Artist Mika Kailes on overcoming adversity: “When times are tough, you produce something great”

The visual artist sits down with HUNGER to discuss his journey from rural Finland to full-time artist in the big city.

30-year-old Mika Kailes’ career in the arts began as a leap of faith. He departed his rural hometown in the southeast of Finland to study Russian Language and Culture at the University of Glasgow in search of more appealing career prospects. However, as a creative at heart, Kailes quickly felt like a fish out of water amongst the academic restrictions of the course and decided to pursue his burning passion for photography and visual art. In a decision that would ultimately transform his trajectory, Kailes transferred to Central Saint Martins to study Fashion Communication and Promotion. The talent could finally flex his artistic muscles, particularly with his first exhibition, Visceral Bodies, on which he collaborated with the designer Fredrik Tjaerandsen. 

The 2021 exhibition saw Kailes explore the transcendent qualities that clothing and fashion can provide, almost becoming extensions of our own bodies. Since then, the artist’s career has only gone from strength to strength. Kailes’ passion is now his full-time job, and on November 11th, he’ll be gearing up for his latest endeavour, club are – an audiovisual experience combined with a club night that Kailes hopes to become a continuous event highlighting various artists. 

Here, Kailes discusses why collaboration is key for his process, finding creative confidence, and much more…

Hey Mika! Let’s get straight into it. Could you just tell me a bit about your upbringing? I know you grew up in Finland. What was that experience like?

Kailes: I’m originally from the southeast of Finland, from a really small town close to the Russian border. Being creative was very challenging because opportunities were very limited. So, I really had to work my way up in the UK. I’ve tried studying quite a few different things, and where I ended up later studying Fashion Communication at Saint Martins. It was a very long journey. I was living in Scotland for a few years, and from there, I ended up in London. So it’s been an unplanned, long journey, but I’m thankful for how things have panned out. I was always into creative things and the arts, but it was, again, very limited to what I was able to do back home.

Were your family members always supportive of you wanting to pursue something creative?

Kailes: I think, to an extent, yes. I had to prove to them that I could do it for a long time because my parents are a bit older and from a small town. I really had to go against the grain and ‘the norm’, but I think I was lucky with my parents. Not in the beginning, but later, when they saw that I was on to something, they started to be quite supportive. In that way, I am thankful. 

What was it like coming to the UK and adapting, in comparison to Finland?

Kailes: The first time I felt at home was when I moved to London and when I lived in Glasgow. I felt at home in London because it’s so multicultural, and you can make your own home and reality there. Everyone’s from everywhere. It helped me to be who I am and live the life that I want. I haven’t looked back since. 

Do you remember the first moment that you realised that being creative was like your path? Was there a particular moment that triggered that realisation?

Kailes:I was around 15, and I started being active online on places like Tumblr, DeviantArt, and a few other pages where I suddenly found my world. So, in a way, I think these moments were the first time I felt like I had a voice and people were responding to that. I started posting some series of self-portraits, and I was a really insecure, shy, almost emo kid, and that was the moment that I started to really follow that path. 

So, photography and visual arts is now your full-time job?

Kailes: Yeah, I do photography artist work mainly. I have a background in fashion photography, but recently, I’ve been taking steps even further towards fine arts. At the moment, I’m also working on this event series, which is a cross between curating an exhibition and a club night.

How would you describe your creative process? Is there a particular place where you feel most comfortable? 

Kailes: It’s quite collaboration-oriented. I enjoy working with people, so different artists, dancers and movers, and I like connecting the dots. That becomes my strength sometimes. Even as a photographer, I like to work with a really interesting designer or stylist. I think that the core of my artistic process is working with people. And so you focus on your strength and let them focus on theirs and let that be the outcome. 

How would you describe your style of art and photography?

Kailes: I like something that is quite visceral, something you can’t really describe in words, something that you get a natural response and reaction to. I like images that stop you. You can’t really pinpoint why, and I like the abstractness. 

Having a career around creativity can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Oftentimes, there can be a lot of doubt over whatever it is that you’re producing. Is that something you struggle with?

Kailes: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes, I wonder how you can get even better if you don’t doubt yourself. Being an artist is a constant struggle in a way because you battle with not being enough and how to create something like new meaningful work. I feel like you have to be almost this sort of perfectionist, but also, is it enough?

Do you have a process at all for getting out of those situations where you’re not feeling so confident?

Kailes: Sometimes you have to keep going and keep experimenting and playing. I think it’s important not to forget the play and enjoyment in work. Also, with creative work, if you force it, the fewer results you get, so sometimes you have to have moments when you’re not producing in the same way. Maybe it’s important to stop for a second, but that is challenging as well because it’s like we’re living in a world where we have to keep producing.

What’s the most fulfilling experience you’ve had so far in your career? Is there one  moment that stands out? 

Kailes: When I was doing my final year, around two years ago. Doing all that work during the pandemic was interesting, but it was a really challenging time. And we had such restricted facilities, but then I still pulled out an exhibition out of it. So it’s interesting how when the times are tough, you produce something great. It’s something that I always look back to, and how I turned something quite difficult into something good. 

What advice would you give to someone who was maybe in your position a few years ago and just setting off on this journey?

Kailes: It’s important to listen to yourself and find your people. I think it’s so much about the community and finding yourself and your voice. Just listen to or take feedback, communicate, show your work, and be really open. Any creative process starts with sharing.

Do you have anything exciting coming up for the rest of the year or coming months into early next year that you can talk to us about? 

Kailes: The end of the year is the event series, club are, that I’m working on. I’m bringing many of my collaborators from the photography and art worlds into that. It is a club series where each edition is focused on selected artists, and then we create this audiovisual experience. I’m really excited about that and also seeing where that takes me. When you do that once, it might become a regular, continuous thing, and it’s interesting to start a new chapter with work.

WriterChris Saunders