Creativity
The Factory Worker Who Spent 50 Years Filling a Forest with Otherworldly Sculptures
Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Veijo Rönkkönen was a recluse who spent his days between the paper mill where he worked for 41 years, and his farm, tucked away in a Finnish forest. By all accounts, he didn’t like to talk to people, and he never took an art lesson in his life. But by the time of his death in 2010, Rönkkönen had covered his land with around 550 sculptures. Nearly all of them depicted human figures: people of all ages and ethnicities, frozen in moments of play, athleticism, and even agony.
The sculptures were not only his life’s work, but his community—and his means of interacting with the world.
Rönkkönen was born in 1944 in the rural hamlet of Parikkala, Finland, just a four-minute drive from the Russian border. By the time he was 16, he began working at a local paper mill, where he pressed liquid from paper pulp. As the story goes, he used his first paycheck to buy apple seedlings and a bag of concrete. It was from these spoils that his strange, spellbinding sculpture garden grew—one that he’d develop for 50 years.  
Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Today, eight years after Rönkkönen’s death, Veijo Rönkkönen Sculpture Garden remains intact, drawing some 25,000 visitors annually. They flock to the site to explore the property’s eerie landscape, where concrete figures perch along dirt roads, balance in yoga poses, and stand frozen in dark corners across the forest. Their gazes range from intent to vacant, and their expressions from ecstatic to aggressive. Some have mouths filled with real human teeth, while speakers buried inside their bodies emit incomprehensible sounds. Others are blanketed in green moss, or sprout flowers from their stomachs.
The effect is mysterious and intriguing—as if the sculptures might spring to life, shaking off their cloaks of weeds and leaves, at any moment.
Upon entering Rönkkönen’s garden, visitors are greeted by a motley crowd of figures. Among them is a nun, a shirtless man in traditional Finnish dress, a little boy in overalls, and a woman wearing a jaunty sun hat. A fellow resembling Abe Lincoln sticks his tongue out, while others extend their arms up, as if entreating passersby to enter.
Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Rönkkönen’s cast of characters represents a vast range of cultures, religions, and rituals. While the sculptor stayed close to home and shied away from social activities, he was a great reader—and gleaned what he could about faraway cultures from books.
Perhaps the most memorable example of Rönkkönen’s fascination with distant lands and their customs is his group of 255 sculptural yogis. Their mostly naked bodies stretch into the air, balance on an arm and leg, or display mind-boggling flexibility.
While they reflect a fascination with the outside world, the sculptures also provide a glimpse into Rönkkönen’s guarded interior life. He took up yoga in the 1960s, and each lithe figure bears an uncanny resemblance to the artist. Indeed, Rönkkönen once said that the entire park was a monument to the memory of his young body. (In one of the few available photographic portraits of Rönkkönen, he sits bathed in golden light, surrounded by his sculptural companions, as if one of them.)
Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Photo by Ilkka Jukarainen, via Flickr.

Beyond this, scholars don’t know much about Rönkkönen’s artistic intentions—only that his artmaking never stopped. His garden is also home to sculptures of cavorting youngsters (some appear in balletic dance poses, others aim slingshots at sculptural birds), and men and women going about their daily activities (gathering flowers, or washing clothes in the buff). Other scenes aren’t as sunny. In one, a boy leans up against a tree, and a closer look reveals that he is being whipped by a domineering man.
Together, Rönkkönen’s sculptures represents his exploration of self, as well as his fascination with the outside world, experienced at a distance.
Despite Rönkkönen’s reclusive nature, he welcomed visitors into his garden over the course of his life. While he never instigated conversation, he answered any questions they had. Like the books he read, passerbys offered a glimpse into a world he was too shy to interact with. In turn, they inspired more sculptures rendered by Rönkkönen’s hand—his own sort of ragtag band of compatriots, that he continued to add to until his death.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a Staff Writer at Artsy.