Looking Into The Ice, Saxtons River Artist Meditates On Winter

Jan 14, 2016

Honoring his Finnish roots, Saxtons River painter Eric Aho partakes in the tradition of sitting in a steamy outdoor sauna in the wintertime and then jumping into the waters of a frigid pond to cool down.

Before jumping in, Aho must carve a hole in the ice — called the avanto — and after years of practicing this tradition, one day Aho really looked at the colors, reflections and shape of the hole in the ice, went back to his studio and painted.

Almost 10 years later, Aho's "Ice Cuts" is a series of these oil paintings on exhibit at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Aho recently spoke with VPR about his works, which he says, "serve as a meditation on winter focusing on a very real thing that, through painting, becomes uncannily and surprisingly abstract."

What do the paintings in the Ice Cuts series look like?

"A viewer would walk into the gallery, at the Hood Museum in particular, and see straight ahead a large painting of a hole in the ice, a square-cut hole in the ice with piles of snow and some debris of ice around it and then the very center being very dark chasm of green."

The installation of Eric Aho's 'Ice Cuts' exhibit at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College.
Credit Alison M. Palizzolo

What do the holes represent?

"The hole is called the avanto. It's the hole in the ice in front of the Finnish sauna. So after the heat of the sauna, one jumps into this frigid water to sort of experience the extreme of that cultural experience, which also reminds us of the extremes or nature. It's something that my family has maintained to the present day. It's an ancient and long-standing Finnish tradition and something that I've been proud to carry over with my family."

Do you paint from memory or do you photograph the avanto or ice cuts and then paint?

"I work from memory and it took a long time before I realized that this would become the subject for painting. I mean, it wasn't the point originally. The point was that it would cool you off after a sauna. I had no idea that I would get into a series of paintings now almost 10 years long. In this case, one day, I was looking at it — maybe because of the repeated shock of the cold water — I thought, 'This might be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.' And then I went back in the studio and I started painting it. I'd already been cutting it and using it as a cultural artifact of Finnish culture for almost eight or nine years and then I realized it would become a painting."

As the years and the series progressed, did the Ice Cut paintings ever come to have another meaning for you on the canvas?

"That's sort of the amazing mystery of what a painting can do. In reality, it's a 3-foot by 4-foot hole in the ice. And then by the time it gets onto the canvas and the painting has progressed and the series has progressed it becomes surprisingly varied and it starts to remind me of minimalist and abstract paintings. That's a further curiosity for me because, you know, I don't paint that way."

"The hole is called the 'avanto'. It's the hole in the ice in front of the Finnish sauna. So after the heat of the sauna, one jumps into this frigid water to sort of experience the extreme of that cultural experience, which also reminds us of the extremes or nature." — Eric Aho

"One of the things that is most exciting to me about cutting the ice each week is looking at this trapezoid in the ice is the color. There's the prismatic effects of light around the edges of the ice: Turquoises and weird yellows and blues and grays and crazy things that have to do with the angle of light and physics and bending of light rays — things I don't understand at all. Then there's the color of the open water, which is sometimes reflective like a mirror, can reflect the sky, sometimes it's strange shades of blue or it can look like oil, it can look like velvet. It can look dry as opposed to wet! It has all sorts of bizarre qualities, maybe because I'm just open to what it might offer me."

'Ice Cut (Arctic Sky)' is an oil on linen painting by Eric Aho which represents the hole cut into the ice, used as part of the Finnish tradition, to jump into the frigid water after a hot sauna.
Credit Rachel Portesi

Any challenges or surprise while painting this series?

"It's been the most unusual thing to watch these layers sort of change ... And in a way, it shows that the painting kind of keeps on painting itself. It's out of my hands now. The painting is essentially dry but one area will soak into a subsequent layer. Strangely, it reveals greater depth to these dark, black areas and a greater range of nuance that I could never have intended nor could I have painted. In a way, they have a life of their own, like nature and ice and, you know, the paint transforms the material experience. Paint is just wet glue, really, and it's that glue that I have this abiding belief in that it connects us to the real world, no matter how odd or unusual or loosely-formed that world is. Paint is that glue. And water, of course, is that ever-changing element."

Artist Eric Aho, reflected in the water inside an ice cut.
Credit Rachel Portesi

How has a warmer winter affected your sauna practice?

"Because I make these paintings in the studio, I can still make them without three feet of snow on the ground or a deep freeze. Because they are constructs of the imagination. It's that kind of play between what's real, what's invented, what's imagined and what's remembered that I find fascinating."

"Ice Cuts" is at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College through March 13.