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The Art of Happiness; Elis Sinistö’s Beautiful Life

Even the Best Dancers will Break in the End

Written by Katla.

Welcome to the Hermit Nest!

Life has a funny way of introducing inspirational people to us every now and then. Sometimes those people are exceptional in every sense of the word -free spirits that land in our lives unexpectedly, seemingly by chance but end up leaving permanent imprints on us and the way we view the surrounding world. Free from materialism, consuming and even grief these souls wander the earth, often known or truly appreciated only after their death. I never got the chance to meet Elis Sinistö but I want to write about him and his inspiring, beautiful life that can hopefully teach us all a lesson or two.

“The Magician” – A photograph of Elis Sinistö by Jan Kaila.

Elis Sinistö (1912-2004) was a Finnish contemporary folk artist, dancer, mystic freethinker and philosopher but above everything else, he was a child of nature. A creature straight from fairytales with beautiful, expressive hands and brilliant blue eyes, Sinistö was like a shooting star briefly stopping on planet earth as a messenger of joy, love and happiness. His dream materialized as Villa Mehu (Villa Juice), a strange nest of funky little buildings built entirely out of recycled materials in the neck of woods.

Sinistö was in many ways a remarkable man. He became appreciated in the art circles as ITE (“self-made life”) artist in the 90s but his career and life’s work began long before. Finnish contemporary folk art, or ITE Art, differs from traditional folk art in that by default it is not a collective experience. Rather it is a manifestation of the artist’s own experiences and aesthetics incorporated in his or her own daily environment and lifestyle. ITE artists don’t have a formal education or training in arts. ITE Art really is in every way what the word stands for- a person’s own perspective and do-it-yourself life.

Elis Sinistö lead a very eventful life. Leaving his impoverished and quarrel-filled home at the age of 25, the young man set out to explore the world in order to find work. He traveled from city to city, often hundreds of kilometers on foot or at times on a bicycle trying to make a living by doing whatever work he could find. Times were tough in Finland those days and the young man was sent to enlist to fight in Winter War. “I said I don’t want a weapon so they sent me to Red Cross to drive the injured from the station to hospital instead” he explained.

After the war Sinistö returned to Helsinki where he was fascinated by the world of the radio. Trouble seemed to follow him in the form of unemployment so he walked some 170 km (approximately 105 miles) to Turku. World War II came and with it another stressful phase for the young artist. He, as a vegetarian (which was unheard of in Finland at the time) had difficulties to find food, so he decided to persuade the other soldiers to swap their portion of vegetables for fish which Sinistö was sure to catch from a nearby lake. The fishing of course had to be done in secret -going near the lake was strictly forbidden as it was so near the border. “I packed my French dictionary and fishing equipment with me, ready to row over to Russian side if I would not catch any fish. I planned to tell them that I am a conscientious objector and they may do with me as they please, but I won’t fight for anyone or against anyone. Earth is home and human kind is my family”.

The impact or seriousness of this kind of statement is difficult to understand at this day of age. Needless to say, his views did land him in trouble.

“My countrymen noticed me as I was trying to catch fish and sent out a motorboat to get me. They were shooting at me, the bullets flying over my head and I was waving my arms to show that I was unarmed. I was questioned thoroughly on what I believed in and sent to prison in Petroskoi for two weeks.” During the time of the imprisonment Sinistö suffered starvation, mockery and further interrogations as he was suspected of being a communist and a spy. This caused him to be hospitalized due to problems in the intestines. The doctor later on sent him to an asylum because he thought there was something wrong with Sinistö’s “nerves” instead.

Still, there was no way to break the artist’s spirit. After his release from the mental hospital, the young man began practicing ballet for “aesthetic reasons”, learned to play instruments, showed interest towards esoteric subjects and studied. For five years he danced in the opera, after which he posed as a model for art students. Sinistö was a particularly interesting model due to his large variety of expressions. “I constantly change and become another person. So far no one has been able to make two pictures of me that are similar. I am a mystery to myself.”

Old photographs still hang on the walls of Villa Mehu.

Life in cities didn’t work too well and Sinistö ended up buying land in Kirkkonummi (a part of southern Finland that still today remains somewhat countryside) that he was able to pay for with hard work. He walked to his new home and started to give his vision a physical shape. It took one year to finish the first building. He worked to pay for his land debt by day, and constructed a house for himself during the night, often falling asleep under the stars with only a jacket to cover his head, so great was his exhaustion. Naturally for a Finn perhaps, the first building to be completed was a little hut carrying the joyous name “Sun Sauna” where all the walls could be opened completely. They were painted blue so that they would “suck in as much sunlight as possible” and one could then bask in the radiance and warmth of the sun.

Sinistö named the lot “Villa Mehu” (Villa Juice) because naturally it’s a dry place and therefore he thought it deserves a wet name to balance things out. He also confessed to like red, yellow and blue juices. These being the three primary colors one can probably draw one’s own conclusion as to what the deeper meaning behind this statement was. Alcohol or drugs were not allowed in Villa Mehu.

Apart from three car loads of roof building materials, almost everything on the lot was brought in by Sinistö, either by bus, bicycle or foot. This means hundreds of kilos of wood, metal, old beds, tubs and just about anything imaginable. Imagination and intuition were Sinistö’s building tools and he used the materials with awesome creativity, making not only habitable huts and buildings but aiming towards his own aesthetics. Scavenging rubbish dumps and the lands around him, the brave “settler” was soon able to start one of the strangest and most delightful projects I have ever seen. Several small cottages, houses, saunas and even a dance temple rose from practically nothing. So did hotel Elite for children, Fairytale Castle, Hermit Nest, 7th Heaven and a church-like Mountain Cottage where only vertical lines were used for building. The artist believed that there are two ways to architecture: vertical for spiritual goals, horizontal for material and earthy ends.

Of course, he built a smoke-filled pit of a sauna too which he named 7th Hell to balance things out- “A person should have a really good hell so they can have a really good heaven” said Sinistö and added to the overall effect with his “Hells’ Orchestra”, a weird instrument constructed entirely out of scrap metal and bells that one could play by vigorously shaking it. (And yes, that would make one hell of a sound!)

Sinistö’s goal was to prove that a person could be content without owning anything. Despite living as a hermit on his land for almost fifty years, the artist welcomed anyone to stay or live with him at Villa Mehu. For this he had built several small huts for travelers and guests. “Someone who has no home, maybe feeling cold and tired, can rest here and get warm”. He wished that people would be happy when visiting his lot and that they would leave happier than what they had been before. Sinistö was never bitter nor unfriendly but rather a eccentric creature of universal love who seemed to radiate a strange glow so strong that it is visible even through photographs of him.

Sinistö was a very versatile person.

Sinistö’s cottages can be seen as sculptures or as extensions of his life philosophy (mysticism, romanticism, realism) in a way that he believed they were mystical by default as no plans were made beforehand as to how the buildings ought to look. They were put together with the help of insight. It seems a bit wrong to call the buildings and surroundings Sinistö’s life’s work for it seems to me that the man himself was his own life’s work and the buildings just seemed to come with that, sort of.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find the lot without instructions as sure enough there are no cultural signposts to mark the place. Come to think of it, Kirkkonummi probably isn’t very proud to have Sinistö’s place around and I bet they would rather use the land for something more productive and less embarrassing. The artist had a reputation of being the local lunatic and many people were most certainly uncomfortable knowing he was around or even frightened, not understanding why he chose to live the way he did.

We roamed the woods for a while (in completely wrong direction naturally) and finally managed to locate the beginning of Mehutie (Juice Road). The first thing to greet us was a collapsed traveler’s hut where someone had perhaps spent a night some years ago, leaving behind a yellowed newspaper, used condom and empty bottle of vodka. Sinistö was very strictly against alcohol or drugs. He believed in the healing power of nature, dance, yoga and laughter. His holy trinity was “realism, romanticism and mysticism”. If one of the three was missing then it was no good. Even now, as the small buildings have endured several long winters without anyone taking care of them it still is quite clear what Sinistö’s philosophies were like. A broken-down swing made of a truck tire next to the collapsed children’s Hotel Elite is the first proof of fun and games to show up. There’s more of that to come- a yellow sign on a pole informs us that we are looking at a “Madman’s Tennis” which I assume used to be a sort of a solo form of tennis where one would hit a tennis ball hanging from a string attached to said pole. Sadly, the bat and ball are long since gone so we cannot test this theory.

At the base of a small hill we discover the remains of Fairytale Castle. The roof has caved in but a romantic rose-themed fabric still clings on. There’s also a small house for a dog, a sauna (with “room for 6 bathers” a painted text on the wall informs us) and another guest hut where the bed is still made ready for the weary traveler. Behind the hut is a small toilet, or rather, a little rubber seat nailed on horizontal boards. A text on the wall instructs travelers how to use water for cleaning their private parts as paper is not allowed.

One of Sinistö’s many messages.

There are more instructions around the lot. A large sign at the beginning of Juice Road reminds us in broken Finnish that horseback riding is not recommended here as it ruins the little paths. Based on the hoof marks this is the second rule disrespected after Sinistö’s death. A crooked sign points towards Villa Mehu signifying that by following this path we shall discover “Joys and Mirths”. A “Sadness and Sorrows” sign points to the opposite direction-funnily enough in the same direction as “The Love Walk”. Advise follows us where ever we go in the form of cut-out newspaper articles (“Don’t blame the kids!”, “Vegetarianism is healthy”, “Childhood destroyed by drinking parents”) and texts painted on walls (“Respect your neighbor’s peace”).

Climbing a small hill we’re in for a treat. Behind slim trunks of trees, bathing in the warm late summer’s sunlight lies the main building Hermit Nest in a surprisingly good condition. Many little flowers still blossom in the garden even if autumn is just around the corner. Branches of apple trees form small arcs overhead, dappled with sunlight and blue sky. A strange, unexplainable joy begins to creep in my heart as I explore the grounds. The whole place seems to hum with silent laughter, inviting to play. Sinistö’s amphitheatre-styled Dance Temple built of stones calls us to dance. Last of the audience is still sitting loyally on her place- a barbie doll with moss creeping up her ankles. To amuse his guests the artist used to sing or perform, dancing his own signature “Elis Dance”. Proper clothing (or lack of it) was important too- Sinistö chose his clothes with care based on his mood and even crafted some by himself, fitting bottle corks and the like on jackets like the finest of jewels. This outrageously fun style was of course called “Elis fashion”.

Several small bee houses line the path towards the Mountain Cottage. The building is like a fantastic mix between a church and the commander’s deck on a pirate ship. Three dolls guard the main entrance, watching us with their blue plastic eyes. A wooden ladder goes all up on the second floor where a small balcony is perched, defying gravity. In this cottage one can sleep, think or fly all the way to the moon. I resist the urge to climb up to a small tower where a large clock is attached. More newspaper cuttings and framed poems are hammered on the walls. From them it is clear that Sinistö had a special relationship to blue color (he even invented his name from the Finnish word “sininen” that stands for blue) – on a yellowed sheet of paper are written the artist’s romantic lyrics for a spring waltz. They speak of a blue-eyed beloved that perhaps was an actual person or the artist’s ideal muse- nature in all her dreamy glory. There’s also a neatly written diploma in French hanging on the wall. Sinistö believed that in one of his previous lives he had been a French architect responsible for the plans of the Paris town hall. Other lives lived included writers, so I guess creativity really did follow him around.

There’s funny and surprising little details everywhere on the lot. Games, saunas, hammocks, books and even a small swimming hole, now only ankle-deep full and complete with rusty ladder all speak their own story of what life might have been like here in Villa Mehu when Sinistö still lived. From the swimming pool into the sauna leads an ingenious little water transportation system built of a bucket, rope and garden hose. Building devices, instruments and other clever little things is very characteristics to ITE artists. In this Sinistö was no exception.

Pond behind Hermit’s Nest.

Behind Hermit’s Nest I discovered a small pond that is like a miniature model for Monet’s famous water lily paintings. Sinistö’s ashes were scattered in this very place, under the still murky water and white, blossoming water lilies. A little wooden pier still tries to resist the teeth of time, half-collapsed and sinking under the wildly growing plants.

In Finland the winter temperatures can easily be as mean as -25°C (-13 Fahrenheit) and with northern winds, often a lot more. When asked about how he manages in the harsh climate Sinistö replied “We have an arrangement, me and frost. He takes care of his business, I take care of mine.”

Elis Sinistö was a very energetic man, never staying still for long. He wanted to toughen himself up by running naked around his lot every morning, doing gymnastics and yoga. At the age of 90 he was still able to stand on his head. He also danced frequently and keeping the buildings in a good shape took both time and effort. It seems to me that longing for a happy childhood was something Sinistö pursued his whole life. He had never experienced the miracle of fairytales as a little boy, so it is possible he tried to build a peaceful, happy environment that would make all those childhood dreams come true- both for him and others. He confessed that his greatest fear was that people would come and visit Villa Mehu and think there is nothing worth seeing.

Sinistö died after falling on his back from gymnastic hoops during his usual exercise. It was winter and the ground was frozen solid. Having never suffered from illness during his life, he refused to go to the hospital in time. Instead he tried to carry on with life as before but the increasing amounts of snow soon imprisoned him. Friends who came to the rescue took him to the hospital but a resulting complication in the lungs cost the man his life. That was almost ten years ago but here in Villa Mehu time seems to have stopped somehow. It is very easy to imagine Sinistö here and one sort of expects him to materialize suddenly like a woodland fairy, full of energy and enthusiasm.

Slowly I walk back uphill, watching the sunlight dance behind the trees, the strange shapes of the main building Hermit Nest and the Mountain Cottage that rises straight towards the deep blue sky. Singing birds and the sound of grasshoppers and bees fill the air. All is bathed in the sweet, lazy feeling of late summer. A light breeze sways the tall stalks of grass, making me drowsy and dreamy. In between the main building and the Dance Temple I suddenly feel it. Some part of Elis Sinistö still lingers here, growing as the bright green grass, the buzzing bumblebee, his eyes following us from all around. Stealthily he steals his way into my heart, showing all the simple wonders of the garden one by one. And it dawns to me that this here perhaps is a small fragment of paradise on earth, and the grass can never be greener on the other side.

The injustice of the whole situation strikes me suddenly. Very few know that this wonderful place exists, very few have experienced the joys and mirths of Villa Mehu. In fact, not too many have even heard of Elis Sinistö. He existed like a flower can exist- in perfect tune with nature, greeting every new day with delight despite not owning anything. He wished to bring more joy and love into the world and constantly worked towards this goal. That gave him a rare sense of freedom, a freedom that can never, ever be gained through money. Some part of the good vibrations still linger. Remarkably, the place has never been vandalized despite the long years of abandonment. There is not a single graffiti or broken window in sight.

Soon there perhaps won’t be any of these strange and fantastic buildings left. Perhaps some acceptably middle-class house will stand here instead. The huts are slowly collapsing and the lot will probably be sold. It seems ironic that the faith of Villa Mehu is in the hands of the one thing Sinistö wanted so very little to do with:  money.

Elis said “I don’t own anything, Mother Nature owns me. When I ask for advice from my Mother, she always answers”. And this is a statement that any heath dweller can appreciate and understand. In a world that is so full of materialism, greed and selfishness the likes of Sinistö should not be forgotten. He was a living proof that there are alternatives to how we live and experience the world. To some he perhaps was the village lunatic but to me he is a truly inspirational person who lived the way he preached. After all, he knew that “the happiest is to be happy”.

Here begin Joys and Mirths!

A small book of Elis Sinistö by the photographer Jan Kaila has been published (1992) but it might be difficult to find. Several of the images are available online via image search.

All Photographs by Katla.

ITE Art and Artists