Ceramics in the Aalto University Archives collection
Ceramic artist Kyllikki Salmenhaara
Kyllikki Salmenhaara was born 1915 in Tyrnävä, in northern Ostrobohnia, but at a young age moved to Helsinki. From childhood she was interested in shaping objects and according to her mother even as a child she had "threatened to become an artist". When Salmenhaara finished her high school education she was sent to work abroad with the thought that she would come to her senses and forget her dreams. However, as the destination happened to be England, the future ceramic artist could not have been better placed for inspiration – upon returning to Finland she began studies at the then Central School of Art and Design's department of ceramics.
During her first years of employment Salmenhaara worked at the Kauklahti glass factory until she sought a traineeship at the Danish Saxbo studio in 1946. This was a significant period for Salmenhaara's future work and career as the studio's founder, the chemist and engineer Natalie Krebs was particularly interested in developing copper and iron glazing which she applied to stoneware objects. During the next year she also worked as an artist at Sakari Vapaavuori's studio before the transition to employment at Arabia Factory. From the beginning at Arabia she wanted to prepare all the glazes she needed herself. Even from mid-1950s she was regarded by many to be one the most prominent Finnish ceramic artists demonstrated also by successes at the Milan Triennials in 1951 and 1954.
The artist's personal modern style however was born and developed when Salmenhaara had an opportunity to learn about ceramic art education in the United States as an ASLA Fellow in 1956. The trip included an introduction into the ceramics teaching at the Alfred College and visits to American museums and local ceramic studios. Most significant of these has been regarded the Bauhaus ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain who as Salmenhaara emphasised knowledge of materials and mastery of technique which laid the foundation for creativity. The Native American ceramicist Maria Martinez on the other hand strengthened her belief in respecting the laws laid by materials themselves which was demonstrated in the deliberated rawness of the work.
The travels to America saw Salmenhaara make her skilfully wheeled famous flying saucers that form a tension with their narrow base and broadening saucer shaped body as well as the unglazed outer surface and the internal feldspar glazing.
Salmenhaara's life had a new turn in 1960s when a razor blade accidentally mixed in the ceramic mass caused an interruption in the work of the creative ceramicist. She was however offered a teaching position in Taiwan where she participated in establishing a ceramic school with The China Trade Center. Her life-long work as a pedagogue that shared her best knowledge of materials and methodology now began.
Reformer of ceramics education
A teaching position soon also awaited in Finland. In summer 1963 a vacancy of a lecturer in ceramic art was founded in the School of Art and Design (from 1973 the University of Art and Design) for which Kyllikki Salmenhaara was selected. The fresh lecturer was determined to modernise the teaching and equipment. During her period clay as a material and especially the Finnish red clay deemed as unartistic regained respect. Salmenhaara wanted from the beginning to demystify ceramic art: craftsmanship meant humility and technical skill. Local materials, pottery and basic skills connected ceramics more closely with Finnish conditions. Concurrently the society and the school emphasised the importance of industrial thinking and product design.
The aim was to train a new generation of ceramicists that could not only form clay but also make a kiln, build equipment and prepare mass and glazes, all by themselves. The technical professionalism provided confidence and broadened professional opportunities rather than hindered creativity. Later at the end of 1970s attitudes that emphasised industrial product design mellowed and Salmenhaara began to give prominence to artistic courage, innovation and cooperation.
Salmenhaara was said to bring order to the department of ceramics at the School of Art and Design that lays the foundation to creative work and research. As a teacher her persona is remembered as an inspirer of students.
Salmenhaara had several posts as visiting a lecturer and professor abroad, for instance in Canada 1964 and 1969, United States 1967 and 1976 as well as Taiwan and Japan 1972. From these travels she introduced raku firing to Finland and her teaching. While abroad she was substituted by Airi Hortling, student and later the follower of Salmenhaara.
Kyllikki Salmenhaara was appointed artist professor as a first representative of the field of industrial art in 1970. Salmenhaara continued experimentations with mass and glazes with different temperatures which amounted to the publication Keramiikka, ammattitekninen käsikirja (1974) and the State's industrial art award in 1975. Soon after in spring 1976 Salmenhaara again had an opportunity to travel to the United States to Alfred College as a visiting professor. Salmenhaara worked at the University of Art and design until her death in 1981.
Salmenhaara in Aalto University's collections
Aalto University Archive's contain a wide collection from Finnish ceramic education. A large proportion of this is related to Kyllikki Salmenhaara's teaching and research work. The ceramics are available primarily in digital format – fragile original objects are available for viewing at the archives or for loans at the discretion of the archives.
Kyllikki Salmenhaara's archive collection consists of archive materials correspondence with Finnish and international influencers in ceramic art, the ceramic object collection and an image archive which includes a range of images from teaching, working abroad and her personal life. An essential part of the collection has been digitised.
Salmenhaara's ceramics has also been presented in Kaj Franck's and architecture department's teaching image collections which have been digitised and published.
Salmenhaara's student, substitute and follower Airi Hortling
Salmenhaara photographed fequently her students' and her own works. She talked a lot about taking images, their quality and information.
The student work collection in ceramics and glass art was gathered by Salmenhaara by selecting works right until 1981 after which the collection has been grown with diploma works. The collection includes approx. 3000 objects from 1963–1994. The collection contains objects meaningful to Salmenhaara that demonstrated the ideology of her pedagogy succeeding and the progress of ceramics in some direction. The best work by the students was not chosen to the collection but objects that rather captured a certain style or feeling.
Objects in the ceramics and glass art student collection and Salmenhaara's ceramic art has been digitised in 3D in a joint project by Aalto University Archives and IT Services. More than thousand objects have been digitised and made available.
Text: Johanna Koivusaari
Images: Aalto University Archives