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Risto Immonen from Rovaniemi, Finland, is one of the established Finnish names in contemporary sculpture from Lapland. His works, sculpted out of wood, steel and metals, are known for their minimalist and modern expression.

Over the years, the works of the artist, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year, have been displayed in a variety of exhibitions and symposiums in Finland and all over the world. At the time of this interview, Immonen is again preparing for a work-related trip abroad, this time to hold a two-week sculpting workshop at the Putian University Art Academy in China.

Immonen started his career in 1982 as a blacksmith, forging utensils. His work quickly developed into unique items and into his own recognizable collections that already displayed the minimalist style he later became known for. Over the 1980s, Immonen started experimenting also with sculpture and with different materials side by side with blacksmithing. Immonen discovered that the plasticity and malleability of steel made it a perfect material for sculpting, even though it had to be processed red hot. This made it possible for him to bring a variety of wonderful ideas into life.

Sculptor and master blacksmith Risto Immonen in his shop.

“When Sanna Leinonen, the CEO of Levi Hotel Spa Resort, told me about the Design Hotel project and asked whether I was interested in designing a sculpture for the hotel lobby, I immediately liked the project. The Design Hotel was genuinely focused on art and design in a way that was both ambitious and resonating,” says sculptor and master blacksmith Risto Immonen.

The sculpture in the lobby found its form in a bird-themed work, The Courtship, in which the birds court each other in their springtime dance, with their long necks extended.

“There is something very human about the courtship of birds. It is something people can relate to. A migratory bird is, more than anything, a traveller, arriving in the spring and travelling away in the autumn. With the sculpture’s location in the hotel lobby, The Courtship deals with the experiential side of travelling, something that both birds and people share in this context,” says Immonen.

“The large sculpture will be installed into a square-shaped space on the left in the hotel lobby. It is flanked by glass walls on both sides, making it possible to view the sculpture from different angles. I think that sculpture, as a three-dimensional art form, should always be suitable for viewing from every direction.”

The work, made of eight-millimetre steel plate, almost reaches the ceiling of the lobby, and weighs about 300 kilograms.

“The sheer size and weight of the materials makes it quite demanding to process steel into a sculpture as large as The Courtship. The work had to be broken into multiple smaller parts to make each of the parts fit the furnace. Each part was then hammered into their final shapes one by one. After this, the parts were welded back together, the seams ground smooth, and then exposed to fire once more to enable the seams to be hidden through further hammering and processing of the surface,” says Immonen.

The Courtship, made of eight-millimetre steel plate, almost reaches the ceiling of the hotel lobby.

“Steel thick as this requires a great deal of heat in order to make it malleable and processable. Heating a heavy piece of steel one edge at a time and processing and forging the different parts of the heated object requires the use of tongs and multiple protective gloves. If the steel part is too cold when I insert it between the faces of the power hammer, operated with pedals, the steel will jolt against my hands very dangerously. That is why it is important to always ensure the piece is hot enough for processing.”

“Processing metal is so wonderful because when you use a hammer to shape a piece, the structure and texture of the work are formed simultaneously as an organic part of the process. The originally clear steel receives its colour when it is processed and heated. The surface can be treated further with an abrasive steel wire brush to bring out a dark grey or even a blackish hue. Further texture is added by the charring of the surface and the natural variation of the hammer marks. Finally, the piece is sprayed with a metal lacquer which beautifully brings out and highlights all of the details on the surface.”

Where does the sculptor then get his ideas and inspiration?

“I draw and sketch a lot. Inspiration and ideas most often come to me while sketching. I continue developing and drafting the ideas further, and then some shape or theme begins to stand out. While sketching, I already consider also the materials, possible processing techniques and the practicalities of forging the piece. With experience, it is easier to know the potential of different materials, and the different options for processing and working on them,” says Immonen. 

“Although nature is often present in my work, I do not specifically aim for nature-related themes. I live close to nature, so nature is an inseparable part of my everyday life. After all, the shore of the great River Kemijoki is about 50 metres from my doorstep.”