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Memories of Ilkka “Alec” Sailamaa

August 25, 2023

Alec Sailamaa

With Leena Kivisto, Caroline Fenelius-Carpenter, Jan Fenelius, Joaquin Kuhn, Joe Willems and Elizabeth Korn

From 1982 until 1999, Ilkka “Alec” Sailamaa was a well-known character and artist in Fenelon Falls. At the time he was a prolific painter, who depicted familiar real-life local scenes in a (post-) impressionist style that reminded many local of the Group of Seven. Many area residents and visitors bought his paintings, and they are still much appreciated by local art collectors. One of his best known images is the mural facing the patio at Lotus Indian Bistro on Colborne Street.

Ilkka grew up in Viipuri, Finland, located in the Karelian Isthmus. Viipuri was a medieval fortress built by Sweden in the thirteenth century, and grew into a city. Finland had gained its independence from Russia, however during the Second World War, the Russians invaded. He was ten years old when the conflict began, and served as a courier, taking messages to Finnish troops. Though the Finns initially embarrassed the Russians, in the end, the much greater resources available to the Russians proved decisive. Finland was forced to cede the Karelian Isthmus, where Ilkka’s family lived. The population of Viipuri was evacuated, and it would become known as Vyborg to the Russians.

The war was a very traumatic experience for Ilkka, and stuck with him for the rest of his life. His father was a train conductor, and was driving what turned out to be the last train evacuating people from that part of Finland. According to some accounts, Ilkka was there when the bridge was blown, killing his father, and it stuck in a mind. His beloved dog was also killed in the same conflict—but others wonder if these details may have been exaggerated, as they were told and retold by his friends. In any case, after the war he was raised by his mother. At the time in Finland, there were many other children living in such extenuating circumstances. “He was such a gentle person,” Leena explains. “He had such a gentle heart and wouldn’t hurt a fly. The war traumatized him.” To the end of his life, the ultimate evil to him was “Russian Hell,” notes Caroline Fenelius-Carpenter.

Ilkka Sailamaa was always a quiet person, who was not eager to talk about himself. He was not someone to tell his friends about how he became interested in art, but it turned into a lifelong passion for him. His career began as a graphic artist in Tampere, Finland in 1947. Four years later he moved to Toronto, where he continued working in graphics, with Paava Airola in 1952. The two artists had similar styles, and he would later say that this experience inspired him to become a painter. The following year he went to Mexico to learn art at the Institute of Allende. He worked Tampere; Ibiza, Spain and Toronto (for National Crest) until 1982, when he moved to Fenelon Falls and set up his studio in his home at 40 Elliott Street. When he moved to Canada, he learned that Canadians found his Finnish name Ilkka difficult to pronounce, so he instead became known as Alec.

To help finance the purchase, Alec rented the front half of the house to a family. At the time he was struggling with alcoholism. It seemed that the trauma of his childhood stuck with him for the rest of his life—he would often talk about it when he had too much to drink. At his behest, his tenants would pay their rent directly to the bank, because he would spend all his money on alcohol. By 1986, he had to sell the house, and moved to the Dominion Hotel in Minden—but would return to Fenelon Falls before long.

“He was very honest about his alcoholism,” Caroline recalls. “He wanted to make others aware of the dangers of drinking. He was a very seasoned alcoholic—he would drink paint thinner to get drunk. He would tell us that if we saw him drinking, we should not give him any money, because he would just spend it on alcohol. The lessons that he taught me about life, its cruelty and beauty are something that I have carried with me.” He is remembered for sitting on his porch, rolling his own cigarettes from cigarette butts that he picked up on the street.

Some people in the community did not know what to make of Alec. Many other tried to help him. When Garnet Graham saw what Alec was dealing with, he bought a trailer for Alec to live in behind Ye Olde Curio Shoppe, where he demonstrated and sold his yip sticks and tricks. It was a convenient, high-traffic location, being located right beside the beach park. While he was there, he would “paint furiously, being drawn to what he was creating on the canvas. He had a unique talent, but then you wouldn’t see him for four days,” Garnet’s daughter Elizabeth (Graham) Korn recounts. But when winter came, the Graham family started to worry about how safe it was to be living in a trailer, and others stepped in to help. For a time, the Salvation Army helped to look after Alec, he attended AA and for seven years he was dry. He spent his final years living at 40 Francis Street, being a familiar face walking around town.

Though art was Alec’s passion, it was not always the easiest way to make a living. Though he sold many paintings, he also gave many to his friends. When he was drinking, he often sold his masterpieces for a pittance to buy alcohol. While he was in AA, he met Max Henderson, who owned Sandy Beach Resort, which was located on Balsam Lake. Max was looking to hire someone to help renovate the cottages, and Alec took the job. While he was working there, he met Antti Kivisto, who had a cottage nearby. Both being Finnish, they became lifelong friends and Alec would also help Antti with carpentry work.

“When he was inspired, he painted fairly quickly,” Jan remembers. “The mural he painted on the side of J&B’s (now facing the patio of Lotus Indian Bistro) took him about a week.” Over the years he painted many local scenes, with his depiction of the village’s waterfall being one of his most popular pieces. Once the original sold, he would repaint the same scene. He loved to paint landscapes, streetscapes and natural scenes.

“His art reflected his ideal world, and I think that as he painted he went to his happy place,” Leena remarks. “Some of his paintings were a little mysterious. They all had really nice colours and they make me smile.” Art was more than a career to Alec, it seemed to be his reason to live. “I don’t recall him doing many other things for pleasure,” Jan continues. “Art was definitely his life.”

Alec was often a quiet person. “He would say a few words and not that much more,” Jan recalls. “He was not someone who really initiated a conversation with people, he just answered what you said. Often he would not talk to people unless they talked to him first. He was a man of few words.”

Joaquin remembered him as, “The shyest of persons, without pretensions of any kind that I could detect. He dressed in the most casual manner, if ‘manner’ is even the right word for what may have been castoff clothes, but there was an unmistakable style to the man. His face was alive, especially his eyes…. Playful, alert, challenging, knowing, wise, even self-confident: his eyes are the quintessence of the whole person. Alec knew how to take a picture, comparable to how he knew how to paint his version of what he saw. He was also very quiet, at least as I knew him. A conversation with him in his Spartan apartment was a social challenge, even though I looked for occasions to visit him there. I felt that he had something profound to communicate to me, if I knew how to ask and if I could understand what and how he spoke it. Alec was good at smiling…” Many people did not take the time to get to know Alec, but those who did could agree that he was a very kind man, who loved to share the joy that art brought to him.

By the mid 1990s, Alec’s health was beginning to fail. He had his arties replaced, and then in 1999 he died of old age. It was said that his time had come. When he was in his final days, he remembered that years before he promised to paint a picture of one of his friend’s daughters. As he lay in the hospital, he mentioned many times that he had never completed the painting. Alec was not someone to forget something what he could do for a friend.

Fenelon Falls’ Salvation Army looked after Alec as his earthly journey was ending. Two volunteers from the church spent time with him. They put together a touching ceremony for him, and had him buried in the village cemetery with a headstone. A bench was erected in his memory, overlooking Fenelon Falls near the Lower Wharf, not far from where he would have sat to observe the waterfall that he often painted.

“When I think back about Alec, the first thing that I remember is his smile, his happiness, his laugh and his gentleness,” Leena recalls. “He was someone that it was impossible to be mad at. He was a friend to everybody—anyone that would talk to him. He was a genuinely nice guy, with a personality that will make you smile.” Beneath the often mysterious external appearance of this artist, there was a soul who had a unique appreciation and perspective of the community, with the artistic talent that allowed him to share it with the community.

An exhibition of Alec Sailamaa’s art is now on at Maryboro Lodge Museum and runs until Thanksgiving.

Alec by Caroline Fenelius-Carpenter

There is a man… I once knew.

I still see his weatherbeaten face, bronzed by the sun.

His skin gently etched by the years and the hardships of life.

His eyes, blue, always moving, having seen life’s sorrow and beauty… all in one.

His hands, gently flowing over a blank canvas… creating life where once there was none.

I still hear his voice, gravelly from smoking and his binges, telling stories, adventures recreated of faraway places, worlds so different from ours.

I capture pieces of his youth… a war, Russian soldiers, his father dying, skiing, a dog his best friend, fishing at an old fishing hole, jail, painting, human cruelty, sleepless nights…

Reaching out so many times, losing control, drinking, forgetting his past, losing touch with the future, forever lost within himself.

Many,

so ignorant, saw him as a nuisance and a bum.

I saw him as a friend,

a storyteller

and feel richer for having known him.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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