For the last seven years, Finland has been declared the happiest nation on the planet.

I was about to spend a month in the Finnish countryside at a writing residency to work on my third novel. Happiness wasn’t a word I usually associated with international residencies. Don’t get me wrong, they are brilliant opportunities – a privilege that not everyone has the funds or living situation to be able to access. But while they are exciting and validating as an artist, such residencies also come with a great deal of pressure.

The Finns may be the happiest people in the world, but I knew that for me, Finland would be the nation of performance anxiety.

Rachael Mead in her room at Arteles Creative Center.

In late October last year, I flew into Helsinki and spent a few days overcoming jetlag and practising my Finnish.  Duolingo had taught me the basics – how to say please, thank you and order a black coffee – along with some quirky conversational gambits such as “Is your cat a Viking?” and “I am looking for an important bear”.

After a few days absorbing the impressive architecture and design culture in the capital, I caught a train to the regional centre of Tampere, where I met up with my fellow residents as we piled into a minibus for the final leg of our journey to the Arteles Creative Center in Hämeenkyrö.

Nestled between a lake and a forest, Arteles is the epitome of an inspirational artistic environment. Each year, the centre hosts at least 120 artists from all over the world, working in every creative practice imaginable. My fellow residents included a sculptor from Scotland, a poet from India melding text and design, a novelist from Quebec, a visual artist from the south of the USA, a poet from Brooklyn, a non-fiction writer from Queensland, a spoken-word poet from Toronto, and two Taiwanese artists (a filmmaker and a visual artist working with found objects).

There was also a retired creative professional from London who had so many projects on the go he was using the residency as a chance to organise his creative life. This artist’s career proved so diverse and prolific that the filmmaker ended up focusing part of her residency on his life. Twice each day at a precise time, I would see Huren the Londoner stomp through the snow beneath my window, a contraption rigged to film himself strapped to his head, then moments later I would see her trailing behind, recording his progress.

the secret lies in allowing the breathtaking surroundings and the inspirational company to refill your creative well

The two beautiful wooden residency buildings were once the Haukijärvi village school, now converted into private bedrooms, studio spaces for visual, sound and photographic art, a meditation hall and communal areas, all designed to support creative activities and social exchange. The grounds also house a barn for woodwork, a wood-burning sauna, open space for environmental and outdoor art and, only steps away, a forest of birch, pine, spruce and alder.

My residency stretched over the whole of November, a period the Finns call “the dark month”. It’s the end of autumn – the days are short and usually the winter snow has yet to fall. We were incredibly lucky – the first snowfall occurred the day before our residency began, turning the landscape into a winter wonderland and banishing the darkness with silvery, reflected light.

Snow transformed the landscape into a winter wonderland. Photo: Rachael Mead

My room was in the smaller, yellow building, with my large windows facing south, overlooking the slowly freezing lake. Each day, the sun would rise in the bottom left corner of my window and trace a shallow arc across the sky before dipping below the horizon at the base of the window on my right.

In the long evenings, I would regularly visit the kitchen to peer through the windows facing north, holding my breath for a sight of the northern lights in the sky above the forest. The highlight of each day was reaching my word-count, pulling on my snow boots, thick jacket, gloves and beanie, and striding out into the trees, my breath huffing in tiny clouds as I hiked deep into the snow-laden woods.

The northern lights in the sky above the forest. Photo: Sheetal Sivaramakrishnan

But the beauty of the residency was not just in the surroundings, nor the inspirational company. Part of the magic is in the way it lifts you out of your regular life. All the distractions and obligations of work and family fall away. Even the time difference dislocates you from home – you are beginning work for the day just as everyone in Australia is heading to bed. There is nothing standing between you and your work.

The secondary magic lies in the gifts that flow from sinking into this intense period of focus. Everything you see and do seems to have some bearing on your project. It’s uncanny. Every book you pick up or article you read, every conversation you have, every meditation session, every walk through the forest sparks something useful.

It’s not just the space and time Arteles gives you – it’s as if the residency itself is fuelling your work.

When I arrived at this residency, I was intensely aware of the pressure to feel worthy of the privilege. I set outlandish targets and stuck to a strict routine, shutting myself away until I met my daily goals. Thankfully, with the encouragement of the staff and fellow residents, I finally became aware that I was closing the door on much of what this opportunity was offering.

This residency gives artists more than freedom from the pressures and distractions of daily life. Instead of working so intensely that you pour every drop of creative energy into the work, the secret lies in allowing the breathtaking surroundings and the inspirational company to refill your creative well. This way, the magic of the residency travels home with you, powering your creativity over the months and years to come.

Arteles’ breathtaking surroundings – and inspirational company – fill the artist’s creative well. Photo: Rachael Mead

The Arteles philosophy is simple and artistically nourishing: by focussing on the artist rather than the project, they sustain long-term creative careers.

In early December, I flew home with a suitcase full of presents and a heart full of gratitude. But the real gifts of this residency weren’t weighed with my luggage – a raft of inspiring new friends, a manuscript fat with fresh chapters and motivation coursing through me like an infusion of vitamins. And beneath it all, perhaps even a glimmer of Finnish happiness.

Rachael Mead is a South Australian writer and arts reviewer. She’s the author of the novels The Application of Pressure (Affirm Press, 2020) and The Art of Breaking Ice (Affirm Press, 2023), as well as four collections of poetry. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide, and is co-host of the Dog-Eared Readings literary events. Her next poetry collection is forthcoming with Recent Work Press in June 2024, and she is currently working on her third novel, which is a retelling of a classical myth set in the era of the Trojan War.

Room with a view at Arteles Creative Center. Photo: Rachael Mead

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