Children in the Castle
Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
In the front room of the American Swedish Institute, we meet the moss people. Independent, war-tough, always watching. As Finnish artist Kim Simonsson says, they are children growing up in a world without adults, forging their own society with birdhouses on their backs, feathers in their hair and masks to hide their true feelings. No one can control them. In the minimalism of this small gallery, the moss children glow with the softness of earth as the yellow flocking covering black skin glistens green under the light. In some places, the moss is scratched away and the hard surface underneath is revealed with the beauty of a forgotten ruin.
Even the sleeping young lady—the goddess, as Simonsson refers to her sometimes—seems distant, detached. Untouchable and from someplace familiar yet distinctly other.
Simonsson’s sculptures of moss children are joined by white ceramic children and woodland creatures in the American Swedish Institute’s exhibit, “The Fantastic World of Kim Simonsson,” on view through July 15. All are melancholic even in their mirth, like the girl who jumps up onto the Turnblad Mansion’s wooden dining room table, the upturned smirk of hers reflected in the mirror she lands on. The children show some emotion, but they have so much more hidden behind their empty and glassy orb-like eyes that look at something beyond our sight.
Art and its abilities to please the eye and pique the mind are all somewhat subjective, but Simonsson seems to find the sweet spot between interpretive, straightforward and (always) preciously made. While the symbolism of a gold bird flying out of a girl’s mouth may be lost or misinterpreted, in the juxtaposition of this Brothers Grimm-esque fantastic with the echoes of vintage cottage figurines, his work gives enough of reality to latch onto but pushes it further to help people along the path of Simonsson’s artistic vision.
With a background including a Master of Arts from the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, the title of Finland’s 2004 Young Artist of the Year and a current studio in Fiskars, Simonsson has made a name for himself by blending traditional ceramics with contemporary twists and eastern Nordic pop culture. While he does use molds, he fits in with ASI’s “The Handmade” exhibit series as he does much of his work by hand, too. His pieces, even the smooth ceramic ones, are perfectly imperfect; a deer lying on the ground has tragically long and twisted limbs because he literally pushed the clay animal over and let gravity take hold of it.
For those who want more explanation of his work, the signage helps, of course—definitely touch the “moss-covered” feather in the gallery to feel what his moss children feel like—but something that could be more illuminating might be a small collection of stories that inspired Simonsson's exhibit, such as the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman and Astrid Lindgren’s “Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter.” You can find the books in one of the mansion rooms as you wander, and in another room, you will find a spot to write your own story about Simonsson's ceramic world to carry on the cycle of creation.
Despite some of the melancholy his figures seem to convey, as Simonsson gave each one a home in the mansion, you can see the playful side of his vision come out, especially in those first few days when they would “somehow” move locations after hours during Simonsson’s visit. They may be the ghosts of an almost parallel world, but they’re beautiful ones, and they’re here in their first Minnesota exhibit.
Kim Simonsson’s sculptures make their homes throughout the space of a 33-room mansion built in 1908 by the publisher of the United States’ largest Swedish-language newspaper. Besides looking at the exhibit, visitors can also take tours of the American Swedish Institute's historic building at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday when the museum is open and learn about the family that lived there, the castle's architecture, how it became ASI, and more. For more tour options, visit the American Swedish Institute website.