Highlighting heritage: Kaleva celebrates Finnish independence with art displays

Melvin Fennell's tribute to Kaleva's Finnish heritage featured on the village's Centennial Walkway. (Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

Melvin Fennell’s tribute to Kaleva’s Finnish heritage featured on the village’s Centennial Walkway. (Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

KALEVA — A world away, the country of Finland is celebrating a century of independence this year. But back in the Village of Kaleva, many Manistee County residents have reason to pay homage to the milestone as well.

“This year marks 100 years since Finland was freed from Russian rule,” said Cindy Asiala, of Kaleva. “And while they celebrate their centennial, having strong Finnish connections we wanted to promote that too.”

Established by Finnish immigrants in 1900, Kaleva directly relates to Finland’s quest for independence.

Since 1249, Finland had been ruled by the Russians and was considered a Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, many Finns were looking to flee.

Kaleva’s first settlers were Finnish individuals and families either escaping the oppression and poverty brought on by Russia’s reign or avoiding conscription into the Russian army.

Tributes to its heritage can be found throughout the village year-round, but, to highlight the significant anniversary, local artists — many of Finnish descent — have collaborated in celebration.

Through September, the Kaleva Art Gallery — a cooperative endeavor run by local crafters and artists — will feature a display of all its Finnish-related items for purchase.

“We put together all our local artists’ work that relates to Finland or in some cases depicts Finnish folklore,” Asiala said. “Several of the artists in the gallery have Finnish heritage, so it means a lot to them.”

One artist, Melvin Fennell, created a piece now featured on Kaleva’s prized Centennial Walkway. The work consists of three 4-by-4 foot panels painted with Finland-inspired patterns and symbols. The display, which also features a Finnish poem by Inkeri Vaananen-Jensen, is considered part of Manistee County’s Arts and Culture Alliance’s quilt trail, designed to take travelers to different historical sites in the area, each stopped marked by unique quilt patterns.

“I wanted to make a memorial to the Finlanders, the immigrants to Kaleva,” Finnell said. “I started by looking around for Nordic designs, keeping with the idea of putting a quilt pattern on the walkway.”

Two panels depict Finnish patterns while the third features a crowned lion, Finland’s coat of arms.

“My dad was a Finnish immigrant and so were my mother’s parents,” Finnell explained. “She was born a couple years after they got to this country.

“I grew up in Kaleva and have a supreme interest in the Finnish heritage, so I wanted to build something to commemorate the Finlanders,” he said. “This was my effort to do that.”

Commemorating the early settlers can be captured in the Finnish phrase “Sisu,” featured on many of the items displayed at the art gallery.

“It’s a term for perseverance, guts and determination, and that’s what the Finnish settlers who came here definitely had tons of,” Asiala said. “It was a very hard life, but the idea of being in a Finnish settlement really appealed to them.

“There was no civilization here, but they built it. And they kept their strong ties to Finnish language, culture, history.”

The Kaleva Art Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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