Johnson’s Works as Fresh as Arctic Ice
by Brad Nelson with Arden Johnson
"As a small child In Norway, I wanted to draw all the time. In the Arctic North, drawing was a natural pastime for all the children." These words, from a brochure of a past exhibit at Tweed Gallery at the University of Minnesota, reflect painter Solveig Arneng Johnson's aspiration. A current exhibit of her oil paintings in Duluth, Minnesota brings that childhood inspiration to life for the public. Kirkenes, Norway, located In the northernmost tip of the country, was Johnson's childhood home.
Reminiscing on this Sami land, she speaks of the clarity of the arctic air and a special undefinable quality of the light. "I could draw before I could walk. My colors come from growing up in the arctic – very clear. That is what is most real – what you saw as a child. Everything else is just added." As testimonial to this, many of Johnson's oil paintings incorporate the rich symbolism of the Sami people.
At the beginning of WWII, while Johnson was still a young girl, Nazi invaders occupied Kirkenes, a town of 2,000, which lies a few miles from the Russian border and fifteen miles from Finland. Solveig’s home in Kirkenes was multicultural. There were Russian samovars in most homes from the trading days before the revolution.
Her father was the official court translator in Finnish and applied to be the Sami translator, with reindeer Sami stopping by to have him translate over the phone to the sheriff across the fjord in Vadsø. Her mother, the daughter of a reindeer nomad, also spoke Finnish, but chose to be Norwegian because of discrimination. Only in her later years, would she return to speaking Finnish and Sami. Gust Aakula, long-time editor of the Finnish-American WWII paper Industrialisti, would often visit her, and the conversation would be in Finnish.
After two years of living under occupation, but before the ultimate destruction of her hometown by the Nazis after 1,000 air raids, Johnson moved to Oslo with her mother. There she attended high school and "underground" art schools under the instruction of Bjarne Engebretson. At that time the official art schools were controlled by the Nazi Party.
After the war she attended the Kunst og Håndverk Skolen (Arts and Crafts School), then completed three years at the National Art Academy of Norway. At the Academy she was a pupil of Jan Heiberg, who had been a protégé of Henri Matisse.
In Oslo she met Rudolph (Rudy) Johnson, a student at the International Summer School at the University of Oslo. Though they were related, Rudy had left Norway with his parents as an infant, and Solveig and Rudy were unaware of each other. It was only through an interview in an Oslo paper that Rudy was discovered by a cousin. As she explained, "It was true love that brought me to Duluth."
While In Duluth she met the late artist Viola Hart. They became good friends and even though they painted so differently, according to Johnson, "I had somebody to discuss art with." On one wall of her studio is a mural collaboration painted by the two friends in 1959.
As a student at the National Art Academy in Norway, she was a member of a young artist's league and was accepted in very competitive exhibits at the Academy three times. Her attitude now, however, is very different. "I was very elitist. It's a
good thing to get away from. Art is a part of life, but it's not exclusively that. I'm so fortunate that I don't have to be avant-garde; there's a tremendous freedom in that. I don't associate with artists much...I like plain folk. I like to get involved in the art of life."
The paintings that hang throughout her home range from realistic documentary portraits of her children as they grew, to works of abstract expression. There is an early portrait of her husband she describes as "in the style of Matisse," attributing it to her years of study under Jan Heiberg.
A very striking recent work on exhibit is entitled "Black Swans on the Lake Anár/Inare." According to Johnson, she is obsessed with a dream she had about black swans. During a year she spent in Norway with her husband in 1980-81, she dreamt of black swans on the Lake of Anár, a large convoluted lake with many islands in northern Finland. She was intrigued and painted the swans. It was later that her husband Rudy, who has done extensive research on the Sami people, found that according to Sami dream interpretation, black swans portend restricted grazing areas for reindeer herds the next season.
"I was abstract much more in earlier years than now," she noted. "Abstract expressionism was at its height in the 50s and 60s." What inspires Solveig Arneng Johnson? "A combination of things: the gut feeling I have about something and things that move me at the moment. I like to consider myself a woman artist and a Sami artist." She speaks of the support her parents gave her to pursue art and the guidance of her older brother, Odd Arneng, who was also an artist, and attended the National Academy of Art.
She feels lucky to be free from the pressure of having to sell her work. "My husband is very supportive, monetarily and spiritually...and," she notes, "he frames my work." "I work very slowly and don't paint more than an hour a day. I just sit a lot in my studio – it's in my mind all the time. I'll often start a painting with a small preliminary sketch – very loose! – don't want to tie everything down."
In 1998 Solveig was a guest of Nana, the international indigenous cultural festival in Tromsø, Norway, and exhibited at the Arctic Gallery. Today she lives in her home in Duluth, and has an active social life.
A version of this article appeared in the October, 2001 issue of The Finnish American Reporter