When I discovered Maine, I thought it was my Finland, with the fells, the mountains and the birch trees. All compressed on this island, it’s like a pocket of Finland,” said sculptor Melita Westerlund, who was born and raised in the city of Helsinki in southern Finland and came to Bar Harbor in 1983 with her family, intending to stay for a month.
Ever since, the island has been their winter home, and she lives in Finland in the summer.
Her home in Finland sits in the countryside and has been in her family for 50 years. It’s so removed from society that she rarely sees anyone but her family all summer.
“It is totally living in nature,” she said. “That’s probably where my love for nature started.”
Her love for the environment led her to her most recent art collection, “Octopus’s Garden,” on display through Feb. 17 at College of the Atlantic’s Ethel H. Blum Gallery.
Ten years ago, Westerlund was scuba diving in the Caribbean when she witnessed the deterioration of coral reefs.
“I read about it afterward, and they’re really disappearing and being killed by the warming of the oceans,” she said, pointing out that coral mining, pollution and natural stresses such as earthquakes also add to their destruction.
She decided to raise awareness of the disastrous phenomenon by sculpting forms inspired by coral.
“The coral itself is amazingly beautiful,” she said. “I don’t want to copy this, so to say. There is this beauty, but there is this scare that it won’t be with us a long time.”
In 2007, Live Science reported that coral reefs in the central and western Pacific were disappearing twice as fast as rain forests. In 2009, CBS News linked rising ocean temperatures of 1 to 1.5 degrees to coral destruction. The heat kills the sensitive algae that coral eats, and scuba divers say that reefs they once saw standing tall and colorful are lying dead and broken on the ocean floor.
Reefs are home to 25 percent of the world’s marine fish species and they supply food and livelihoods to 500 million people, according to The Nature Conservancy.
“The marine life depend on coral for their existence,” Westerlund said. “I think art through the ages has had a meaningful part in bringing awareness to a number of issues.”
Westerlund usually works with steel and aluminum, but she needed a material that was more malleable to build the organic art. She had sat on the project idea for a few years, when a friend gave her cotton fiber to use in a series of portraits and it struck her that it might be a good material for her coral art.
“The cotton fiber is just what you could imagine shredded wool to look like,” said Westerlund. “It’s dipped in a mix of water and glue so the fiber is wet when applied to the armature.”
Westerlund doesn’t know of any other artists that are sculpting with pre-consumer cotton fiber waste, so she learned by trial and error.
While building the sculptures, she started to have a problem with the excess liquid running down and turning her studio floor into a slippery rink. So she bought a kiddy pool from the hardware store to place under the growing sculptures.
“Each piece is carefully formed,” she said. “I work with a small section at a time, and build up. All of the sudden, I think this is the natural way this is how it’s supposed to be.”
The material hardens when dry and creates an organic texture that makes the sculptures seem to come alive, reaching out from the walls and up from the floor.
“It’s nice to exhaust the theme as much as possible, but there’s so many things to do with this material,” she said. “My vocabulary is expanding with this cotton fiber.”
Some of the wall art is as big as 48 inches by 69 inches, and one of her freestanding sculptures, “Surrender” is 70 inches tall. A series of three will sit low on the ground and are called “Koralli Saari,” Finnish for “Coral Island.”
Despite the seriousness of the project, Westerlund decided to use the same bright pinks, greens, blues, purples and yellows that are in the majority of her other artwork.
“My work is very abstract in many ways, and is sometimes more humorous,” she said. “This is a more serious aspect of my work, but if I were to make black coral, it would be so depressing.”
I think Finnish designs are very colorful, and my mother, if she had been growing up under today’s circumstances, she would have been an artist,” Westerlund said. “She was always sewing and making nice things from scratch, and had this sense of design.”
Sewing and welding are similar, says Westerlund. With sewing, you cut out pieces of cloth with scissors and stitch them together. With welding, you cut out pieces of metal with a jigsaw or plasma cutter and weld them together.
The majority of her works are large-scale, painted metal sculptures, often meant for outdoor display. She has been commissioned by 17 Maine schools, from Bowdoin College to China Elementary School, to create artwork for their buildings. Businesses such as Fidelity Investment Corp. in Boston and Key Bank Building in Bangor also have commissioned her to do artwork. Her husband, Stewart, originally from New York, is an architect and helps her create building models to use while sculpting.
She has had 16 solo exhibits in Finland, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Kenya. American art critics usually mention how her sculptures express her Finnish background, but in Finland, critics remark on the American flavor of her artwork. Her life and the art are a mixture of both places.
She and her sister, Jenni Dieaho, who’s also an artist, continue to inspire each other and exhibit together, though Dieaho lives in Finland.
“Not having a role model at all, as artists, my sister and I didn’t know: How does one become an artist?” she said. “Today, that’s isn’t really a question. You just do it if you want to do it.”
Westerlund now has a studio in a Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. industrial building in Bar Harbor, where she works in worn motorcycle boots, overalls and work gloves. She can walk to the studio from her home and she visits Acadia National Park nearly every day and runs, skis or walks on the carriage roads. Her country studio in Finland is made almost entirely of glass. She opens the windows to let in the summer breeze.
While her daughter, Milja, and son, Matias, attended school in Bar Harbor, Westerlund taught them the poetic language of her home country.
On Monday, she sat in front of her woodstove in Bar Harbor eating warmed homemade Finnish pastries. Like many artists, her artwork surrounds her — metal sculptures by the windows, handcast paper hanging on the wall and whimsical metal chairs lining the dining room table. The colorful sweater she wore matched the blankets on the couch; she made them all.
The collection of six of her recently made 48-by-36-inch handcast papers, which she constructs out of color-saturated pulp, are included in her “Octopus’s Garden” exhibit. Hanging on the gallery walls, the textured papers mirror some of the colors and shapes in her fiber sculptures.
“This will be the first time all of the pieces will be shown together. It will be exciting for me to see it all,” she said.
To learn about Melita Westerlund, visit melitawesterlund.com. For information about “Octopus’s Garden,” e-mail email@example.com or call 288-5105 or 801-5733.