A Trip to Finland – Paupers, Paintings, and Puppets

by Park Cofield

in Global Connections

Post image for A Trip to Finland – Paupers, Paintings, and Puppets

Newspaper article about SISU is in the Heart project (Finland, 2014)

Perhaps the easiest way to summarize my TCG Global Connections On the Road project is to quote the title of the Finnish newspaper article written about my recent visit: “Laukussa isovanhempien päitä”, which loosely translates to “grandparents’ heads in a bag.” Yes, I know, this sounds like a tongue in cheek reference to that Joe Pesci movie from the 90’s, but in fact it’s a pretty accurate description.

About a year ago I started carving my relatives in the likeness of Finnish pauper statues, or vaivaisukot. These “poor men” statues are typically found outside of churches in Finland and serve as collection boxes for the needy. I first saw these figures on a trip to Finland 2005. As a puppeteer, I was immediately drawn to their theatrical possibilities. The wooden figures I am carving will be used as puppets in a large scale community-based theater project about ancestry titled, SISU is in the Heart. The project will premiere in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, the small Finnish-American community on Lake Erie where my great-grandparents immigrated in 1900, and also in Kauhajärvi, a small village in western Finland where my great-grandfather was born. The highly personal story of my family will function as a play-within-a-play surrounded by community voices bringing to life family stories from the two villages.

My TCG project activities took me to Turku, Helsinki, and Lapua and a few other locations in Finland this past November. The main goals of the trip were to begin devising on the themes of family, ancestry, and memory, to engage in community story circles, and to complete the designs for the pauper statue puppets. A bulky suitcase (packed with all four heads and eight hands) came with me to each city and every event. The mock-up puppet of my great-grandfather, Johannes served as a talking point and physical representation of the project.



(L to R) Johannes Ojala (1905); Park Cofield and the boy of Kauhajärvi (2014);

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Mock-up of pauper statue puppet (2014). Kustaa Ojala (1905)

My trip coincided with the TIP-Fest, an international puppetry festival hosted annual by Aura of Puppets, a community of professional puppeteers in Turku, Finland. I was invited to work with puppetry students from the Turku Arts Academy (the only professional puppetry training program in Scandinavia) in order to put together a short work demonstration about my project as part of the festival. I wanted to explore the physical vocabulary of the puppets, experiment with Finnish text, and to ask a lot of questions.

Why puppets? Why paupers? What can this puppet do that a human cannot? How many people do we need to make it walk? Can it kneel? What about collecting money? Does it need to be able to touch it’s heart? How do humans interact with this figure? How should the manipulator be dressed?

Kati Andrianov, a scholar researching and writing about the history of pauper statues on stage joined us for the sessions and encouraged me to consider all of the ways these figures could be brought to life. We discussed ways of indirectly manipulating the figures, the advantages of rough, clumsy manipulation, the possibilities of the performers using their own hands and feet instead of wooden extremities, and what could be gained by the double images of an identically costumed puppeteer and puppet.

In two short days, we devised three scenes based on stories the students shared about their own families. Together we discovered several images that will likely find their way into the performance– a tiny boat moving between little red houses, the futility of a wooden figure surrounded by loose change, and blind grandparents dancing in the air like a couple in a Chagall painting.


Work demonstration with puppetry students at Turku Arts Acadmey (2014)Chagall.jpg

Over the Town, Marc Chagall (1918)

My work continued the following week in the capital city of Helsinki. There I worked with Antti Ojala, a Finnish visual artist to paint the heads of the puppets. He is the grandson of my great-grandfather’s brother (extra points if you can figure out an easier way to say that). For the past twenty-five years, Antti has used pauper figures as a subject of his oil paintings. Though we are very different in age, we are similar in artistic temperament. For both of us there is a deep connection to family and place. We started by looking at reference photos and old family portraits in order to determine the color of skin, eyes, and hair. We made studies for each of the four heads and painted together in his studio– mostly in silence. Antti’s past work will also influence the scenic design of the play. It was a period of deep artistic contemplation and a reminder of the important of silence, thoughtfulness, and routine.

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(L to R) Park Cofield and Antti Ojala in Antti’s studio (2014); Poika kotikylästä, Antti Ojala (2006)


Costumes sketches for pauper statues (2014)IMG_3292.JPG

Block print of Ojala homestead, Antti Ojala (undated)

The final leg of my journey took me to Lapua a small town in the region where my great-grandfather was born. I worked in collaboration with Vanha Paukku, the cultural center of Lapua, to organize a series of story circles and gatherings with community members of all ages. At each event, I asked people about their connection with pauper statues. In most cases, paupers are thought of fondly and are loved by their community. The pauper statue in Lapua has recently been careful restored and the figure in Kauhajärvi was saved from a fire in the 1980s. The word vaivaisukot brings up positive connotations. These are charity boxes after all, and are the wooden versions of holiday bell ringers and offering plates.

For my story circle session with middle school students, I let them make newspaper puppets in the style of pauper statues in order to open up a conversation about their town. Who better than all-seeing pauper statues to share stories, history, and unnoticed details about a community.The results were profound! The scenes these teenagers created with the puppets clearly pinpointed their interest in the past, their respect for their elders, and their understanding of their community and what they envision for the future.


Newspaper pauper statue puppet workshop with middle school students in Lapua, Finland (2014)

I’m back in the U.S. now– and so is the suitcase! The freshly painted heads are safely packed away in bubble wrap as I consider the next steps and begin writing the first draft of the script. For me, pauper statues are more than a unique form of folk art. They connect me to a large international family, allow me to better understand what it means to be Finnish, and represent the generous nature of community. Paupers collect coins. I collect stories.



Completed heads of pauper statue puppets for SISU is in the Heart, Cofield and Ojala (2014)

To learn more about the next steps of this project, please visit: www.SISUisintheHeart.com

For more information on pauper statues, please visit: http://www.vaivaisukot.fi/

Park Cofield_CroppedPark Cofield is a theater director based in Los Angeles, CA and Atlanta, GA. He is known for highly visual work, site specific performance, and loyal adaptations of classic books and films for family audiences including a bi-lingual production of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon with Théâtre du Rêve, and the U.S. premiere of Quentin Blake’s ZAGAZOO. Park is a graduate of Emerson College and has trained and toured internationally with Odin Teatret. In 2012, he received the Altvater Fellowship from Cornerstone Theater Company and since then has worked on multiple community-based project in California. Park is a member of TYA-USA, The Dramatist Guild and is on staff with Network of Ensemble Theaters. You can read more about his work at: www.parkcofield.com