My life as a foreign-born artist in Finland during the Coronavirus outbreak by Louise Charles-Saarikoski

I am a full-time artist originally from the UK making my living from creating and selling my art from my studio in Helsinki. This is my account of how the Coronavirus has affected me and my business.

Through the door of my studio comes commission orders for dog portrait paintings and people interested in paintings they have seen on display in the window or from my website. I have had an email newsletter for years and have recently been increasing my following on social media to promote my art to buyers overseas and keep in touch with my collectors. This combination of a physical studio and online presence gives me enough income to be fully self-employed and earn my sole income as an artist.

The beginning of 2020 was a little quieter than usual, but picked up during February with some very nice commission orders and the sale of my largest painting to date which meant by the beginning of March I had sold more than during the same period in 2019. I had a better plan for what I would do for this year than at any previous time and was really looking forward to further developing my art business in the direction I would like it to go this year.

I sent a painting to a town near the City of Milan in Northern Italy in February. Like a lot of collectors, they contacted me when they received the painting and said how pleased they were with it and very happy it had arrived just before the lockdown! I did not really know what they meant by ‘lockdown’, although the news was starting to contain reports about the spread of the Coronavirus in Northern Italy, I thought they were being over dramatic! However, it was not to long before the word ‘lockdown’ became familiar and in general use each day.

At that time, I could not imagine I would not be visiting my studio because of a ‘state of emergency’ in Finland. But here we are with lockdown, social distancing, stay home all familiar words and phrases used in our everyday life.

As reality hit home, I felt like a deer in the headlights, not knowing what to do, which way to turn, but at the same time trying not to panic… Did I really need to take all my

painting equipment home? Would I need to transport my studio easel home? Did I need to think long term about working from home, because how would I pay the studio rent and the other regular invoices that must be paid each month?

My first week at home I spent on my computer. Making adjustments to my website which I never had time to do before and making sure my items for sale online were optimized. I was deleting images from my phone and laptop, but all the while thinking about what I could do to still earn some money. However, I was really hoping this was just going to be a blip and I could just go back to my usual routine!

As it dawned on me going back to normal anytime soon was not doing to happen, I decided I could offer to do portraits but in pencil which I could easily do from home and started to write the blog post to promote this to my audience. This went into my newsletter and I also promoted it on Facebook and especially on Instagram, where I ran a giveaway to launch it. I am happy to say I can call this a success! I gained many new followers in my target audience and got a closer relationship with a lot of my existing followers. I did a work in progress of the winning portrait on social media and the winner was excellent at sharing this among their own followers. All this was time consuming but kept me focused and stopped me worrying about the invoices that would need paying in the coming weeks. The pencil portrait orders came in giving me something fresh to put on my website and social media, and an opportunity to show my skill as an artist. It gave me a little bit of income and some time to think what I really should be doing with this ‘social distancing’ time. The beauty of working for yourself is you can decide and change something almost instantly to suit the current situation. Once the pencil portrait offer is over end of​ ​April I will continue with my series of ‘Hare and Hound’ paintings which I was always fitting around commissions. Now I should enjoy the opportunity to work on them almost full-time, and ready to sell as soon as we have some kind of normality.

Here are some of the other challenges I have faced during these changing and difficult times. My current oil commissions are at a standstill as work in progress, but clients are very understanding and as far as they are concerned, I can take as long as it takes to complete them. I had one finished painting waiting to go which I knew was for a birthday gift in April. My clients were in Northern Italy skiing for two weeks mid-February and were in quarantine when they came back. After the quarantine time we agreed I would deliver the painting to them at home. My client came outside to receive the painting and it was handed over at arm’s length. Within an hour I had an email saying how happy they are with the painting and really appreciated me going out of my way to deliver it to them.

By mid-March, I had no new enquires for commission work and my online sales had completely stopped. However, I had a couple of small orders during the second week of April from the USA. I checked the Posti website, but it was vague about deliveries to a lot of countries, so I checked the Royal Mail website in my home

country the UK, and they were sending to the US, so I thought it would be the same from Finland. With my fingers crossed I thought all would be well and I hurried to my studio for the first time in several weeks to pack them up. It was around 14:00 on a Wednesday and it was like Christmas at our local Posti. When it was eventually my turn, I was told Posti is not accepting any mail for the US. They would only take mail destined for Europe and… China! I was quite devastated, but not completely surprised. As there is no information as to when this situation is likely to change, I contacted my customers and refunded their money as I could not full fill their orders in the foreseeable future. Ironically, the following day I started to get enquires about my pencil portrait offer from Canada and the US. At least I could give accurate information about the postal situation and I agreed to come back to them when we get back to normality, whenever and whatever that will be.

After having to refund money and unable to take new orders from these overseas customers, I decided I had to ask my landlord for help with the rent of my studio. Luckily, the building is owned by Helsinki City and already in the media had been reported they were giving a rent holiday to small businesses, such as hairdressers and restaurants. I wrote directly to my rental contact to ask if my small business would qualify for this rent holiday too. A couple of days later, I got the reply yes, a rent holiday for 3 months – hurrah! That helped to relieve some of the stress. I have also registered with the TE office to see if I qualify for the unemployment benefit, they are offering to entrepreneurs without having to shut down their businesses. If I get this benefit it will be enough to see me through the next few months, if I do not receive it then I will have to find new ways to enable me to continue my art as a business.

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Louise Charles-Saarikoski is an oil painter specialising in dogs and hounds. A lot of her work is commission based, but when not working on these she is creating paintings which feature her adopted dog. These works are growing in popularity and she is currently working on a ‘Hare and Hound’ series. She sells her art from her studio in Helsinki and online, and her paintings can be found in collections around the world.

Louise’s studio was part of Helsinki’s Night of the Arts official programme 2019. She is a member of HIAA (Helsinki International Artists Association) and has exhibited her art in several of their exhibitions. She exhibited works from 2012-2017 with TWASI (The Wildlife Artists Society International) at Nature in Art Museum in the U.K.