Artists Among Us: Mirja Vahala

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
April 5th, 2011

Perhaps the greatest and busiest artist of all time, Mother Nature has been the mentor for Rouge Gallery artist and Castlegar resident Mirja Vahalla. Moving, over time, from the Lower Mainland to Castlegar and traveling to the far reaches of the earth, Mirja’s style and true love has always lied in capturing the movement of time in her artwork. Weaving at times deep and personal stories into still paintings is a challenge Valhalla has taken on as she also teaches and mentors fellow artists at her in home studio.  The art of teaching has come full circle for Valhalla since opening her studio as those she’s taught have perhaps unknowingly taught her a few new lessons as well.

This past week the Telegraph called in on the next artist in our Artists Among Us series to find out what makes this painter tick.

To start, tell us where you’re from originally.


I live in Castlegar now and we’ve been here for four years from the lower Mainland. It was the natural beauty of the area that really drew me and my husband in. We’ve since built a bed and breakfast/art studio and I’ve had my work in The Rouge now almost since it opened.


Let’s go right back to the beginning of your art experience. Tell us about how you got into life as a full time artist?


I decided I wanted to be an artist when I was five years old when I started doing my first drawings.


I spent a lot of time drawing as a kid. Then I took art in high school and then went on to visual arts and graphic design school at Kwantlen College university. From there I was a graphic designer for 20 years and worked hard to build up a business which I eventually sold.  


After the sale we moved to the Kootenays , and built this bed and breakfast/art studio. I’ve been teaching and painting with my own company for the last seven years now.


My teaching company is called Inspiring Mind’s Fine Art and I have a separate website for my own artwork .


Describe your style for us. Where do you draw your inspiration from?


What I paint are landscape paintings that have some type of metaphor or deeper meaning behind them. I enjoy painting the cycle of life of the passage of time. For me a waterfall, for example, is perfect. I can show how things are changed by the waterfall, how it is always moving and it leaves behind a different scene than it started with. It also shows how time moves. That’s what I like to paint. At times I’ll paint something just because it is beautiful but I do like to have a bit of a story or an idea behind the painting itself. For example, I did some paintings from my hike in Yoho National Park. You can really see how time and wind has carved the earth as well as the glaciers in that area. The force of nature is an artist in itself in how it forms the earth. Those are the kinds of thoughts that pass through my mind when I paint.


I concentrate  mostly on acrylics. I began in water colour but I also paint with soft pastels as well.


In addition to being an artist you’re also an art teacher. Tell us about the teaching side of your art career.


My art studio is 1000 square feet with ten stations. My husband concentrates on the B&B; I concentrate on teaching and my art. I do art mentoring as well. Artists of all abilities come up and I cycle the room and help people get started, keep going or if they get stuck somewhere help them keep going and offer feedback. It’s a really cool thing, actually. In the three years I’ve been doing it, the progress of the artists is exponential and I think it’s because we are all surrounded by other people doing different things and learning by seeing what the other artists are doing. This is the first time I’ve done this kind of thing and it’s truly amazing.


While the medium remains the same, I can imagine the practice of painting a picture differs greatly from teaching someone how to paint a picture.


It is very different. Learning to communicate something that is visual has taken me a while.


I hear from students that they do learn a lot in a non-threatening environment so it’s about making suggestions in a way that is not detrimental or harmful yet moving somebody forward. That takes a lot of thought and emotional thought as well. It’s not just process, but it’s about how everyone is different and responds to feedback in different ways. When I do something I do it with all of my heart, so it takes a lot of energy. I don’t’ know if I can describe the difference. It’s also a very important interaction.


Artists tend to work in isolation so I think it’s good and healthy thing for artists to get together. Even though I call myself a teacher, I’m more of a facilitator or someone that promotes growth.


I’ve learned way more from teaching artists than I have from painting actually. I’m impressed every time I teach by what my classes are doing.


You’ve recently returned from the Antarctic where you were an artist in residence onboard a cruise ship to Alaska. How did that come about?


It was a serendipitous opportunity. I applied and was accepted. I didn’t really seek it out, It just happened when it came about I could go. I happened upon the opportunity, sent in a few applications and in very quick time I was on the ship.


It must have been an inspiring trip. What does the life of an artist in residence on a cruise ship to Antarctica for a month entail?


I did a few short classes. I did a lot of paintings for people while I was on the ship for them to purchase. I also would go into the auditorium and I would show slide shows and do demonstration paintings each day.


 The gallery I was painting in most of the time was by the theatre and the stage so I was interacting with passengers passing by everyday and would kibbitz with them. People would hire me to do paintings of their memories for them. It was really a wonderful experience.


We went to all of these places on the tip of South America, The Falkland Islands and Antarctica. We saw so many amazing penguins and wildlife. The penguins are what tugs at everyone’s heart. I think I did at least 15 penguin paintings for people. I’ve lost track now. There were all different kinds of penguins and icebergs and hurricanes. It was pretty amazing, not to mention that our ship went through the worst hurricane that Holland America has ever sailed through!


You’ve been with The Rouge Gallery now for a while, how does painting in Rossland compare with the likes of Antarctica?


It’s awesome. No really. I’ve been with The Rouge since about six months after they got started and it’s both inspirational and wonderful and in terms of business it has been really good actually. Rossland is really supportive of the arts. I’ve been really impressed by that. The local people who come in either just to chat or to buy artwork have been really supportive. It’s really quite amazing. I don’t know why that is but I’ve really noticed it. Maybe because it’s such a tight-knit community right in the midst of nature. I don’t know, but it’s really a great place to paint and sell paintings.


What advice would you give to other artists that would like to make art their full career?


The main thing is that I would say be true to yourself and paint what you love. From the business side, be prepared that it takes longer on average to become successful as an artist than it does in other types of businesses. I made my money in graphic design. Artists can do well and do do well. I’m doing okay, but it does on average–if you look at statistics–take longer for artists to do well in business.


When the economy goes down, art is one of those things that goes down first. At the same time I know a lot of artists who have done very well. If you want to be an artist for a living you have to be very passionate about it and be patient.


Artists Among Us is a column featuring local area artists that has morphed through several different publications with writer Andrew Zwicker. If you’re an area artist and would like to be featured contact Andrew at Andrew@rosslandtelegraph.com


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