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Eestikeelsed artiklid



Rhythm Doctor


Mait Vaik

Mehis Heinsaar

August Künnapu

Vilen Künnapu

Helen Kooviste

Harry Pye



Juka Käärmann

Juka Käärmann with African ladies in Kipumbwe village, Tanzania

I have known Juka Käärmann since Nuia secondary school. At that time his versatile, Leonardo da Vinci-style talents found an outlet in skilful making and handling of bows, crossbows and arrows. When I took his bow and shot an arrow in the general direction of a big oak tree, I could see the arrow disappear high above the oak, but I did not see it come down again. The arrow has still not landed.

At first attempt, Käärmann managed to get into both the wood department of Tartu Art School and later the painting department at Tartu University. What’s more – in speciality exams he towered above everyone else. One of the examiners of the painting department, Jaan Elken, looked confused after the exam results were known, and wondered anxiously “what on earth can we teach this young person, he is a true artist already”. In a way he was right. After winning the most prestigious grant, named after Voldemar Räni, Käärmann soon gave up university work. According to him, the rhythm of life, work and studies of the school and himself did not at all fit. His teachers outside school included artist Sven Saag and his mother, the brilliant watercolourist Hülle Haab.

Juka was a complicated and controversial person already as a child. Leonardo da Vinci-like engineering skills were evident when he was merely five or six, when he began constructing small guillotines of various sizes for frogs, snails and chicken. Some secretly carried out animal experiments were even successful, but at school the devilish child-genius luckily developed a conscience and did not attempt such experiments in the future.

Puhkav mees

Juka Käärmann. Man Having a Rest.
Oil and acrylic on canvas. 106 x 137 cm 2008

As for the peculiarity of Juka Käärmann’s painting talent, it should be said that his distinct, colour-sensitive and dreamily impressionist style of painting developed quite quickly. When he joined the painting department and during a few subsequent years he completed a few dozen paintings. Every other of those pictures was and is a masterpiece of early Käärmann. During the late Käärmann period (starting approximately when he turned 30) ispiration visited him less frequently, as his demands on himself as an artist increased to an extent that he simply no longer allowed inspiration to visit. It would have been too boring a solution.

Instead, the later Käärmann preferred to wait, in certain intense stillness, for weeks, sometimes for months for genuine, now already interplanetary inspiration. During that period he ate very little, although drank vast quantities of tea and smoked a (tobacco) pipe, and almost did not blink. He is like an eagle owl who stands under a thick fir tree in broad daylight. His spirit approaches painting as if to the heart of a labyrinth with a long and elaborate structure – the spirit blunders and wanders around there with pleasure, adds a colour to a large canvas, then backs away from it, sometimes moving to another county or town, in winter even to Africa on a motorcycle... But when the artist finally, in three or six months time, gets to the centre of the labyrinth, a person, group of people, landscape or alchemical abstraction with precisely the right colour solution appears in his vision and via his hand to the canvas. In the course of one-two-three days and nights a painting is produced, transferred to the canvas with dreamlike impressionist colours; people, birds or other creatures appear in a state of relaxation or query, faces half turned towards the viewer.

Juka Käärmann. Papid

Juka Käärmann. Fathers.
Oil and acrylic on canvas. 100 x 69 cm 2008

Juka Käärmann’s suggestive and visionary language of oil paint resembles a peculiar time machine, which transfers solar system landscapes from past or future with a radius of about two hundred years into our present day. His paintings are like unfocused colour photographs or pictorial puzzles from the 19th or 23rd century.

We should definitely also mention that Juka Käärmann has equally good relations with flat and house deities and the goddess of art. Whether a hundred square metre apartment with high ceilings in Emajõgi Street in the Soup quarter in Tartu where he squatted in the 1990s, with beautiful views of the river, or later flats in Küütri, Kastani or Peetri streets, they all had highly original interior architecture, and the things that Käärmann brings to his flats are also somehow different. Entering his flat or house, you get a feeling as if his abode is located in the middle of a huge castle, and the central rooms have been almost forgotten by the castle’s real users who seem to live more in the outer sides and fringes. Time certainly seems to have stopped in the middle of the castle.

Artist Juka Käärmann’s Leonardo da Vinci life karma is evident also in the fact that in parallel with painting he has carved professionally high standard bamboo mouth harps, selling them and surviving on that during the days when the capricious goddess of painting was somewhere else, in a white cloud above an ocean or a rain forest or on Jupiter’s stormy seas. A dozen or so years ago during one of these longer painting drought he even carved a life-size door for a country house on Hiiumaa Island, between the kitchen and the living room. He did this to survive. He was paid for the work. Last summer the house was demolished, the door was taken to the new house and again installed between the kitchen and the living room. Besides making mouth harps and doors Juka Käärmann has earned his daily bread by fishing and picking berries and mushrooms, eating and selling them. Normally rather quiet, the artist likes to have a nice chat while fishing. All fishermen apparently chat, loudly and passionately like small children. Especially when fish is caught. In addition, Juka knows the ancient art of icon painting, which he learned at some point in his life with old masters in Egypt. Three of his huge icons now adorn the walls of Karlova orthodox church.

Artist Käärmann’s tenth occupation, however, has been hunger. He has been hungry in Tartu and on Hiiumaa Island, in Jõgeva, Pärnu, Järva counties, as well as at Tuhkja farm in Soomaa. He has eaten stale bread, picked up a melted ice-cream and swallowed it in one go, he drank half a bottle of warm beer from a ditch to satisfy his hunger. Once in summer on his bike from Jõgeva to Hiiumaa, he ate all the leaves off a young maple tree growing by the roadside so as to put something in his stomach. Another time I visited him unexpectedly and he received me almost carnivorously furious. When I enquired about the fury he replied that he “had not eaten for three days.” Luckily the situation did not lead to a catastrophe (I happened to have plenty of food with me).


Juka Käärmann. Gathering.
Oil and acrylic on canvas. 79 x 108 cm 2011

As seen from above, Juka Käärmann is an artist in the most Jüri Üdi-like meaning. An artist who can remain in a highly intense state while doing absolutely nothing. This can be seen, for example, in his piercing glance in the descending darkness at Kalamäe farm where he currently resides. The artist sits in the middle of his huge and mysterious room, eyes lucent in the dim room, quietly smoking his pipe. He is like an eagle owl with a pipe, who sits in a pine tree or stands under a shady fir, attentively observing the world’s bustle through the green branches. He is biding his time when he would spread his enormous wings and fly off.

Walking around in Juka Käärmann’s studio among his paintings I have on several occasions been seized by a strange feeling that such dreamlike and intense paintings with ghostly landscapes and people cannot simply exist. They are like Gauguin’s paintings that during his last year he painted on the walls of his home and that burned during the fire together with the house. And still, there they are, emanating real energy, which radiates into the viewer’s eyes and heart.

Juka Käärmann. Perekond piirivalvurid

Juka Käärmann. Family of Border Guards.
Oil and acrylic on canvas. 80 x 110 cm 2001

One of those paintings - “Beauty Lies in Simplicity” - was bought at an exhibition in Tallinn back in the Estonian crown period by an American businesswoman. The artists had consciously put an exorbitant price on the painting, 50 000 crowns, because he did not want to part with it. The buyer nevertheless eagerly paid up and took the work with her across the Atlantic.

In Estonia, Juka Käärmann has had exhibitions in Tallinn, Tartu, Valga, Põlva, Kärdla, Pärnu, Viljandi, Tõrva and elsewhere. He has also exhibited in Oslo, Berlin, Bergen, Munich and Paris. A few dozen of his paintings belong to collections owned by foreigners.

Leonardo da Vinci’s constantly seeking and wandering spirit that at the same time knew how to waste time majestically, is still flying and floating in the world, occasionally visiting another galaxy, gathering the golden dust of distant stellar clouds and returning to Earth in order to realise itself in a specific form once again via a human body and spirit. Among those who carry da Vinci’s cosmically renaissance spirit is the artist Juka Käärmann.

is a Southern Estonian writer.
See his texts in previous Epifanios.