Interview with Master Blacksmith Kirsi Vahtera: Metal, Mythology, and Powerful Women

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If you have attended Helsinki’s Tuska Festival in the past few years, or perhaps admired photos from afar, you’ve likely seen the work of master blacksmith Kirsi Vahtera. The Lahti, Finland-based artist and Routa Design business owner recently earned the title of 2020’s Artist of the Year, a national honor awarded by the Artist Blacksmiths Association of Finland.

In addition to her hundreds of sculptures, Vahtera also crafts jewelry and other fixtures inspired by elements of Finnish nature and lore, especially the epic tale Kalevala. Her work includes everything from leaves and snakes to her Neidonvaaja design, an axe-shaped pendant that draws themes from Kalevala’s famous female figures.

In an interview with Metal Solstice, Vahtera explained how the pandemic has affected her art- and in the same breath, she shared why it is important to her to lift up others. Her Voimanaiset [“Powerful Women”] campaign features women whose creative pursuits and careers- politics, the music industry, and more- may not be typically female-driven.

Metal Solstice: Congratulations on your recent award! Can you explain how the Artist of the Year is chosen? How were you informed that you won?

Kirsi Vahtera: Taidesepät ry [the Artist Blacksmiths Association of Finland] selects a person who has been making our profession visible in a positive way, has proved to have remarkable professional skills, and will make progress for blacksmithing. Normally there would have been an occasion but in this situation I just got a phone call and trophy by mail. Not so fancy, but Covid-19 has changed everything.

I appreciate this award very much. There has been only one single working female in 20 years who has gotten this award before.

MS: Your statues have appeared at Tuska festival in previous years. How did you originally get involved with the festival? What does it mean to you, to have so many musicians and artists admire your work there?

Vahtera: I have been visiting Tuska Festival since the early days, and I met Eeka Mäkynen four years ago. We talked about decorations for Black Dining but once we started planning, the cooperation grew much bigger.

In the first year, I made less than a hundred pieces, but the amount grows every year. Last year in the festival area there were 180 sculptures and decorations of different sizes. The biggest works were at the artist area, and because of that Dimmu Borgir asked to have few of my big candleholders for the stage, but unfortunately it was not possible to make happen.

I don’t consider my work admired, but I’m very happy that I have opportunity to be a part of this great festival and offer a small piece our mythology and Kalevala for people to see. I wish that my work might inspire people to find connection to our cultural history.

Kirsi and Väinämöinen.

MS: How did you choose what kind of statues and fixtures to make for Tuska; did the festival have some requests, or was it all up to you to decide?

Vahtera: I have been privileged to do my own thing. I have been able to tell the story of Väinämöinen and Kalevala´s monsters with artwork in Tuska Festival. They haven’t been pushing me to any direction, but have been the most appreciative partner. Of course we have talked about things like how many candleholders is needed for certain space, but I never had any limitations with artistic expression. Some sculptures have been demand made but with freedom to plan and execute with my own vision.

MS: This might be a sensitive topic- but Covid-19 has had a significant impact on all of the arts, not just the music industry. How has this affected your business, and your plans for the future?

Vahtera: Covid has struck me, just like many others who work with culture or small companies. Hard. Most of my orders are gone and art exhibitions are canceled. It has been very difficult to sell sculptures or even jewelry. The hardest thing for me after all has been that stress and uncertainty is eating creativity. There is no use to make new sculptures when I need to survive in a smaller workspace than before, and have no knowledge of when there is a chance for exhibition again.

So, I’m making nails and useful things to keep my company running. I have dreamed of exhibitions in States and there has also been interest of Neidonvaaja there and a few other countries, but in this situation is hard to plan anything. Of course money also big part of this.

Photo of Kirsi Vahtera, credit Elsa Wellamo, 2020.

MS: What are some ways that people can help support you and your art?

Vahtera: Making art visible and known helps me to find new opportunities to continue my work. I really love to do creative projects so all cooperations and projects are welcome. I hope people feel free to contact me with their ideas. Also being active in my social media helps to bring my art to people.

MS: Many of your creations and images feature powerful women, both in the design of the Neidonvaaja jewelry and the Voimanaiset series. Why is it important to you to empower other women?

Vahtera: My way to professional blacksmith and master blacksmith has not been easy. There have been many difficulties because I’m a woman. The world is not equal. Women’s average salaries are still lower than men’s. Our career can be destroyed if we start a family. Combining motherhood and work is a huge challenge, but yet in many ways we are still in a weaker position in the labor market.

I wish to encourage everyone to go for their dreams instead of being a victim of prejudice. I’m inspired about the thought that by supporting each other we can be stronger. That is why I wanted to collect impressive women to talk about solidarity and supporting each other in public.  I have met so many gorgeous, strong and successful women in my life and Voimanaiset campaign; I’m really grateful to all of them.

I also want to remind women that in our history we have huge amount of strong women who have led their communities. The story of Neidonvaaja jewelry is born from these women.

Neidonvaaja jewelry design.
Photo provided by Kirsi Vahtera.

Here is the story of Neidonvaaja, or the “Maiden’s Axe”. The shape of the Maiden’s Axe is gently curved. Its shape is similar to Ukko’s axe that is typically held as a masculine symbol, but refers also to woman’s fertility and a giver of a life by its softness. The axe sits the same way to woman’s hand as man’s; sometimes even better. Women as well were an important part of the physical work in the family life.

In a community, the women were often seen as a supporting structure to which the whole society was leaning on. The woman’s role was not weak even though the slender maids may sound delicate in Finnish Kalevala poetry. The life of a young wife called for a great strength from the beginning.  As the women grew up, they were required to work as a significant part of their community just like men.

Where Väinämöinen, Joukahainen and Ilmarinen represented as Gods of the Kalevala’s men, the women were seen to be natural and earthly mothers. The matriarchal village structure was not utopia; Louhi dominated her own community and commanded her troops. Mothers were responsible for their daughters, so during an act of courting, men never asked for a daughter’s hand from her father, but rather from her mother.

Although the society was not equal, the woman’s position was very strong. Women were responsible for childbirth, the magic of home and countless house works.  The mother’s gentleness and strength kept the house in its place. Even the heroes of the Kalevala turned to women to maternal advice and assistance in the times of need. In a fact, it’s the father of the family that is rarely even mentioned.

The women of Kalevala are strong and not afraid of hard work. With women’s help and by their grace, the men of the Kalevala were succeeded in their battles. Woman’s axe contains vulnerability, ornaments typical to embroidery and buckles balancing the power.

The Finnish woman is strong, unbending and gentle. Like our ancestresses, we have power that carries.

MS: Please tell me about some of the bands who have recently worn your designs or have included your statues in their photos/videos.

Vahtera: My sculptures and candleholders have been lately in stage with Archgoat and Paara. Korpiklaani had just video shoot with my decorations, Turku Saatanalle festival was decorated with crosses, snakes, pentagrams and candleholders I made. Lost in Grey and a few other bands have taken their photoshoots with my accessories. I also collaborate with photographers in artistic projects. I have made few new sculptures; let’s see where they end up.

Netta Skog has been wearing Neidonvaaja jewellery in public. Also our former president Tarja Halonen sent me a picture of herself with Neidonvaaja. In the Voimanaiset campaign there are many Finnish celebrities, writers, singers, athletes and leaders, and Helena Haaparanta (Maidens of North, Crimfall, Helo) made a song for the Neidonvaaja series which she performed in launching.

Musician Netta Skog wearing Neidonvaaja jewelry.
Photo provided by Kirsi Vahtera.

MS: I’ve read about your upcoming “Veljeni” series. Can you explain what will be included in those works, and about the Kalevala inspiration behind it?

Vahtera: Veljeni series includes two different size silver pendants and bracelet with leather. I’m planning to do earrings and cufflinks.  Veljeni tells a story about the three brothers from Kalevala who had remarkable role in creation of our world.

The oldest brother, Väinämöinen, is old already when he is born: a wise man who can sing with great magic. Second is Seppo Ilmarinen, the blacksmith who forged the sky and stars with his hammer. And a young, angry Joukahainen who wishes to challenge Väinämöinen in knowledge.

Soon after the world is born, Väinämöinen and Joukahainen leave from Ilmarinen’s forge- the sun- and travel down to humans’ world. They end fighting and leaving each other but meet again later. Joukahainen challenges Väinämöinen and the resonating opposite energies between them is the power that keeps our world alive. I had plans with a few musicians for launching this series, but all is frozen now because of Covid.

MS: Since your work is very intertwined with the metal community, can you tell me about what music you enjoy currently?

Vahtera: I have been an In Flames-person since I was a teen. I’m still listening to it almost every day. I also love Lamb of God, Katatonia, Type O Negative and Hurts. Lately I have been listening to Slipknot and Total Devastation while driving.

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