02 May Miling Wikstrøm – in her own words…..
“Art is definitely in the heart of our conversation. As a gathering point, or a place where it all started and all ends, the heart of the tribe, my biography is all linked to that in an underlying way”.
I have carried an artist within me, in my heart and soul, in my eyes and fingers all my life. Not before 2016 did I dare to take the leap and paint full time. From then I devoted all my time to progress as an artist and plan my next moves to get ahead in the art world.
I paint figuratively in oil. As I have progressed as a painter I’ve experimented with merging the figurative with the abstract. I’m a single mum, it’s not an easy mix – to paint is hard labour. Oil is also a challenging medium as it somehow “lives its own life”. When you sit down to draw with a pen and paper, you have control. When you paint in oil you have to consider so many things, like the chemical reaction between the mediums and pigments, the effect they have on each other, it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. Before my commitment to paint full time, the artist in me was expressed regularly through drawing and painting at home, mostly drawing. I have done a bit of art here and there up through my whole life. In 2016 I started to study with a professor of art, but it was too expensive for me to carry on studying with him for long.
I’m 48 now and I have to put all shyness and fear of failure aside to get my art out there, and I am proud of what I have achieved since my commitment. Six months after my decision to just paint, I had a big painting on display in the window of a small gallery in Oslo, but the window was big and perfectly placed on the west side of Oslo. And only after 3 years of mostly intense self study and painting towards my solo exhibition, I was already taken in and sold in a well established gallery in Oslo.
I want to break apart from my old ideas of “pretty” and “perfect”, and find that expression that is uniquely mine. That might sound like a contradiction since a lot of people have commented on me only painting nice, pretty looking women. It’s true, my favorite subject is the woman and the female body. And I do tend to paint from photos of pretty, young faces or bodies. I do like beauty. But, I need there to be an expression, a feeling, and that might not always be a “pretty” or a “nice” one. I want to show the vulnerability or catch an underlying emotion within the subject I paint. I have to dig deep, search both my heart and soul and grab what I find there, get it out, into my work. I think somehow I can’t find my style, my style will automatically find me. And is forming and shaping as I work. Is work in progress, it always is.
“My life is a bit like a travelling circus”.
I have a very unique life journey – I’ve seen life from most places in society, from the dark, destructive corners of a human life to the positive, strong and successful ones. This has given me the ability to be a bit like a human chameleon, I can adapt to most settings. I think it is exciting to be able to move between total opposites of society and still feel I am free of being “captured” into belonging in one special, social group. I want to be a fee moving entity. The free moving artist that can recognise and connect with all, and find inspiration for my work from such a varied life experience.
I grew up in a very colourful home. My mum is Norwegian and my dad is a Romany Gipsy born in Ukraine. I grew up with professional musicians both on my dad and mom’s side. From early childhood I stood on the side of the stage watching my closest family members perform. My mother wanted to follow the arts or a music career but was told that by her traditional Norwegian parents these were silly ideas she had to put away. She was stopped from following both her abilities and dreams. She sacrificed it all because she felt obliged work for her father in his printing factory. So she did music on the side by starting an “all girl band” in the Sixties. She wrote and arranged songs and is the lead singer. They are still playing. Her brother was a well recognised jazz musician, because of him she grew to be a well respected bandleader in the underground blues scene in Oslo.
My grandmother is the Gypsy actress and singer Raya Bielenberg. She is a well known and celebrated artist. She joined a theatre troupe when she was young in Ukraine and took her two children, my father and my aunt, and moved to join the Theatre Romen in Moscow. Here she soon grew to be the diva of the theatre, she looked like a dark version of Brigitte Bardot. She headlined films in Moscow and one day a Norwegian journalist booked an interview with her. In a way that was the start of “the story of me”. It took him 5 years to persuade her to come to Norway and marry him. He had ended up in debt due to a series of family bereavements and nearly lost his big, family house. Raya went on tour in Europe with her guitar, singing traditional Gypsy songs, to make the money to cover his debts. She performed in the Paris cabarets, toured in the States, India, Eastern Europe and even Arabia. She was invited to lush parties in Paris where she met Elizabeth Taylor and other stars. Later she was filmed on her travels to India where she had a meeting with Indira Gandhi. After an evening performing for Omar Sharif in a Paris cabaret, he started a fan club for her! She has had documentaries and a book made and written about her. In Oslo she started a gypsy festival that has been running for 20 years. Even the prime minister and members of the Norwegian royal family have been exclusive quests at the festival, which is called ‘Yagori’.
Until this day the only place she feels she really lives, is on stage.She has such an energy and awakens admiration and enthusiasm in her audience when she performs.
My background has given me a grand colour palette, a wide spectrum, a big playground, I have this strength from the Gypsy side and the very traditional Norwegian culture on the other side.
Growing up in urban Oslo, my friends were very traditional. Their homes and families were all very standard. Coming to our garden apartment was different, the door was always open, no one had to take their shoes off. A pretty wild playground for all. So my family stood out in this A4 environment. My dad came from Russia to Oslo in 1967. He had long, black hair and was the only gipsy in the hippy scene in Oslo. He would sit in the park with the other hippies in the Sixties, playing guitar. Nothing was by the book in my home, it was an open house for hippies, musicians, artists. My sister is 4 years younger than me, she studied to be a doctor. She followed the safe and traditional route. We come from the same background, but I’m different to her. I feel like I must have fallen into the cauldron of creative talents, like Obelix, from the french comic book series. I had so many abilities. As a young girl it actually became a burden, to feel I had so many abilities to choose from, so many things that came easy to me and with this came quite a lot of energy and passion that became difficult to channel. I also from a very young age had quite a critical mind and did not just accept whatever was told me, I asked questions. I needed to feel it made sense on a deeper level. My creative talents, with no lead, turned into a pain and became a confusion, weighing heavy on my young shoulders.
Expressing myself drawing was something I needed to do, it would in a way express and shape all that creative noise from inside.
As a teenager I opened a book we had at home about Rembrandt. It gripped me. I could study his paintings for ages. And I recognised something. Something undefinable in me, It gave me such a feeling to study his paintings, a connection. I did my first oil painting then. Quite funny, I found out later, that how I built up my first oil painting, without having read or being taught anything, was right. Like for example the famous rule “fat over lean”. Like it somehow was already in my fingers, in my genes.
Maybe it is something I have taken with me from an earlier life?
Addiction and Awakening
I was drawing a lot as a child and I could naturally draw well. It was something I understood and mastered. To be the drawer with my pencil, was a role I felt comfortable in.
At the same time I was tormented with these strong emotions and a very observing, critical mind, so rather than pursuing my abilities in art by going into an art education. I killed all this creative energy and whirlwind of emotions, with heroin. And so started a 16 year long addiction. I had the mind, the view, the emotions of an artist, but I didn’t have the art scene around me, no one guided me that way. I didn’t think true artists existed any more. I lived in the suburbs of Oslo, surrounded by friends that were quite conforming, they accepted the boring urban life and didn’t question traditional education. I didn’t just reject the norms, I opposed them. I was the pupil that asked a lot of questions. When I wanted to do well at school, it was easy, the problem was that I didn’t see the deeper purpose and found it all boring. No one talked about art. The only story I heard about artists, was that they belonged to history, were poor and died before their art made money. Now, I know this is a false portraying of art history. Most known artists flourished at some point in their artistic life.
I wasn’t yet eighteen when the child care department forced me into rehab. I kept running away. They were truly challenged by how to tame the wild child I was back then. My social caretaker asked me: “Miling? How can we get you away from Oslo and what inspires you?” I said i wanted to go to London and do art classes with my cousin. We had always had a strong relationship, we were like sisters. She moved to London in the late Punk era and fell in love with a Londoner, so she moved there. Like me she had talents in the arts, we would draw together. She started studies at St.Martins School of Art. The Norwegian social department bought me a first class ticket to London. I remember the plane ride faintly as I was out of my head on heroin, my “last dose” before a clean life in London. So I was half asleep the whole journey. In the comfortable first class coupe it was only me accompanied by the Seventies glam rock band, Kiss. I remember one member of the band sitting next to me looking a bit worried and offering me a Coca Cola. I still had quite a round “baby face” and that was probably a weird mix, with this “drugged down” expression the heroin gave me.
My cousin and her boyfriend lived in a run down flat in Kilburn. They had a funny, young gang of friends. In the evening the joints would be passed around and the guys would jam and us girls would talk or draw, it took me away from all other drugs and most importantly heroin.
My cousin’s boyfriend and his friends had started a spiritual quest and that got him to read about the ancient Brotherhood of The Essenes. They found out, in the pursuit of this newly awakened interest, that a group called the Brotherhood of the Essenes had re-appeared and had started small gatherings with the purpose of awakening mankind into a more aware way of living, a preparation for the changing to a higher awareness in the Aquarian Age. They held Solstice and Equinox rituals in Glastonbury. So my cousins the little gang of friends followed the Brotherhood to Glastonbury and took part in a ritual here. I just went along. Some of us drove down in a van. I knew very little what it was all about, it was in 1988, I was 17. I remember we all sat in the Brigid chapel. I remember it as both mysterious and atmospheric. The little room was candlelit, clad in dark oak. In came the Brotherhood, men and women in long purple robes, to the tones of an ancient hymn, and with a smell of heavy, sweet incense that filled the little, old chapel. The underlying message of their gatherings was about valuing, respecting and coexisting peacefully with the Animal Kingdom, and to inform others that man must avoid eating flesh, or no peace will come to earth. As by killing our fellow beings with such immense torturing methods on a grand scale, destructive. dark energies are kept alive on this earth.
At midnight the ceremony continued at one of the levels surrounding the Tor. I will always remember the charismatic, high priest. Such a peaceful, loving old man with an incredible good energy. It was a powerful experience. I had my own personal spiritual awakening during this trip to Glastonbury. It made me understand life from a deep perspective, very clearly. Like a bolt of lightning. It was also very painful. I was still so young and my attraction to the drugs wasn’t done. I became overwhelmed with this spiritual awakening and didn’t know how or where to channel it, or find like minded people. When I came back to Norway I fell straight back to the crowd, my old friends that were using, back into the heroin addiction. I was back to numbing myself.
As humans we are so vulnerable and inclined to adapt to the influences from our surroundings, sometimes without asking questions. Quite often I think we don’t check in with ourselves what we truly want to achieve with this life, we just follow the crowd. We go with what is secure, or follow family traditions. A lot of people’s choices seem haphazard, yes it’s your choices, but what flavoured you to make those choices? Was it fear of not fitting in? Did you just go with what was most “acceptable”, what created the least critical reactions from your family and friends? Or did you pursue something you were truly interested in, even if a bit original? I suppose we can’t all be so lucky to do that. When it comes to the wide use of substances, legal or illegal, abuse or use. I believe a lot has to do with our personal neurology and chemical “build up”. The link between our apparent “weaknesses” and chemical imbalance. The responses between our neurons are very different in each and every one, so how come we have built a society where the general structure is built around “one size, fits all”?
My relationship to Glastonbury was very strong from that first trip. So I kept coming back. The first years I was still an addict, but I never scored here, I have never known that side of Glastonbury and will never. Still as an addict I came as a spiritual pilgrim. I had a heavy heroin addiction for 16 years. For four of those years I lived in France with a professional gypsy jazz guitarist. He had a lot of gigs and sometimes I would perform with him and sing on stage. I stood there on stage in my long gipsy skirt and a flower in my very long hair and heavily under the influence. He is quite famous now. I lived with him in caravans, in gipsy camps with his family in France. One caravan was so old and cold, we had to heat it by putting a light to a gas-like liquid we poured into a pan. A big flame would spark up from the tin pan and instantly heat the little caravan, but it smelled awful. I really have been in the most interesting situations, but, sadly I don’t remember half of them. When you live like that you just ride with the storm, day by day, when you have no kids, nothing to be responsible for.
After some years in France I ended up in London. I followed my Norwegian male friend. He had found out that we could get all the drugs we wanted from the private doctors after paying them a substantial fee. First I lived in a very posh flat in Mayfair with him, then in Park lane, he knew how to make money, the illegal way. When I broke up with him I became homeless, with a new English boyfriend, for four years. I was skin and bone, I was begging on the streets. I used to hang out and sleep on friends’ floors in the Notting Hill area. One day, I remember it so well, I was right next to Paula Yates in a fairly empty street. She looked at me, I looked at her. It was like she wanted something. Now, I know what the recognition was: a human in the despair of addiction. Always when I came into detox centers I would start to draw and my fellow patients would admire that I could draw well.
My boyfriend and I had a gleam of light shining in our lives, we got put into a hostel to get housed. I started to cook and eat. We kept away from our gang of villains and users. We were on prescription drugs. Then I got pregnant. I was determined to get clean, I wanted to do it immediately, but it was a four year journey. Then, after many years in addiction, I was free of everything. It was the Twelve Step programme that really helped me get there. I replaced drugs with the gym and food. Never have I eaten so much. My body screamed for something, I gave it the healthy solution. My Twelve Step friends were spiritually orientated – it’s all to do with “letting go and letting God”. You can get fearful about the word God, but then you realise it’s a wider term, a force of the universe, whatever that means to you. We would talk about self growth, spiritual issues. I came back to Norway, worked in a Wholefood shop, did the Twelve Step meetings, led a normal life .And started education to be an illustrator.
The heroin was 20 years ago, it’s like another life, a past life. I feel like I’ve lived two lives in one.
We all walk through life trying on different hats. I was always holding the artist hat in my hand. I almost tried to kick the artist out of my life. I had a son, I thought to be an artist would be irresponsible and definitely not pay the bills. I had to be sensible, to earn money. I’d studied illustration and interior design. When I finished my studies it was actually really like the artist that was trying to be something else. I was looking for jobs as an interior designer. It was all about financial security as I was a single mum. Even Illustration seemed like an irresponsible path to choose, as the good and well paid jobs are far and few between . I spent six months tormenting myself, applying for jobs, going for interviews, never being chosen. Looking back is so clear it was not me. It was like my potential employers could see it was the totally wrong place for me to be.
After some time job searching I was really getting frustrated and even went to see an NLP coach to ask for guidance. I felt I wanted to enlighten the ignorant. I cut the whole idea of being employed to becoming self employed, which suited me much better. I started a magazine from scratch, for young women focusing on environmental fashion and skin products. I became editor-in-chief. We published articles that gave them something to think about in terms of values and approach to life, something a bit deeper. I called up friends from my design studies – illustrators, graphic designers. Through the style of the magazine we wanted it show that environmental awareness could also be cool, attractive, colourful. That a fashion magazine that was not all about boobs or how to stay slim. It was a go from the start. I travelled around Norway, getting ads and sales to retailers. I got the models and celebrities to be interviewed. We were printing 5000 copies, so it wasn’t huge, but my carrot to the advertiser was it was a Green magazine for Green designers. We got enough funds to publish four editions, but then decided to close it down.
I didn’t have an education in journalism, or come from that background, I’d never been the boss of anything. The business had functioned, people liked the magazine, but I needed more investment to pay people properly, become more professional, get a proper office. I could have pulled it off, but I would have had to give my all to it, and my heart wasn’t in it. It taught me I have organisational talents, it sharpened up that side of me. But, again, the universe told me I was looking in the wrong direction. Organizational skills maybe, good at delegating and many good ideas. But, no I was no business woman. Deep down I was only one thing, the artist.
In 2014 I felt I was tired of running around trying different roles that weren’t really me. On my way to start my third company, my doctor suggested I take time off to think and rest. It had become clear to me I was an ambitious person with the need to use my overload of talents, I felt anything else would be self sabotage.Like I had a snobbery towards not wanting to be put in roles underneath my abilities, but to rather really grow and shine in what talents I had been gifted with. I’d done education, I had made a lot of good healthy friends, but there was a growing part of me that had a need to succeed. To mould my inner ability to perfection, well enough to be recognized and praised for it. Funny, the name Miling has only belonged to one woman before me, she is dead. She was an acknowledged tapestry artist.
My attitude was “I was dropped in a pot when it comes to having abilities, I’m not leaving this place without being recognised for it”. I started painting more and more. First I painted some small paintings in acrylic and booked a marked stall on the west side of Oslo. I took 13 small, not very expensive paintings and sold 10. While I was standing there exhibiting my paintings, there was one of those odd moments, what I call a boost from the Universe. Suddenly a Chinese girl bought two of the paintings, she wanted an autograph and to have her photo taken with me, like I was some famous person, at the same time two Americans also bought the biggest of the paintings and was also making a bit of a fuss about me. Obviously it was a big confidence boost and a lot of fun. But first and foremost I took it as the Universe wanting to tell me something. Not long after, I saw an ad, someone wanting a portrait of their grandchild, I offered to do it. went and bought a linen canvas, did the painting in 3 days, he was very happy with it and paid me £300. I was in the right place, where I belonged.
Quite early on I reached out to the famous norwegian painter Vebjorn Sand, I had heard him speaking in an interview and there was so much of what he said that I recognized. After the way I have lived I am not shy, I don’t feel I have anything to lose. If I want to get ahead I will do what it takes. Anyway I wrote to him, and because I had done some studies with a professor he highly admired, he responded. The purpose of contacting him is that he had a lifetime of experience living the life as a successful artist. I wanted to connect with someone that had experience. I believe you mark out where you want to be by the people you connect with. After a very long time I was invited to his big studio in a secret location. He is currently working on a huge million kroner art project to be set up in Oslo in May. I sat there, watching him paint, getting to ask questions and listen to his experienced advice. At some point he said “ You’re an old soul”. Then he turned from his painting to look at me “Actually, you’re one of the oldest souls I have ever met!” My response was: “Well, that might be, but it is a bit embarrassing dumping life’s classes again and again and being put back here in the body!” He said; “Maybe it is the painting. Maybe you’re here to fulfill that role once and for all”.
It was then I moved to my Grandmother’s house and lived in the attic studio for free, I was finally able to throw myself fully into art. That is when I made a commitment to my painting, I firmly believed in that choice and never looked back. When I finally took the decision to be an artist I felt I was at home. From then I called myself an artist and had no qualms about that, I felt some people did. They expect you have done solid art education and have a long record of exhibitions and have public acceptance, to earn that title. I knew in my heart and soul I earned that title, that was enough for me. It just went on a roll from there.
My aim as a painter is to leave an impression with the viewer, an impression that gives an emotional reaction or recognition. I want to portray the human expression, our vulnerable sides, our longings, our anger. Through the language of a body, or facial expressions. I love painting faces, especially eyes and give them an emotional ‘shine’ of something it is not so easy to put a word to. I love it when I achieve it, to create an image of a person that somehow tells a story to the viewer. At the same time I love to experiment with colours and textures, so I am trying to merge the abstract and the figurative.
I realised I needed a goal and decided I would put on a solo exhibition in 2018 in Oslo. I did feel people were doubtful, I’d just started to paint. I think a lot of people thought I wasn’t educated as an artist, so how could I expect to have a solo exhibition? I hired my own venue, I marketed it well on facebook, towards the opening night a hundred people had put “coming” on Facebook. That made me nervous, but they didn’t all show up. I sold three paintings, all in the first ten minutes of the show. After that I kept that great venue for a while and basically had my own gallery for about six months.
I had a great problem selling my own paintings. I started to contact the established galleries. I took my most popular painting, a painting many visitors to the gallery had been commenting on and which had been very nearly sold on many occasions, to a good gallery in Oslo. I persuaded the manager to exhibit it, even though I was unknown, in a gallery where everyone else was known. It sold within a week. They offered me a place in a Women’s Exhibition with other artists who were all established. I went to the opening and one of my paintings had sold already. All these things were like a vindication.
Fire Under My Feet
I am willing to pull in every necessary thread to get where I want to with my art, alongside painting you need to have the confidence and guts to succeed. The best artists are often not the famous ones, but the ones with most will to share their story, both the good and bad side. The ones who understand that art is also business, this may be sad, but it’s a sad truth you need to accept. To get acknowledgment, I feel like I have fire under my feet, coming to this heavy chore, having to catch up very quickly. Knowing when to stop is an art in itself, I’ve destroyed paintings trying to add the extra little touch that would make it perfect.
In general I love painting and have a great passion for it. Sometimes it is almost daunting to start off my painting day as I know I will go into a zone that requires all of me. People who don’t paint really can’t imagine what a hard and draining labour it is, next to being so full of passion and joy. The joy of shaping with your higher inspiration. Where does inspiration come from? Musicians, writers and artists have asked throughout history. The answer lies beyond what we can express with words. The more you let go and let your inner or higher knowledge take over, the better the painting becomes. Is is like a task between God, a higher force and me, I need to let go and concentrate at the same time. Concentrate on what my higher inspiration is wanting to tell through me, a holy space between me and the painting. Where I’m in communication with the Higher Force. It’s why painters were seen as blessed – divinely inspired.
I moved to Glastonbury in September 2019. Previously I’d only come for brief visits, using Glastonbury as a spiritual place, coming here to meditate on the Tor, the Abbey, in Chalice Well. Then I met the father of my youngest boy here. Which gave me a family link to this place and we would come frequently to visit family. After the dad and me split up I still wanted my son to be near his dad. Things were getting hard in Oslo as the painting took so much of my time and still paid so little, Oslo is an expensive place to live. I kept thinking I wouldn’t want to live here, but now I do it’s different to how I imagined – both positive and negative. It’s close and social and can feel a lot of support, but also the opposite. I’ve never lived in a place where I so often feel so vulnerable. We all seem to have our down days. Glastonbury definitely has a special vibration. A vibration that can make you feel overloaded by emotions.
It’s quite fantastic that an art gallery with very similar visions to me, Heart of the Tribe, should be opening just when I moved here, it feels very right in many respects. I am really grateful for being chosen to be one of their core artists. And they have taken in some very good and experienced artists I am honoured to exhibit alongside. It will be very exciting to see what Heart Of The Tribe can add to Glastonbury, I personally think they can contribute with something very unique and be a very good representative of exciting variations of contemporary art.
I’m not going to paint the Tor, it’s been painted, drawn, photographed, embroidered. I feel I have to dare to get a bit ugly, tear my feeling of safety apart, I’m a bit hung up on prettiness. I have to dare to break with that a bit. The magical thing about being a human is that when you really make a decision and a commitment, the universe will not let you down, it is that easy and it is that hard. When you have chosen a path, it gets easier somehow, it might not feel it but you will get better and you will succeed if you are determined to do so and put your all into it. Maybe it will be a bit different to how you had hoped or expected. You have to work hard, it might take time, and you will feel like giving up, and have times you feel very insecure. I know that what I’m so desperately looking for, my own unique expression, it’s going to come and shape with time anyway. People are often impatient, I know I am, but the process has its own time, you have to obey it, no matter how much you want to move fast ahead, it will take the time it takes.
The difference between someone who makes it and someone who doesnt is how much you are willing to bid on yourself, to have your heart on your sleeve. I’m on a journey with my painting and I’m working towards the part where I set myself free and become who I truly am.
Before the Fall
You can follow more of Miling’s journey on instagram ; https://www.instagram.com/milingwikstrom/