Something More Lasting Than Art

As told by Rakel Koivisto

In 1950 my suggestion for a monument to honor those who had died in World War II won a national contest. A year later when my huge granite monument was unveiled at a solemn ceremony in Tuusula, Finland, I wasn’t present. Let me explain why.

I WAS born in 1917, the youngest in a family of eight children who lived in a rural village in southern Finland. Though we were poor, I felt happy and secure. My parents were stable and God-fearing, and they taught us to value spiritual things. A Bible that my dad had purchased was highly esteemed in our home.

As a child, I carved small statues out of wood. Relatives thought my work was exceptional, so they encouraged me to study art. In time, my application to the University of Industrial Arts in Helsinki was accepted. This elite school, the heart of Finnish art life, was a fascinating environment for a little country girl, and I became absorbed in it. When I graduated in 1947, I thought that I could leave behind in this world something lasting.

A Turning Point

Then my goals changed dramatically. One day, my sister Aune came to me and excitedly exclaimed, “I have found the truth!” She had received the book “Let God Be True,” published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was not impressed. Not long afterward, I noticed that a girl who had been a fellow student at the university had the same book. When I belittled it, she retorted: “You stop laughing! This book will help you to understand the Bible.” I obtained the book and practically read it through in one sitting. I no longer laughed; in fact, I was convinced that the Witnesses had the truth. I also realized that Jehovah God was offering me something that art cannot give​—everlasting life.

When I first became acquainted with the Witnesses, they didn’t invite me to their meetings. Thus, I thought the meetings were only for members. So I took the initiative and asked if I could possibly attend. I was delighted to learn that Christian meetings are open to all. Attending the meetings strengthened my faith, and I decided to dedicate my life to  Jehovah. I made this decision known publicly on November 19, 1950, when my sister and I were both baptized. To our delight, our other four sisters and our dear parents also eventually became Witnesses.

What Career Should I Choose?

While I was studying the Bible with the Witnesses, I was moving ahead in my artistic career. After I graduated from art school, I worked as an assistant to a professor of sculpture. Then, as mentioned at the outset, my idea for the monument to those who fell in World War II won a national contest. My suggestion for its title was “The Way of No Return,” reflecting my adjusted view of war. (Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 26:52) When the statue​—which stands over 16 feet [5 m] tall—​was unveiled, I was not present because the ceremony was patriotic and was not in keeping with my Bible-based convictions.

As my reputation as an artist grew, I became well-known and received promising job offers. Yet, I evaluated my priorities. Although I loved my work, my desire to help others in a spiritual way was even stronger. That is why in 1953, I began serving as a pioneer, as full-time evangelizers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called.

Sometimes I was told that I was letting my talent go to waste. But I realized that any personal achievements as a sculptor would only be temporary. Even granite monuments crumble in time. However, as a pioneer, I could use most of my time helping others to get on the road to everlasting life! (John 17:3) Still, I did not forget sculpture. Every now and then, I continued to make small statues for my own satisfaction and to sell them to support myself.

My Move to a Rural Area

In 1957, after four years of pioneer service in Helsinki, I was invited by the Finland branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses to serve in Jalasjärvi, a rural municipality in the Southern Ostrobothnia region. There I was to join Anja Keto, who was 17 years younger than I. Although I didn’t know Anja, I gladly accepted the assignment and moved in with her. She and I were the only Witnesses in the area, so we almost always worked together in the ministry. We soon became inseparable friends.

Moving to Jalasjärvi meant a return to rustic conditions similar to those in which I had lived before becoming a part of the artistic circles of the capital city 20 years earlier. The winters were especially hard, and sometimes we had to wade through snow that reached up to our hips. We lived in a small cabin, which was far from luxurious. We drew our water from a nearby spring, and occasionally the water that we carried inside would freeze over at night. But we had everything we needed. (1 Timothy 6:8) Those were happy, action-packed days.

Busy in Rewarding Activity

At the beginning, however, our efforts did not seem very successful because the local inhabitants were prejudiced against us. To help them understand our work, we arranged showings of films produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as The New World Society in Action and The Happiness of the New World Society. These acquainted them with us and our organization, helping them see the positive effects of our activities on people worldwide. Many gathered for these showings.

On one occasion Eero Muurainen, a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses, showed the film The New World Society in Action at a community hall. The place got so crowded that I barely found a place for myself in the farthest corner. I had to stand on one leg with my back to a wall, as there was no room to put my other foot on the floor. After the film was finished, many approached us and asked us to visit them.

We also used a big tape recorder to play recorded Bible talks in farmhouses. On one  occasion we had agreed to play such a discourse at 7:00 p.m. in the house of one family, and we had invited the entire village for the gathering. Early that morning, we set off on our bicycles to preach in a village some 15 miles away, thinking that we would have time to do so before evening. Yet, when we left the village, the rain had turned the road to a muddy mess.

Eventually, our bicycles got so caked with mud that the wheels wouldn’t turn, so we had to carry our bikes home. As a result, we weren’t able to leave for our planned meeting until late in the evening. We dragged our heavy tape recorder along and arrived at 10:00 p.m. We were quite sure that everyone would be gone. But to our surprise, the house was full of villagers still waiting for us! After the discourse, a lively discussion ensued. When we finally got home in the early hours of the morning, we were bone tired but very happy!

The distances between villages were so great that the Witnesses in the region helped us to purchase a car​—an old Russian-made vehicle. That made our preaching work much easier. Later, it became famous, for during his visit the bishop of the diocese told the parishioners not to welcome us into their homes. He spoke of two ladies with a blue car. Immediately the warnings had an effect on the people. They wanted to know who these two ladies were and what made them so dangerous! Their curiosity led to many fine Bible discussions. True indeed are the words of Isaiah: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success.”​—Isaiah 54:17.

In time, our work bore fruit. We began holding weekly meetings with a small group of interested ones. Eventually our group grew, and in 1962 a congregation of 18 Witnesses, mostly women, was formed. Two years later Anja and I were transferred to the municipality of Ylistaro, in the same region.

An Inspiring Environment

We enjoyed the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside in our new assignment, but we especially enjoyed the people. They were generally hospitable and friendly. True, many were deeply religious and patriotic, and sometimes they angrily rebuffed us; but there were others who showed a deep respect for the Bible. Many times when we took out the Bible, women stopped their housework to listen and men took off their hats​—hats that otherwise seemed to be glued to their heads. Sometimes when we studied the Bible, the whole household, and even neighbors, would come and sit in on the study.

The genuine, honest people I met in the service inspired my artwork. When I had time available, I would take some clay and start to work with it. Since I have always been fascinated by charming and humorous human characteristics, almost all of the statues I made featured people. Many of them showed women doing their chores. A magazine article  said about my figures: “They emanate the warmth of the earth and peacefulness, along with humor and a relaxed balance . . . A warm affection for people along with rich artistic skill is the creative source behind these figures.” However, I was careful not to place too much emphasis on art. I held fast to my decision to serve Jehovah full-time.

In 1973, I got a job offer I could not think of refusing. I was asked to sculpt a big relief in clay for the new lobby of the Finland branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Vantaa. Psalm 96:11-13 was chosen as the subject of this work. How happy I was to use my skills in praising Jehovah!

Since I had created art largely for my own satisfaction during my pioneer days, I was surprised when in the late 1970’s, I was granted an artist’s pension. Of course, I appreciated that financial support, but I thought to myself, ‘Is this all I would have had to show for it if I had devoted my life to art? Some extra money to make my retirement years more secure?’ How little it was in comparison with the reward of everlasting life!​—1 Timothy 6:12.

Back to the City

The year 1974 brought quite a change in our lives and ministry. We were assigned to Turku, a large city. At the time many new apartments were being built there, and the influx of people created a need for Kingdom publishers. At first, we weren’t too happy with our new urban assignment. Preaching to city dwellers seemed harder, as many of them responded with apathy. But gradually we adjusted to that new territory, and we found many who appreciated Bible truths.

Over the years, Anja and I have had the privilege of helping more than 40 people to dedicate their lives to Jehovah. What a joy these spiritual children bring to our hearts! (3 John 4) In recent years my health has gone downhill, but I have felt Jehovah’s backing, the love of the congregation, and the “strengthening aid” of my dear pioneer partner, Anja, more fully. (Colossians 4:11; Psalm 55:22) When I met Anja nearly 50 years ago, I think neither of us could have imagined that our pioneer partnership would last a lifetime.

A popular saying goes, “Life is short but art is forever.” This phrase, however, has not been my motto. I agree with the apostle Paul’s words at 2 Corinthians 4:18: “The things seen are temporary, but the things unseen are everlasting.” All the joys I have had as an artist​—“the things seen”—​have been temporary. They certainly cannot compare with the joys I have had in Jehovah’s service, and they do not give everlasting life. I am so grateful that I devoted my life to “the things unseen,” things that are more lasting than art!

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Working on my granite monument

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With Anja (left), 1957

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With Anja (right) today