Marvelous Mud on the Baltic Sea

Finnish Healing Bear Carving Finland
Healing Bear Carving by Athena and Kalin

Our Finland workshop took place at the edge of the Baltic sea on a small island just outside the center of Helsinki. The location was an old summer estate called Villa Svalvik, which in Finnish means “sage,” or so I was told.  Most of the meals and the evening presentations took place in an old wooden house built in 1908 and used as a summer place.  Access was by boat, there was no road til the 1950s.  In those days, it was complete with vegetable gardens, greenhouse, tennis court, all the things needed for a summer of self-sufficiency, family leisure and entertaining.

Canelo Project workshop site, Villa Svalvik
Villa Svalvik

Some years later the building was taken over by the Snellman school, which is centered on the Rodolph Steiner philosophy and has since expanded to a larger and more modern facility on the same grounds.  The original building was then taken over by the WOIMA foundation, whose description is too broad to condense here well.  For now, let me say that its focus is promoting creative and ecological values in all aspects of Finnish society and I would suspect, grounded in Steiner philosophy.  You’d think I’d know more about them after a week there, but our workshops keep us busy beyond busy.

What I do know is that the two representatives of the foundation, with whom we worked, were absolutely lovely – Katja Vilponiemi, the ever-smiling and constantly laughing, executive director and Klaus Salomaa who was the driving force and artistic visionary of our project.  They were simply marvelous to work with and the best of hosts.  Here’s a link to their website in Finnish - //  There’s always Google Translate if you want to pursue it.

Katja, Klaus, Christian
Katja and Klaus of the Foundation, Christian from Denmark

Our workshop centered on an old log building that served as the original boathouse and is being restored as a joint project between Snellman School, the WOIMA Foundation and our hosts, the Natural Building Company of Finland.  The little building is going to function as an artists’ inspirational playground providing an area for bronze sculpting, clay and wood-work.

The reason we ended up in Finland is that two years ago, our workshop in Slovakia, was attended by Paul Lynch, now from Finland, but originally from Ireland and Charlie Jespergaard, originally from Denmark, but now also from Finland.  That is the short story of how why we were in Finland doing a workshop.  Together with three other partners, they run the Natural Building Company of Finland.  Their website will give you more background on what they are doing. //

Natural Building Company Finland Straw Bale Demonstration
Straw Bale Demonstration Building by The Natural Building Company.Paul was our day-to-day host and organizers and I think it would be correct to say Charlie was the on-site guy handling the details. Like everyone who hosts us, they were most attentive, on the job and trying to take care of every detail along the way. In case you wondered I don’t say that about all our hosts, it’s just that usually it’s true.


Our arrival coincided with the finishing phases of the boathouse project.  Paul, Charlie and Company had been at work since April on the building, which for most people, would have been a “tear-down” project.  Their restoration work was nothing short of massive, but well worth it, given the building’s antiquity and the materials from which it was made.  I won’t say a whole lot more about it here other than it than the work was nothing short of miraculous.  The photo below should give some idea of the original condition.  Lars Keller from Denmark, had come earlier to build a masonry heater in the building, we came to plaster it and apply clay plaster to the interior walls.

Boat House Villa Svalvik
Original condition of the Boat House.

If the workshops we did were structured around simple exercises, interspersed with lectures, confirmation of learning, etc, they would be a snap, but in our case, there is usually a project attached.  Trying to provide an element of training while working on a project is not always easy.  It’s a difficult balance to maintain and I’m not sure we do it all that well, this project was no exception.  We came close to finishing the inside of the building, which would have been nice, but as it turned out, we were one wall short.

Villa Svalvik Restored Boat House.
The restored boat house.

So what can I tell you about the workshop?  It can seem somewhat redundant to tell you that we put clay finishes on the walls, that is certainly true, the same is true from one workshop to the next.  The mixes always vary (no detail here), we did however have beautiful clay to work with.  Very rich, fat and plastic are words that come to mind.  The clay for the base coat plasters was the common clay from Finland in combination with an assortment of colored clays from Estonia provided by Kermo Jurmann that we used for finish plasters.  The big surprise for us was the flax fiber we used in the plaster.  On past trips, the chopped fibers such as straw and hemp have been nothing short of lovely, easy and fun to use.  This time we had somewhat of a surprise.  The chopped flax fiber was full of seeds.  As you might suspect, if you mix a whole lot of seed into a clay plaster, that takes a long time to dry once applied to a wall, the seeds are likely to sprout.  And as you can guess, that was the case here.  Not a problem with a base coat plaster in that I would think the roots would provide even more structure, but a with a finish plaster they would be nothing short of a nuisance.  In short, Charlie and Paul will have some touch-up to do.

Finland Workshop, The Canelo Project
Practice boards for clay plaster.


The Canelo Project Workshop, Finland, Villa Svalvik, Clay Floor
Earth floor installation in the boat house.

It’s also an amazing thing to watch how long it can take for things to dry in Finland.  Unbelievable would be a better descriptive word.  Slow drying conditions can be quite a good thing for a lot of plaster work in that there is plenty of time to detail and finish it, however.  However, this was a tad bit too long.  Things that stick in my mind – it took two days after applying a lime plaster before it was dry enough to apply fresco color and on the front section of the chimney, where I applied a polished plaster, it was a four day process from start to finish in that the drying time was so slow between stages.  These are probably very  normal things for many northern Europeans, but for those of us from the drier parts of the planet, something far beyond our normal experience.

Canelo Project, Workshop Finland, Villa Svalvik
Masonry heater with bench and fresco wall in the background.

Apart from the plaster-work, Athena took on the building of a clay oven just outside the boathouse.  I think it was one of the great collaborations that sometimes happens spontaneously in workshops.  Various participants joined in throughout the different stages, from the foundation, the supporting base and the oven construction itself.  Notable, was the fact that it was the one thing that did dry faster than anything else.  It was fast enough that the sand mold upon which the oven was built, could be removed immediately upon completion and a fire lit inside – much to my surprise.

Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, clay oven
Clay formed and ready for building the oven.
Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Clay Oven, Villa Svalvik
Typical Finnish moment, oven building in the rain.
Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, Clay Oven
Finished oven, note the tarp still in place for rain protection.

A small clay floor and individual plaster carvings filled out the workshop agenda.  As part of the cultural requirements of the program, Paul and Charlie also included several outings to the Helsinki area.  All in all it was a very full week.  Food was great, simple breakfasts, lunch at the Snellman Steiner school cafeteria and dinners of Indian cuisine – diverse and fun.

Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, Carving Class
Class on carving plaster - The Healing Bear.
Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, Kalin Plaster Carving
Kalin busy at work.


Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, Polished Clay
Polished clay wall on front of the masonry heater.

So much happens during these weeks, many memories are created, there is much I would like to write, but this is a long enough blog as is without adding more.  I guess more than anything, if there is anything I would like to add, it would be something about the participants.  It would be possible to write at length about any of them.  One of the best things about these workshops is meeting new faces from different parts of the world.  In this workshop, beyond a few local Finnish people, we had several from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria/England and some familiar faces from France, friends from our last workshop tour.  Together, all of them could make up an entire post, as could many things from our stay in Finland.  Perhaps I can find time just to do a post of the different faces.

And of course, the French are not to be without their food.

Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Pate, Vital, Franck
Franck and Vital of France serving pates.
Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, Mushrooms
Beautiful moment cooking mushrooms by the water. Paul Lynch in the red, Charlie to his right.

We are currently in France preparing for our next workshop that starts on Wednesday.  We’ve been here for 5 days, in part resting form Finland and preparing for the workshop.  So for this trip, I offer up many thanks to Paul and Charlie, Paul’s wife Charlotta who hosted us at their home before the workshp, Klaus and Katja and all those who were a magnificent part of our lives for our Finnish adventure.

Canelo Project, Finland Workshop, Villa Svalvik, Clay Plaster
The window to France.





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  1. This post made me extremely jealous from the very first sentence. What an amazing experience and beautiful work, as usual. Thank you for letting me live vicariously.

  2. Your blogs and adventures make me smile as I read them. As someone who makes a living band aiding sick stick buildings to make them healthier and more liveable, reading about the beautiful materials and work you’re doing gives me a delightful break and vicarious thrill to say the least. Can’t thank you enough for sharing, Bill! Sending you and Athena a big hello!

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