When Swedish artist Joakim Ojanen approaches his sculptures, he comes with a kernel of an idea and let’s whatever happens next happen.
And that loose, fluid and introspective process shows in his work. At first glance, Joakim’s art can be viewed as humorous and chaotic, but underneath that façade are characters that have experienced life and showcase a hidden sense of melancholia behind their innocent appearance.
Joakim’s sculptures, paintings and illustrations show an artist who doesn’t adhere to the everyday rules of the fine art world. He’d much rather let his work speak for itself than to tell someone how to interpret one of his characters.
I spoke with Joakim about finding the humor in fine art, creating accidental “self-portraits” and his introspective process.
Your work has a real innocent, child-like feel to it. Were you an artistic kid growing up?
I always found drawing and working with my hands to be really interesting and calming in a way. When I was little, I was always really energetic and had a hard time sitting still, but one thing that helped me a lot was drawing. I guess you could say drawing helped me find a peaceful place. So, I’ve always had that as long as I can remember—like I’ve always done pretty creative stuff. But, it’s only been about four or five years since I really started to realize I wanted to be a fine artist, ‘cause before that I was doing illustrations and animation and jumping between different mediums.
I’ve read in previous interviews that, even though you and your brother eventually became artists in your own right, you were never really fond of the fine art world.
Growing up in Sweden—with the background I have—I never went to any museums with my family. So, I didn’t know anything about the art world, and everything seemed like it was trying to be super intelligent and kept people closed off to their work, rather than welcoming them to their work. I first got interested in fine art when I saw this artist who was working in opposition to a lot of the art I’d always see—playing with humor. It showed me that not every piece has to be this super-intellectual piece. It just has to connect with a feeling of some sort. So that’s what initially piqued my interest in fine art and made me want to pursue it more in my own way. It wasn’t really until I found Philip Guston and artists like that who were working more directly with humor that appealed toward the aesthetics that I always liked.
How important is it for you to have a humorous element in your work?
It’s definitely pretty important to me. I like for my work to have the feeling that even if you don’t know much about the art world or have that cultural background behind you, you can still look at my work and engage with it.
You grew up designing your own zines and working with animation. Do you see any of that influence in your work today?
It’s definitely had a big influence on my current work today. It’s really the backbone of everything I’m doing, aesthetically. And coming from animation, I was always interested in character design and finding different ways to portray different moods for different characters. So, it wasn’t like I got into it wanting to do illustration and then one day I changed my whole style. It just kind of slowly evolved from one thing to the next. I don’t see it as two different things. When I look at my background, it’s been a pretty gradual process moving from one thing to the next. I do feel pretty satisfied with painting and sculpture, but I am always looking for new ways to approach my work and experimenting with different mediums. It is nice to get to work in whatever style I want without having a boss telling me what to do everyday or working for someone else. I get to have this freedom now that I’m really happy with.
So was working in ceramics something you learned to do on your own?
I went to Kontsfack, which is the art and design school here in Stockholm, and a friend and I were looking for something to do. I had all these drawings I was doing but couldn’t figure out a way to further develop them. So she found this open ceramics studio we went to that was super small. It was full of all these little ladies in their 70s making pots and things, and they were really welcoming to us. I’d start out trying to make pots, but they didn’t turn out so great, so I decided to incorporate some of these drawings I was making into ceramics, instead. I found that quite interesting, and realized it was a fun way to move my drawings forward, so I just kept working with that.
I wanted to talk about the personalities of your sculptures a bit. Looking at your Instagram and interviews with you, I can definitely see some similarities between your sculptures and yourself—particularly the clothing and style. Is this intentional or is it just something that happens with the process?
From the beginning and even today, I never really thought that they had to represent myself. But, whenever I look at one of my sculptures after they’re finished or part of a show, I can definitely see the resemblance to myself. There’s always this thing with my work, where if I have a hard time knowing what to do with them or decide what clothes they should wear, I usually end up just looking around my studio and they seem to end up being more accidentally autobiographical than when I started. So, it’s not really something that I consciously think about a lot, but it just becomes like that in the end anyway. So, I figured I’d just call them self-portraits.
A lot of your sculptures have a real emotive quality to them. If they’re self-portraits in a way, are you able to look at a piece of work and recall what you were feeling at that specific time you sculpted it?
I can sometimes remember when I’ve been working on a specific sculpture. But I think it happens more when I’m looking at 20 different sculptures from a certain time, I can tell what kind of mood I was in. But, it’s not like I go into making a sculpture thinking, “Well, today I’m super upset so I’ll make that.” I think when I look at them as a set, it speaks more to what my life was like at the exact period.
It seems like your art has a very natural process, where you come in with one idea and the piece just takes shape as you go along. Since you work alone in your studio most of the time, does that allow you a lot of time for introspection?
I usually go into a project with a super basic idea already in my head. But once I start working on something, it takes a whole new form. I work on a piece, but at the same time I’m constantly thinking about different questions or feelings in my life. While I’m thinking about those things, creating the work kind of pours out of me. So, it’s one thing that I’m doing with my hands and another thing I’m doing with my head. Sometimes they relate to each other, but it’s really a fluid process. Sometimes it’s fun to stop and take a look at what I’ve been doing, because it’s really just my hands doing all of the work. Then I can start to plan what the next move should be and dive right back into that mindset. I think it’s pretty good for me. It’s almost like going to a therapist or something like that.
I know you’ve mentioned in the past how your characters can be anywhere from 5–30 years old. Do you have any finite details about your characters’ backstories or do you like to leave that up to the viewer?
When people ask me if they’re girls or boys or how old they might be, I like to think that they could be any range of characters. That style has sort of developed from when I was a child and first learned to draw and I think that child-like energy goes into the different kinds of characters I sculpt. They have all these different looks and traits. It’s more that when I’m doing the different characters, I want to see something that’s not super stiff and you can tell they have a life behind them. The sculptures aren’t newborn and they’ve been living a life full of experiences. I want to capture that and portray how it feels to be a human, in some way.