Meet the Winning Artist: Josefina Alanko

The 28th STRABAG Artaward International has just announced the winning artists. The award, which focuses on painting and drawing, is one of the country’s most highly endowed private art prizes. Initially limited to Austrian artists, it expanded in 2009 to include international participants. The prize consists of a main prize and four recognition awards, totalling €35,000, given annually. For 2021-2023, artists from Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria were invited to participate. Out of more than 700 applications, five artists were selected as winners. In 2023, Jósefina Alanko, a Polish-Finnish artist, received the main prize. The recognition awards were given to Peter Cvik from Slovakia, Samira Homayouni from Austria/Iran, Liza Libenko from Czech Republic, and Grzegorz Siembida from Poland.

photo: Eva Kelety

What inspired you to utilize painting as a medium?
Painting is such a sensitive and the same time powerful medium. It resonates with me as an artist with its ability to bring up deep thoughts giving shape and appearance to them. This fits to my themes where I research ideas of the visible and invisible elements which can be physical or psychological.

How would you describe your work?
My work consist of different stages, in which I modify materia – starting with raw linen canvas. I am sewing additional fabric elements to the surface, then I stretch the canvas onto the painting frame and only then I begin to paint.
I collect notes every day to my sketch books, which are the base of my painting marks. Where Sewing is very intuitive and free, painting is more rule oriented. I leave a lot of canvas unpainted and the rules help me to express only the necessary things in my work.

Can you discuss the inspiration and thought process behind your winning work?
My works in the Strabag Artaward 2023, were all inspired by my cultural heritage. I am originally from North Karelia, a region in Finland. We have our own culture, with its own language. I have for a long time been interested in researching the traditions of Karelians, because for many years this culture was being gradually forgotten. Now the young Karelians are rising, wanting to understanding the meaning of their own roots, learn our language and traditions again.
These three works called: ’’Ghost n°1’’, ’’Ghost n°2’’ and ’’Pray’’  tell about dirge singing (Karelian poetic singing). People, mainly only old woman used to contact the dead and speak to the ’’other side’’. Their role was also to heal people through singing and cry away their biggest worries.

I’ve been living in Poland for 6 years and my techniques as well are very much inspired by the polish city of Lodz and it’s history. Lodz is known for textiles and incredibly skilled textile artist. Even I knew always I am painter, handling textile became part of my practise. 

What do you hope to communicate to the audience with your work?
My work underlines femininity and nature. For me – a peson who has grown up in Finland, near big national parks and forests it is obvious that nature is feminine. We are living throug catastrophic times – and the feminine and masculine energies are unbalanced. We have forgot to listen to the feminine wisdom, which nature present’s the best. Through the strong suggestions in my paintings I want to bring this topic in front of my audience.

Have you experimented with other mediums?
I work with ceramics besides my paintings. Actually, what is kind of interesting is that my first contact with art was trough ceramics. Ceramics are for me kind of a balancing element – working with clay is raw , You need physical power to do it, You can never fully predict the glazers You use and You fire Your pieces in 1200° Celsius degrees. This is kind of my masculine balance to the femininity in my work.

Can you talk about your biggest learning experience during the process of creating your work?
When I learned to focus on my ideas and work. This is the best way to feel and understand materials and understand the process as an artist. When I learned that most of the time the hard work is the only way that pays off.

Can you discuss your biggest success since starting your artistic journey?
Of course having the 1st price in Strabag Artaward is a huge honor and success.
Also, I had many other successes on my may. Small and big ones. Obviously I had a fair share of failures as well. As You grow as an artist Your goals keep developing and step by step You reach them. So many beautiful things have happen and I think it’s good to dream big and set smaller goals along the way.

What is your dream project or piece you hope to accomplish?

I like interior design and architecture. While living in Poland I really discovered this side in me, when I had few beautiful experiences of exhibiting my work in the Villas of Lodz or old brick factories (Like the Art Inkubator in Lodz). Interiors give so much to the paintings and ceramics.
So, I very often dream about creating exhibitions in different spaces, different interiors. Now I will be living and working in beautiful Vienna, surrounded by exactly this beautiful architecture and I hope this dream will come true as well in here.

As a winner, do you have any advice for artists who want to submit to awards, competitions, residencies, etc.?
Keep working even it would feel very difficult. I know it is not easy and being artist is not easy for any of us. Anyway, hard work pays off. It will! Keep going and practise, paint, write, do whatever is needed. Draw a lot and meet with fellow artist. I am sure as well that being open for change and new ideas is good for You. It’s good to try out different mediums and ways of creating – some of them will work, some not. Sometimes the artworks comes out ugly and that is ok! Thats what I believe. Be Yourself and believe in Yourself even in moments of challenge. 

Lastly, I like to ask everyone what advice they would give to their fellow artists, what is your advice?
Precious thing for me has been traveling and I absolutely recommend artist to travel. See and get know different cultures, cities, energies and ways of living. Traveling has it beautiful way to make Your world smaller and this way understand bigger picture of life. It relaxes You as an artist to make the work You are here for. Shake Yourself a bit and be extempore – Book a train or even just bike somewhere close to see something new. It’s wonderful feeling then return back to the studio and keep working.
If we were to rummage around in your studio, what art supplies would we find and what key colours would we see on your palette?
The central object in my studio is a sewing machine where actually painting my process begins.
…linen fabric rolls, brushes – You would find a small palette of colors mixed and besides the basic elements for painting. I have rolls of different papers, soft pastels, sand from my travels witch I use for paintings as texture or for ceramics as a colour. I have also small boxes where I collect things from nature like chestnuts, minerals.

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