Self Portrait as Heliotrope

Format: Research project
Dates: Apr — Jun 2023
Language: English
Publication: Online

Research, text, film, design: Chris Gylee

What happens when [Queer] interpretations are given centre stage? What possibilities open up? What new understandings are gained? … The [art] objects point to a past that is richer, stranger, and more diverse than we could have possibly imagined.
Clare Barlow, Queer British Art 1861 - 1967, 2017

In summer 2022 on residency in the village of Kaukonen in Sápmi, I visited the former home and studio of Finnish painter Reidar Särestöniemi (1925-1981) in the forest on the River Ounasjoki. More than 40 years after his death, I wasn’t prepared for the strange beauty of the place and the echoes of his intense, physical practice. Hundreds of tubes of paint line the shelves and vivid dreamlike canvases depict northerly landscapes and Reidar himself incarnated as a bird, a bear, a plant. Vivid colour is applied in smears and swoops. I sat in the wood-planked gallery with the huge, bright images, wondering about this alternative secular ‘church’ and how Reidar’s inner-world continues to act on us here in the future.
Reidar was gay. Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971, when Reidar was already 46. It was classified as an illness until 1981. He died of a heart attack the same year. I’m 39 as I write this. What would being categorised as ‘ill’ for my entire life do to me?

As I walked through the museum, I noticed how little reference there was to Reidar’s lovers. No photographs. No portraits. Didn’t he paint the people he fell in love with? Were the paintings lost? Perhaps he didn’t fall in love?

In my research, I will dive deeper into Reidar’s biography and work, looking for events and artefacts that speak to Reidar’s Queerness.

Can I uncover any romantic remnants from the Queer side of Reidar’s story? What links exist between Reidar and myself when I use my research practice to spend time with one of my Queer ancestors?


Self Portrait as Heliotrope: A Research Walk in Three Times (31 min)


1.    Beforeon 5th May, 2023
2.    During11th to 13th May, 2023
3.    After later in May, 2023


A Timeline of Events and Artworks
    (desktop only view)


— Eeli Aalto, Reidar Särestöniemi, Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö, 1976
— Marjut Aikio, Matti Aikio, Särestö — Taiteilijan koti, Minerva Kustannus Oy, 2005
— ed. Maria Didrichsen, Riika Laczak, Reidar Särestöniemi — Arctic Energy, Didrichsen, 2010
— ed. Tuija Hautala-Hirvioja, Riita Kuusikko, Sisko Ylimartimo, Rarely Does a Gentle Wind Blow on Arctic Fens, Lapland University Press, 2012
— Juha Ilvas, Reidar Särestöniemen maailma, Kirjapaino PMK Oy, 2000
— ed. Anne Koskamo, Reidar Särestöniemen maailma, Särestöniemi-Museon Julkaisuja, 2019
— Kari Leppänen, Tuija Hautala-Hirvioja, Jüri Kokkonen, Arctic Elements, Levin Luontokeskus Oy / Levi Summit, 2008
— ed. Päivi Ruutiainen, Reidar Särestöniemi 1925 — 1981, Särestöniemi Museum Foundation, 1989

— Anne Koskamo, various exhibition texts: ‘The Last Wolf’; ‘Expressions of Nature — Hidden Messages’; ‘Anemomania — Reidar’s Wind Madness’; ‘Arctic Morning — Reidar’s Fountains of Creativity’; ‘The Blue Hour in Särestö’; ‘When The Tundra is in Bloom’
—Elisa Wistuba Lorca, ‘Reidar Särestöniemi — What Can You Tell The Public About The Artist’s Identity?’, Sateen-Kaari-Historian Ystävät / Friends of Queer History, 2021

— ed. Eija Aarnio, Kalvero Palsa — Toinen tuleminen / Resurrection, Like Kustannus Ltd, 2000
— Maggie Nelson, On Freedom, Vintage, 2021

The lead and thumbnail image is Winter heliotrope, Larcombe by Derek Harper. Further images by Chris Gylee taken during the research period, including of various artefacts at the Särestöniemi Museum, Kaukonen, Finland.

Self Portrait as Heliotrope is a #TakeHeart research project by Chris Gylee, supported by Fonds Darstellende Künste with funds from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media within the program NEUSTART KULTUR.

Additional thanks to: Hiljaisuus / Silence Festival residency; Joonas Martikainen; Saana Veltheim, Anne Koskamo and the team at the Särestöniemi museum; the librarians at Outokumpu public library; Mika Minetti; Mikaela Mäkelä; Aslan.