Although the marvelously named Oiva Toikka is respected as one of the world's pre-eminent artists working in glass, he is also loved by people who don't give a hoot about such stuff. They love him because of his little birds.
Since 1972, Toikka, 77, a Finn with a walrus mustache and deep belly laugh, has created a flock of more than 300 small masterpieces, all handblown at Nuutajärvi glassworks, two hours by car from Helsinki.
Some look like real birds; Toikka's pulu, or pigeon, has the humble features of its down-to-earth cousins in the town square, while his nest of baby barn owls have the anxious eyes of real baby owls waiting for their mother to return. Toikka's willow grouse appears plump enough for a festive table, and his muscular barnacle goose looks as if it might actually take flight. But these creations are no mere imitations. Instead, Toikka's birds, which are issued in annual limited editions by the Finnish design company Iittala, show what can be achieved when imagination and technical prowess take flight.
In fact, some of his birds do not exist outside the mind of Toikka, who has stayed closely connected to his childhood. The youngest of 10, Toikka grew up in a Karelian farmhouse that's now on the Russian side of the border. "I'm in a lucky period, because I'm a child again. At my age I have the right to be childish," he says, admitting that he often changes the color of a wing or a tail just because he feels like it. After 35 years, he says, "people trust me too much. I'm lying all the time!"
This jolly exterior belies a serious artist of immense talent. Toikka is one of the most distinguished art designers to have emerged from a nation that leads the world in glassworks. He has also created elaborate and monumental installations, but he shrugs off that work by saying he started with birds because cows were too difficult to craft.
Toikka does not blow glass himself but relies instead on master blowers of whom he says, "I can ask impossible things, and they are so kind, they try and sometimes they succeed." With his collaborators, Toikka pioneered the ingenious technique of first shaping the body of the bird and then sealing the aperture made by the rod with a blob of molten glass, which forms the head and the beak.
There are some birds that even Toikka hasn't mastered yet. "The flamingo is not so easy in glass, with those tiny legs, so I will leave it till last," he says, noting that an attempt at creating the American eagle looked more like a seagull. With Toikka now semiretired, Iittala's flock is growing in new directions, thanks to the creativity of Italian glass artist Giorgio Vigna and a young Finn, Anu Penttinen. Still, Toikka has no plans to leave Nuutajä]rvi glassworks, where he has worked since 1963, anytime soon.
"People love birds because we have a dream of flight," he says. "People envy birds but of course not flies, and they fly also." At that, Toikka chortles. Does he share a dream of flying away? "I want to fly, but not in the shape of a bird, because they have no hands. An angel is a better combination. Wings and hands together is more practical," he says with glee.