Left Bank had the extreme honor of meeting Latvian artist Arta Raituma a few months ago in Lisbon. As lovely as she is talented, we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her over the last few months—finally nailing an interview with her specifically for the launch of our Sustainability Issue. Get to know her technique, what inspires her, and what we can do to be more sustainable in our own lives.
Where did you grow up, specifically tell us about your childhood — did you make art, were you surrounded by nature, etc.?
I was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, back in 1996. And for 22 years (before starting to live abroad) that was my home city, the place where I studied and worked, the one I knew like the palm of my hand. So, I’ve always been a city girl. However, my grandparents have a house in a small village near Riga, with a beautiful garden and just 20 min walk away from the seaside. That’s where I spent my summers as a kid, going to the beach every day through a wonderful pine forest. I didn’t have many kids my age around so I was very used to playing on my own, imagining stories about fairies and using natural materials (like branches from the forest) to build fortresses – I loved building my own ‘houses’ where I could daydream and also invent theatre plays (my grandpa used to be an important character in those as well).
I told my Mom that I am going to be an artist when I was 5 years old – just like that, I had made up my mind.
Tell me how you first started making art?
I started doing drawing and painting courses when I was 8, I had many private teachers also. My relationship pattern with nature has remained the same, I guess – I prefer to live in a city but it’s crucial for me to ‘get out’ regularly, get lost in the wilderness. Also, I have found that artist residencies in the countryside work best for me.
“I prefer to live in a city but it’s crucial for me to ‘get out’ regularly, get lost in the wilderness.”
I’ve created my whole life since I made that decision at the age of 5! Drawing, painting and writing have been as natural to me as breathing, it is something I practice every single day. But speaking about being an artist as a professional, that’s a bit different. I got my BA and MA at Art Academy of Latvia, painting department, graduated last year so it had been 6 years of studies in a row. I managed to study in Venice, Accademia di Belli Arti, work at a gallery in Lisbon (‘No-No’ contemporary art gallery) and to have many other adventures.
Speaking about the medium that had been a central part of my practice for a long time – it used to be oil painting, I was particularly interested in figurative painting. The teaching model at Art Academy of Latvia used to be quite old school, I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying live models and ancient Greek sculptures from gypsum. However, this started shifting right when I was finishing BA, there was a real revolution inside the whole system of academy. Shortly, we were finally drawn to acknowledge interdisciplinary [forms] and new media. That’s when I started experimenting with many different materials including fire and wood and realised that I can’t just stick to oil paint anymore.
Which was your favorite ‘adventure’?
I was living in Venice and this is my favorite because it’s kind of the beginning of what I’m doing now with my art practice. In this city of water, I met a girl who taught me how to juggle with fire. I really gained interest in this, it’s so liberating. So, I started juggling with fire [in 2019]. Because I started juggling with this elemental force, I started depicting it in my oil paintings. It was a very logistical step to use fire not only as a depiction but also as a medium.
I’ve seen you’ve done a few residencies — can you tell us about the evolution of your art? Was it aligned with personal growth, professional or academic growth etc? –
It is so good that you mention artist residencies because these experiences have always been a boost for me. I think that environment has a huge impact on the creative process, therefore a temporary change of scenery can give a whole new perspective on somewhat familiar things. Among the 4 residencies I’ve stayed at I would specially highlight 2 – ‘PADA’ and ‘OSSO’, both are in Portugal. I stayed at ‘PADA’ in 2020, right after the restrictions started to ease and the world seemed to be normalising again. The process resulted in a solo show ‘May Home Stay Within You’ which was a proposal of a viewpoint to home as an interspace, a boundary of inner and outer, a fragile mark between life and death and an insight of the impact of natural cycles onto all the homes. Whereas the main goal to my residency at ‘OSSO’ which is located in a small village São Gregório was to compare Portuguese and Latvian countryside. In January I had a solo show at ‘OKNA’ cultural center in Porto displaying some works that I had created at ‘OSSO’ and, as I call them, after images or memoryscapes reflecting on my experience interacting with the rural landscape. In general, I can say that the place where I live (even for as short period as a month which is usually the case with residencies) impacts my art directly, for example, I gather organic materials from the surroundings to incorporate in my works.
Can you tell us about your process and the materials used, most notably the wooden pieces — do you go about sourcing specific wood, how do you craftthe pieces?
The core of my practice is wood burning [since around 2019]. My favorite is birch plywood, it has such a beautiful shine and warm tone as a surface itself. And then – why fire? Well, a crucial part of my artistic research is the rites of passage and liminality, including seasonal changes and ‘vanitas’, the natural cycle of life and death in nature.
Why rites of passage?
There is one anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, he was the one inventing the term liminality. He was investigating rites of passages, for example in ancient times when a boy was initiating to become a man there was a specific ritual for that, and while he was being initiated he had no status in society—he wasn’t a boy or a man. So he was in a liminal state, a threshold situation. It interests me mainly because in Latvia we are really in touch with nature and the rituals associated with nature, like the solstice and equinox. We celebrate them and fire is an integral part of that, with bonfires, fire rituals. Also, because it’s so cold during winter and summers are so short, fire represents light, warmth for us; survival.
I have figured it out that working with fire on a daily basis is my way how get closer to the ‘oppressed wild side’ even if I am remaining inside a house or city in general. Fire is my tool of liminality, of unpredictable expressiveness – I use candles, matches, pyrograph, gas torch etc. to create certain visual effects. Each wooden surface is prepared with great care, I sand and prime it putting the energy and thought in even before actually burning the surface. By the way, I have to make the remark of the paradox that burnt wood becomes more resistant. The burning process [when creating the visual image] creates a layer of carbon which serves as a protection making the material more durable, although the outer part of the surface has to really become coal-like – Japanese call this technique ‘shou sugi ban’, it is widely used in architecture. I tend to stick more to the smoky grey hues and thin layers, still leaving the untouched wooden surface at some parts. The process is very intuitive and vulnerable too, specially before the usage of a fixative spray – the layers can be rubbed off easily.
Do you have an idea of what visual image you want to depict or does it come to you as you’re burning?
Both, sometimes I do preparatory sketches (not on the wood, just on paper or in my notebook). I then try to follow the sketch but sometimes when I feel more spontaneous I start burning the surface and the process itself tells me how to continue. I start to see silhouettes or landscape emerging, and I allow the surface to lead me. In any case, the result is always different than what I envisioned.
We talk a lot about the elements and nature from your childhood, but as an adult, what about nature makes you continue to place it in such high regard?
To me nature is the purest source for creation. Many artists choose to reference architecture or some past artists’ works and it is a fair approach, but it just doesn’t work that well for me, I am looking for something that is ‘more untouched’, that carries less of a human-made structure. I know this can sound contradictory, so it is better if I give a practical example of my interaction with nature. I am very keen on long walks and hiking, preferably by the ocean or in a forest, wandering around and sometimes going through thorny bushes, where there are no real paths and no people at all. By doing so I am looking for the feeling of the sublime. Philosopher Kant distinguishes two notions of the sublime: the mathematically sublime and the dynamically sublime. In the case of both notions, the experience of the sublime consists both of visual pleasure and ‘negative liking’ or a touch of fear at the same time, for instance, being afraid that a huge wave could crush you against a cliff if you decide to have a reckless swim. This probability keeps away from the danger, in a position of a safe admiration. The irresistibility of nature’s power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals the inner strength of the spirit, in short, it uplifts. So after experiencing this feeling, I carry it within me and let it out through creating works, my goal is to try to pass it to viewers.
When do you feel a) most free, and b) most strong?
Most free, when I am alone in the wilderness. Mostly empowered, when I am juggling with fire, hearing the sound of flames moving around me. It’s a boost of energy.
As a digital artist/creative, I find it near impossible to work when I don’t have inspiration or the drive to do something — is that the same with you? For us, we call it writer’s block, but what do you do if/when you have artist’s block?
Do you know Jerry Saltz, the famous art critic from New York? I love that he is always posting on Twitter, a lot of something like ‘Stop whining and go to work, artists, you big babies!’ Because it is usually fear or boredom of the routine blocking us. When inspiration comes, it has to find you working.
“When inspiration comes, it has to find you working.”
For me it means being there with my materials, experimenting, sketching, connecting the dots. Also, great ideas mainly have found me ‘on the road’ not sitting still – walking along the ocean, exploring new areas. Here I could go on and talk about many techniques that can be applied, starting from transcendental meditation and ending with methods developed by Marina Abramovic. In general, productivity goes in a cycle – of course there is a period of relative stagnation which you have to go through, more like a material gathering, researching point. The most important is to keep looking, investigating, deepening, to have an ongoing conversation with yourself, your works and the spectators of those works. I believe it doesn’t matter if you are a writer, a visual artist, a musician and so on – the source of creativity is one to which we all connect and translate those ethereal ideas into symbols for a human perception. So my advice would be to not fight the block, just immerse yourself deeply into some kind of process – can be even washing dishes, silence the annoying rumbling of mind. The answers will eventually come. Oh and also – get out of the house and go in nature!
What is your a) first piece and b) your favorite piece?
It is very hard to define both! My first piece might have been a drawing of fairies and trees I did when I was 5, which was my artist manifesto. And I don’t want to outline one work that is my favourite above everything else because, firstly, it’s the process that matters, and, secondly, I detach myself from the pieces and let them live a life on their own. Therefore, the favorite piece is always the one that I am holding inside, that hasn’t been born yet! Of course, I do have some that I value a bit higher than others regarding how much time I have spent making them or how much emotion or overall importance regarding a situation I have attributed to them. Also, time, distance and some kind of shift in practice is needed to objectively evaluate a certain series of works.
If you weren’t making art what would you be doing?
Being an artist actually involves so many skills that artists can be easily hired in so many different jobs. And if I still had to stick to what I am familiar with, I would probably be a writer, a journalist, an art critic maybe. But if I allow my imagination and wild spirit a free flow, I wouldn’t mind being a sailor, that has always seemed like a lot of fun to me. Or maybe an anthropologist that is always doing field research on tribes living in Amazon.
Is art sustainable? The making of it, selling it, etc. What are your thoughts?
I believe that the practices of some individual artists can really be sustainable. Especially here in Portugal I have seen many nice examples when artists use organic materials (like soil or natural pigments, for example) as a medium to create their works. The overall art world on the other hand is oh so not sustainable. If we look at the big art fairs like Frieze and Venice Biennale – the waste of means is tremendous. I am not saying that they should not happen but definitely should be restructured. This all may have been improved a tiny bit during lockdowns when exhibitions moved online but even then, it was more like an illusion of an eco-friendly activity. So I can say that the art market is just as sustainable as any other kind of merchandise – which means that groundbreaking changes are needed in the way we function as a society. It starts on a personal level with realising the interconnectivity of everything and being conscious about decisions and actions.
Finally, what can everyday people do to honor and value nature / the planet more?
I suppose it is the regularity that counts, having mindfulness as a daily routine. For some it might mean eating bio products, recycling, buying second-hand clothes and so on. But overall it is the deeper mindset, realising how every single action impacts our micro-environment and how it brings changes to the macro level. The climate crisis is absolutely real so the least people can do is read about that, educate themselves and their closest ones, spread awareness. And kindness towards every living being!