“There’s just this part of me that loves destruction,” says Nissa Kauppila, sipping a de-stresser tea in her South Burlington home. The 31-year-old painter doesn’t look particularly destructive. She’s dressed neatly, her long, brown hair stylishly blown out, and she’s poised and well postured on her living-room couch.
Her gouache paintings are similarly paradoxical, simultaneously violent and restrained. Kauppila renders birds, bugs, fish and other objects so they appear to have literally exploded on the canvas. In some places the creatures are realistic figures, their feathers and beaks perfectly composed. In others the paint seems to become their innards, spilling out stickily, messily, onto a crisp, white background.
After earning her BFA in film from the Rhode Island School of Design, Kauppila, who grew up in Monkton, Vt., returned to her home state. For the past four years she’s been teaching everything from digital, animation and video-game design to documentary filmmaking to social studies at South Burlington High School.
“Chaos is appealing to me because I have lived my life very structured,” she says. “I’m a teacher. Since I was a kid, things have had to be just so.”
But she’s also always had a quirky side. Kauppila’s friends now joke that if she took out a personal ad, it might read, “I like long walks on the beach and I like to poke dead things with sticks.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Kauppila is hosting a French teacher on an exchange with SBHS. She’s also prepping to advise a group of students participating in a 50-hour filmmaking contest over the weekend. It’s surprising she finds time to paint at all.
“I’ve always been someone who has a million things going on; that’s just how I am,” she says. Being a teacher helps, since she can hunker down over the summer and during school vacations. But Kauppila says she does much of her painting when she gets home from work. It’s not exactly relaxing. “It’s invigorating,” she says. “My painting process is almost as explosive as the painting itself.”
When Kauppila is in the groove, she wears headphones and sings along while she paints, stopping to take pictures of the work as it progresses. She likes to document, and share, her process by posting in-progress photos on her Facebook page.
“[The paintings] change so much from start to finish,” she says. “People will see them finished and say, ‘Oh, it was such a lovely bird — what happened?’”
Kauppila is relatively new to the Vermont art scene. After graduating from RISD in 2005, she took a break from painting, only picking up her brushes occasionally when she needed gifts for friends or family.
Yet she had known from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. Well, she admits, in preschool, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Kauppila said, “school-bus driver.” But “artist” was a close second.
So when she stopped painting, friends bugged her to start back up again. After such a long hiatus, Kauppila had doubts. “What if I’m not as good as I should be?” she recalls worrying.
Then, three years ago, she showed her exploding-bird paintings at the South End Art Hop. It was the first time she’d ever displayed her paintings in a gallery — and they were a hit. Since then she has won SEABA’s Art Hop Juried Show People’s Choice Award two years in a row, and her hobby has evolved into a second job.
So why birds? Kauppila got hooked on avian matters after working on a painting a few years ago for her dad, an avid birdwatcher. “There’s something so delicate and fragile about birds,” she says, noting it’s that delicacy that makes them so delightful to explode.
Kauppila’s birds look as if they’ve smashed right into the canvas. She usually works from photographs — perhaps of a creature her cat has killed or one she’s found lifeless in her driveway. “I’m totally that creepy person bent over in the yard taking pictures of a dead bird,” she says.
She’s broadened her horizons over the years. Kauppila now takes requests for new items to annihilate in her paintings — airplanes, fish, bugs and, in her latest endeavor, human body parts. She once overheard a gallerygoer say that her work looked “like Dalí and Audubon sat down together and collaborated.”
Explosions are fun to paint, Kauppila says, because “you never know where they’re going to go. There’s something very sexy about that.”
And sexiness is exactly what Kauppila is pursuing next. In the past she’s shied away from painting people. Now the young artist is ready to explore the human body. She won’t go into detail regarding her newest work, but she hints that her fondness for “exploding things” will remain a permanent obsession. “It’s not, like, flying vaginas,” she says with a smile. “But it’s going to be a little provocative, still playing with the idea of delicacy.”
That’s not to say she’ll abandon her birds. “I definitely have a following of people who really love the birds,” says Kauppila. “I’ll never let go of that.” But she’s ready to try out something new, something that’s “going to be thrilling and raw and maybe a little unsettling.”
Burlington's RETN invited Kauppila to discuss her work during last September's Art Hop.Watch the video here.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Artistic License"