope
While in much of the world, summer art-viewing options are comprised mainly of biennials and the ubiquitous group show, in Helsinki — and throughout the Nordic countries, I would venture — visible art is in short supply in June through August. Around the start of Juhannus, galleries close for months and museums have limited hours. How this is economically viable is beyond me. And forget trying to see anything in August, when the entire country takes off on extended holiday.
Eerikinkatu is a short street full of enticing boutiques, Asian restaurants, and Corona, the Kaurismaki brothers’ (Aki and Mika) infamous bar in central Helsinki. A short block down lies a small, intriguing gallery and shop named Napa. Run by the Finnish artist Jenni Rope, the sunny space is neatly organized, its spare shelves lined with artists’ books, zines, multiples, and even jewelry. All of this forms the backdrop to the rotating contemporary art exhibitions on view. This summer, I visited Napa the day after it shut down for Juhannus so it was between shows at the time (Jenni kindly opened it up for me). When it is up and running, Napa has recently featured a pop-up vintage café; a release party for Science Poems, a book of writing exploring the intersection of science and art; an annual flip book competition; and, as of last week, an exhibition by the international graffiti collective, WMD.
Born in Lahti, Finland, in 1977, Jenni is quiet, thoughtful, savvy, and rather pixie-like, with her short hair. Over strong Finnish coffee and truffles courtesy of her nearby friends at Chjoko, she spoke with me about Napa and her own hybrid career as artist, gallerist, administrator, and general proselytizer of Finnish illustration. Since receiving her BA in graphic design from the University of Arts and Design (once TaiK, now reorganized as Aalto University) in 2002 and a certificate in animation production from the London College of Printing in the U.K., she has been developing a recognizable style in both fine art and commercial illustration.
Upon entering Napa, the sheer number of zines, catalogues, and prints of her work that she has produced stand out (she has published nine books of her own). From her unmistakable handwriting and narrative line drawings of people, places, and things, to her abstract paintings of colorful shapes and forms, and her whimsical stop-motion collage videos, Jenni has created a singular artistic language. While informed by the natural world around her, I also see the trace of such artists as Richard Tuttle and Laura Owens evident in her work. Nonetheless, her creations unquestionably reflect her own distinct vision. These manifest themselves not just as illustrations but also paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, exhibitions, and even album covers. Just in September alone, Jenni released a new book of black-and-white drawings and collages, Untitled (2010), and her drawings coat the front windows at the Design Forum Helsinki shop nearby (literally, for she painted them on the glass). Her impact on the admittedly small design and illustration scene in Helsinki is undeniable. When I asked her why she chooses to stay in Helsinki and not move on to warmer, sunnier locales, she explains that, “Helsinki is the city I know best, and I think I need to know a city well to feel good in it. Well, I’d be happy to go to an art residency in Istanbul or Lisbon in the winter months, though.”
Napa, which translates as “navel” in Finnish, is a many-pronged creature. As both an aesthetic sensibility and commercial enterprise, it evolved out of the work of a likeminded group of Finnish artists and illustrators—Jenni and her friends—who exhibit their work and create publications together. The Napa entity sprung from the art and artists themselves. Way before the gallery and shop, which opened in 2007, Jenni co-founded the publishing house Napa Books with fellow artist Jussi Karjalainen in 1997. They started by publishing a single comics anthology called Napa once a year, going to summer music festivals and selling it in person. Later on, they started making more individual artists’ books than anthologies. Beginning in 2001, Jenni took over by herself, moving away from comics and even more towards more art books and flipbooks. She worked in different shops and galleries in Helsinki before finally opening the Napa shop in 2007. Throughout this time, she has had some funding from the Arts Council of Finland and Napa publications sales continue to grow.
As this network grew to a point where client demand outgrew the artists’ output and capacity, gallerist and cultural producer Marjo Granlund founded a sister agency, Napa Illustrations, to support Jenni and her fellow artists, also in 2007. Based in Helsinki, the agency works with mainly Finnish artists but also several others who live and work elsewhere, including Japan and Portugal. It represents 25 artists in total. In an act of creative synergy, artists on Napa Illustrations’ roster make books and in turn have shows in the gallery space. “The agency,” Jenni explained, “is my friend Marjo’s own thing, we just came up with the idea together, and she was really brave to start it on her own, being the first agent for illustrators in Finland.” Between Rope’s and Granlund’s efforts in creating a boutique think tank of sorts, Napa’s conceptions and creations are fostered, produced, exhibited, sold, and disseminated entirely in-house. The artists, meanwhile, retain their full independence.
I own one of Jenni’s business-card sized flip books — Wednesday, from 2003. It lives in my coffee table, where guests regularly take it out for a spin. The story couldn’t be simpler: a plant emerges out of a clay pot, grows a face, then the face retreats, and the plant dives back into the pot. I bought it a year before I met Jenni, on my first visit to Helsinki. At the time, I didn’t know about the other contributions she has made to the Helsinki art scene, or to the world of illustration in general. Since then, I have appreciated it for its simple charm. Jenni told me that flipbooks combine her love for books and hand-drawn animations perfectly. And she likes the idea of an art object you can hold in your hands. Napa recently had a flipbook exhibition where people could flick through original painted flipbooks (“They were meant to be touched!” she exclaims).
Her efforts far-reaching but her demeanor naturally modest, Jenni fosters an entrepreneurial spirit that is a model for would-be artists, publishers, and gallerists everywhere. It’s a surprise even to her: “Sometimes I wonder how I’ve ended up as the shopkeeper-gallerist…I don’t see myself as a typical entrepreneur at all. I don’t have a business plan, I just think I see it all as a ‘Project.’“ Even if she is an accidental entrepreneur, it’s fair to say, as Napa does, that “this Napa is one worth contemplating!”