When you trade government bonds for a living, you tend to get acquainted with a country on a level beyond its economy. You try to understand its people, their culture, their history, and their language. This is the kind of relationship I found that I developed with Finland in my past career.
I always wanted to work with an artist from Finland. Although part of the Nordic countries, it’s decidedly different from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway in terms of both language and the genetic origin of its people. It was influenced by both the Swedish Empire and the Russian Empire but still maintained its distinct identity, finally gaining independence in 1917.
When I first saw Joe Paczkowski’s work and read his name, I knew right away that he wasn’t Finnish. I assumed (correctly) that he was American, which raised even more questions. What was he doing in Finland? Why did all of his work center around a nine-pointed mandala? Why did so much of his art contain elements from the Baha’i faith? I knew we had to work with Joe if we were to learn the answers.
What drew us to Joe’s work is how accessible it is to a casual observer. One doesn’t have to know or understand art on an academic level to enjoy his creations. Often following a familiar structure with a pleasing color palette, his pieces are also loaded with symbolism and depth if one chooses to explore more closely.
Joe is currently the only artist to have three designs in the R. Culturi collection – Hearts in Transition, Impressions of the Orient, and Vision of an Urban Peasant. We hope there will be many more to come.
“This piece attempts to reflect the struggle of the human heart in finding balance and order amidst the busy complexity and chaos of modern civilization. People are struggling to find unity in the diversity of ethnic, religious, economic, technological, and political activity buzzing around them. Amidst all this, the simple values of the heart are often neglected. We are in a period of transition in which the very nature of life, prosperity, and development are being re-examined. We are truly hearts in transition.”
Why did you decide to pursue a career in art? Were you always creatively-inclined or is this talent something that you had to nurture?
From a very young age I definitely felt inclined to do something in the realm of graphics, something creative. I did not know what for sure but it felt inevitable. I studied wood carving and furniture making. I wanted to do carving but the only jobs available were assembly line stuff, which didn’t appeal to me. I got an offer to work as a sign maker and jumped into that. That led to graphics and later to computer graphics. I have never formally studied art or graphic design. I just learned as the industry developed.
It’s definitely something you have to nurture too. There’s always room for improvement and new techniques to master. I also don’t want to keep making the same things over and over. I want to discover and pursue new ideas.
Your work offers a very unique take on the classic mandala design. How would you describe your style? What inspires and motivates you?
I did not ever intend to make mandalas. For a while, I had been trying to make nine-sided or nine-pointed stars. The nine-pointed star is an unofficial symbol of the Baha’i Faith, of which I am a member. Some years ago I had noticed on social media that there were very few interesting designs being done with the nine-pointed star so I decided to attempt some and see would would happen. I was surprised when people started to refer to them as mandalas. I had heard the word, but I wasn’t familiar with the exact meaning of the term. As I have come to learn, a mandala is intended as a portal to carry one to a spiritual experience or feeling. In fact, all art can be considered a portal to enable the observer’s imagination and heart to go beyond itself. Hopefully I’m lucky enough to achieve that from time to time.
I am inspired by many things. Classical ornamentation from around the world over all periods and civilizations has always fascinated me. Both geometric and floral patterns are a great source of interest to me. I want to explore patterns, colors, and styles and see where they will take me. In the end it is really whimsical. Sometimes I have a well-defined idea and at other times I just start with a blank page and an open mind. I don’t want to merely imitate the past. I want to carry it forward and interpret ornamentation in a new way, in my own way.
As a member of the Baha’i Faith, how do your religious/spiritual beliefs factor into your work?
The Baha’i Faith influences my work on many levels. On a basic level it has given me a universal world view, that mankind is one, that human history is the history of one diverse and multi-faceted race, that all the various cultures and civilizations offer something to our emerging global society. On another level, we see that all of creation is a reflection of a divine will. There is no boundary between the physical and the spiritual. The universe is one. Nature is a reflection of the spiritual worlds. It is also a source of motivation in that we believe that all men and women have been created to carry forward and ever advancing civilization and that we should offer our talents and skills in the service of mankind. We believe that all work done in a spirit of service to humanity is the same as worship.
So much of art history is a history of religious ideals and concepts. The Baha’i Faith is a relatively new religion historically. There is no Baha’i art at this time as there is not yet a Baha’i civilization. The Baha’i community is a global religion spread out among all cultures and nations. I have been striving to embellish and enhance our symbols and scriptures in the hope of contributing to a growing Baha’i culture.
What other artists, past or present, have been your biggest influences?
Over the years I have come to appreciate many artists, movements, and styles. When I was a kid I was blown away with the Renaissance. I would go the library and pore over books about Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Dürer. Then Peter Max burst onto the scene in the 60’s and I loved his vivid images. His psychedelic posters were something new and breaking all the rules. As a teenager, some of the artists that had a profound influence were people like Beardsley, Klimt, William Morris, Kay Nielsen, Alphonse Mucha and many artists of the Art Nouveau. Art Deco, and Symbolism periods. We can’t forget about the Impressionists either. They are something so special to me. Graphic arts have always been of keen interest to me. Book illustration and advertisements were always a source of fascination. Some artists today who have impressed me are Jessica Hische, Catalina Estrada, MEGAMUNDEN, and Nina Paley for example. They excel at bold, clean, vibrant graphics.
You’re originally from the U.S. but have been living in Finland for the past 37 years. What brought you over to Europe?
I am originally from Boston but have been living in Finland since 1979. I originally came to help participate in the activities of the Baha’i community. The Baha’i do not have priests or a clergy so all members can contribute to the functioning of the community. We are all encouraged to pursue a profession and, when time allows, to participate in the affairs of the community as much as our abilities and situation permits. One goal is to help spread the Faith internationally. That is why I came to Finland. I ended up staying because I think Finland is a wonderful place to live. The nature and the people are absolutely amazing.
How would you compare the two countries? Do you go back to the U.S. often?
When I first came to Finland, I did miss the diversity of life in Boston. Other things about Finland did gain my admiration, though. The Finns have a high sense of honesty and justice. Education and health care are virtually free. There are not the extremes of wealth and poverty in Finland as you find elsewhere. There is a respect for human rights. Nature always seems so close in Finland. We can walk out of our house and into the forest where we can easily find an abundance of berries and mushrooms.
I used to go back to visit the States rather often when my parents were alive. I still have family there and love to visit. I was just there in July. I like to travel to other places too and you can’t always do both. Both countries have their advantages and I wish I could have it all.
Last year you held a very successful exhibition of your artwork in Kuopio. Do you plan on doing more shows in the future?
I would love to do more shows. It’s a lot of work and it is quite intense in many ways. Sharing my work and seeing the reaction from people is gratifying. On the other hand, what I really love is making new designs. I don’t like to call attention to myself or to be in the spotlight. If other people enjoy my work, I consider it a bonus. It’s not so simple to put together a show. Marketing is something you have to dedicate time and resources to. I just try to stay balanced but I’m always keeping an eye out for future possibilities.
When you designed Vision of an Urban Peasant, Hearts in Transition, and Impressions of the Orient for R. Culturi, did you have to adjust your technique in order to make the designs suitable for a textile accessory? How did those works differ from your others?
There were a couple of challenges. One was technical but not very difficult. The designs had to be done at a higher resolution than I typically work in so I had to be very mindful of the size. The real challenge was in showing the possibilities of what a sketch can become. Sometimes a simple sketch or pattern can become so much more depending on the layering and colors. I knew that simply presenting a sketch did not really give an indication of what I could see in the sketch. Fortunately the collaboration was very fruitful and rewarding.
What advice would you give to other aspiring artists?
There is an important balance to maintain. On the one hand, you need to be able to let your mind roam free and discover new ideas and sources of inspiration. On the other hand, you need the technical skills to translate that inspired vision into a tangible reality. It doesn’t matter what medium you work in. You have to love the tedious stuff too. You have to learn all the time, about your medium, about the world around you, about yourself. Practice everyday, even for a little while if that is all you can manage. Daily effort can produce great results eventually. Find inspiration from various sources and let them find harmony within you. Then your creations will be a reflection of something from your inner being. Trust yourself and let your imagination fly.