This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
Away from the distractions of downtown Princeton, behind a wooden garden gate on John Street in the historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Elisa “El” Hirvonen makes her artwork and tends her garden. Here she builds her “edgy” bowls — artistically significant works with jagged edges that resemble mountains rising and falling.
Although Hirvonen also paints and draws, pottery has became her passion. And it came about almost accidentally. As an art teacher who taught for 10 years in Hopewell and Princeton public schools, she was assigned to teach a clay class even though she had never worked in that medium. What she discovered was that, even though she was right-handed, her left was just as strong. Today she is predominantly an artist working in clay and sells her ceramics in two Princeton stores — the Savory Spice Shop on Spring Street and the Farmhouse Store on Hulfish Street.
Hirvonen hand-builds her ceramic pieces. The process of pinching and thinning clay is good for hand dexterity, for a focused and calm mind, and an engaged imagination. The sounds of birds chirping and the constant chatter of children at the nearby YMCA summer camp is a perfect environment for Hirvonen to work. “I can spend days here just in my little world – from the house to the garden to the studio. This is my ideal life,” she says.
Her art and her green space is also a way to stay grounded and make the most of living with a life-altering condition — Parkinson’s Disease.
Hirvonen grew up in a family that may have been more athletic than artistic. Her father, a native of Finland, was a world-class cross-country skier and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team. With her mother he eventually opened Lapland Lake Nordic Ski and Vacation Center in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
As a child, Hirvonen drew characters from her imagination. By eighth grade she was aware of her talent and continued to take art classes all through high school, from sculpture to paper mache, but never worked with clay.
She attended Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Indiana. Although that school didn’t work out, she did meet a fellow student — Henry Dale, who grew up in Lawrenceville — who would become her husband. After taking a year off, she enrolled at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She and Dale, who also became a public school teacher, settled in central New Jersey (their three sons went to the Princeton public schools — one died at age 9 in an accident, the oldest is now a certified school teacher, and the youngest is working with a Lawrence-based pizzeria.) Following the birth of her first son, Hirvonen finished her degree at the College of New Jersey. She then earned her master’s at Bank Street College of Education and took classes at Parsons School of Design, both in Manhattan.
It was during her time in New York City that she started to experience tingling in her toes, pain in her feet, and stiffness in her right arm. She tried acupuncture and acupressure and was tested for Lyme disease seeking relief. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually, she went to a neurologist. In 10 minutes he made the diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease.
It could have been a devastating diagnosis for her life as an artist but still she prevailed.
Her health? “The neurologist thinks that I’m doing very well. He’s very happy with me,” she says. Three days a week she takes a 75-minute Rock Steady Boxing class at the Title Boxing Club in Nassau Park on Route 1. The program helps individuals in the fight against Parkinson’s, through a non-contact boxing-based curriculum.
She has also been involved with the Suppers program founded by Princeton resident Dor Mullen, which provides a safe, friendly, and supportive environment for people who are managing food-related health challenges. “I have explored diet, tried various elimination diets,” she says. “So far nothing has made a noticeable difference. I still think it is worth more exploration especially because of recent news of the benefits of an alkaline diet on autoimmune diseases.”
At one point Hirvonen was using a wheelchair to get around and she had to leave her teaching job because of Parkinson’s. “I take medication now that helps me function,” she says. “Before taking medication I was trying all kinds of therapies first, but with no results. Alternative therapies: energy medicine, shiatsu, meditation, yoga, supplements, herbs. I still believe there is a way to cure the disease, not just medication to alleviate symptoms.
“Finding the cause is important and it may be different for different people. I feel I may be near understanding my cause, which is extreme stress from three different directions just before the first symptoms. How to treat that is still my question.”
It was through a food workshop at Savory Spice that Hirvonen met Jon Hauge, who owns the business with his wife Janet. Hauge expressed interest in locally made pottery, and now the store carries her ceramic dishes for salt and spice jars.
Her art seems like a natural antidote to stress. In addition to the art, gardening also gives her great pleasure. “It’s something that I’ve always loved,” she says. When her children were small, she put her pruning skills to work and for a while operated the Garden Nanny, a business where “wild and unruly gardens get firm, but gentle discipline.”
She and her husband are both avid musicians. He plays keyboard and standup bass, among other instruments. She plays with the Woe Nellies, a ukulele quintet that has appeared at opening receptions at area art galleries and at senior living facilities. “We mostly have fun,” she says. The Nellies, joined by Dale on bass, will play at the Saturday, July 15, screening of Ilene Dube’s film “Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, New Jersey” at the West Windsor Arts Council.
“Doing things that make me feel good is really important,” says Hirvonen. “If I am under stress or have to rush or have to adhere to a schedule I tend to do poorly so it’s vital to have the freedom to do my own thing.”
And like the fragile, yet sturdy edge of her bowls, clay cannot be rushed or it may crack or break. Like life itself, there is an unpredictability to it.
“From preparing the clay, the designing and forming, the drying and waiting, the first firing, applying the glaze, and the final firing … it’s a time consuming process,” she says. “And, then only after you’ve let the kiln cool completely, can you finally enjoy that a-ha moment when you see what you’ve created. It’s magical.”
An active blogger, Hirvonen posts her writings at elsclay.blogspot.com.