Tree People

June 1 – September 29, 2024 | Wed-Sun 11am-4pm | Included with Museum Admission

 World Forestry Center presents Tree People, an exhibition by Finnish photographers Ritva Kovalainen and Sanni Seppo. This exhibition braids forest mythology with an almost forgotten treasure trove of customs and beliefs, portraying the sacred connection between people and trees in Finnish folk culture.

A journey through time and place, Tree People is underpinned by forest-based myths and lore that were once central to people’s lives in rural Finland, Estonia, and East Karelia. The artists spent ten years studying this material, learning the stories in this exhibition through conversation with locals, finding them in archival research, and witnessing them during their numerous travels.

Illuminating the sacred connection between people and trees.

These traditions are full of splendid tales. Place names and language carry forgotten meanings.

“When we began to explore the archives and the literature, we encountered an immensely rich spectrum of customs and beliefs, a treasure that has almost entirely disappeared from the consciousness of our own generation,” said Kovalainen and Seppo. “But it was a joy to discover that – like prehistoric fossils etched into stone – meanings created in the distant past have also left traces that have endured to the present day.”

The artists spent ten years traveling in search of people and trees that continue to hold insignia depicting these customs. “At first glance, we are presented with stunning images of trees and people standing beside them. Somehow, through the stillness of each photograph, time and custom are captured in a way that show movement – perhaps the rekindling of forest spirits and the people who cherished them,” said Stephanie Stewart Bailey, Experience Developer at World Forestry Center.

Stories and quotes partnered with the photographs provide an opportunity for the viewer to go deeper into the history, culture, and personal connection to individual trees and marked sacred forests.

Trees that were once like gods are still in our midst.

“Place names and language carry with them forgotten meanings. Trees that were once like gods are still here in our midst. There remain a few old pines that once lifted bear skulls to the heavens,” said Kovalainen and Seppo. “At the sites of sacred groves – our ancient temples – we can still feel a rustled resonance of nature’s mysterious power.”

“Spending more time with a single photograph, we realize that it’s accompanying story utterly transforms our first impression – elevating us to wonder and almost jealousy for its particular social practice and relationship.” said Stewart Bailey.

World Forestry Center seeks to amplify the voices of community members who are deepening their understanding of the interrelationship between forests and society. We are excited to feature an exhibit that highlights the longstanding cultural tradition of trees, places, and people.

Meet the Photographers

Tree People is the first product of the longstanding cooperation between Ritva Kovalainen (b.1959) and Sanni Seppo (b. 1960). Since the early 1990s, Kovalainen and Seppo have studied the themes of forest, trees, and silviculture in a versatile production: books, exhibitions, and films.

Tree People, with its mythological viewpoint, was followed by the book Silvicultural Operations (1999), reflecting on the scenic, ecological, and cultural impacts of the forestry industry in Finland. The book also explored the perceptions of Finns living near forests today on their changing surroundings. Tree People was awarded the Finland Prize by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, and Silvicultural Operations received the Literature Prize from the Finnish Art Society. Tree People has been published in Finnish, English, German, and Japanese language editions. Ritva Kovalainen’s and Sanni Seppo’s works have served as illustrations in various other publications centering on forests and trees.

Alongside other books, Kovalainen’s and Seppo’s forest art has been featured at several extensive photography exhibitions in Finland and abroad. Another jointly produced exhibition, Golden Forest (2011), deals with the relationship of humans to nature and the depletion of ancient forests.