The Finnish word “sisu” (pronounced see-sue), which connotes determination, bravery and resilience, doesn’t properly translate into other languages. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it’s like “chutzpah” in Yiddish. In Spanish, it’s “cojones.” To borrow a phrase from rapper Ice Cube, it’s “don’t stop, get it, get it.”
Local artists Danny Samppala and Melissa Manley have been practicing major sisu for 35 years. Both grew up in the Port City, lived in adjoining neighborhoods and attended the same middle and high school. They’ve shared a creative friendship ever since.
Their first collaborative venture together is appropriately named, “Sisu” and it’s imbued with their indelible spirit of perseverance. The exhibit contains over two dozen boxes—small, tall, arched, ornate, stained and lit—displayed at 621N4TH. The gallery’s openly flowing white walls and pedestals lend themselves to a box’s ability to define a space. The same can be said for the artists.
Samppala is pure Finnish. His Scandinavian heritage inspires a large portion of the show’s pieces. Primarily self-taught, he has worked in many mediums, including visual arts, theatre, film, music, and graphic and web design. It’s evident he’s a skilled carpenter, too. Samppala constructed all the show’s boxes out of salvaged wood he collected over time from work sites and places of meaning.
Manley describes the exhibit as “a lot of Danny and a little bit of me,” but I disagree. There’s a magnetic balance between them. What Samppala brings to the table in terms of architecture and assembly, Manley matches with academic tenacity and an artistic background. Her mediums include watercolors, metals and even sausage casings (which were utilized by ancient civilizations for their adhesive qualities). Currently, she teaches a metalsmithing course at Cape Fear Community College. Her keen abilities are apparent in pieces like “Colossus,” a tall cabinet with doors adorned by hammered and embellished sheets of copper.
A piece entitled “Ancestors” stuns as an example of their collaborative style. The box itself is made of pine boards Samppala saved from a burn pile. Now expertly connected, their shape is reminiscent of a cathedral arch with sides that curve up into a soft point. A bound book resembling a v-shaped accordion file is splayed out in the hollow center. Together, the structure’s appearance is that of a stained-glass window. When removed, the book’s pages reveal Manley’s stunning watercolor pigments accented with images of ancient Scandinavian petroglyphs.
Samppala explains the different types of sisu—good, bad, and the kind that’s not necessarily attached to the physical plane. “As I get older,” he expounds, “I realize [sisu] has more to do with spiritual and psychological stamina: making it through hard times, always being in the present moment, and not getting sidetracked by negative thinking.”
Those concepts resonate with Manley, too. She likens the spirit of sisu to her lasting friendship with Samppala, and their ability to remain thriving artists in a town that has gone through the financial ringer. When considering mental, physical or financial hardship, boxes can represent stability and a sense of security. “There’s containment, there’s safety, there’s sacredness to the interior,” Manley explains. “And I love the idea of place.”
All of those notions are encased in another shared piece: “Thunder Roll.” It’s the essence of a sacred interior and place, especially to Wilmingtonians. Five years ago, Samppala received a call from a friend at Thalian Hall. Some heating and air repairs resulted in the removal of several boards from the area around one of Thalian’s most unique features, the thunder roll. It uses wooden troughs and cannon balls to create the effect of thunder. Samppala collected the pieces and held on to them until last year. Now a two-foot heart pine box sits atop four legs. The wood is slightly rough and grainy—reminiscent of centuries-old milling techniques—and is a rich caramel color. The low rumble of its presence instantly is amplified by the two lightning bolt-shaped metal hinges that fasten the door in place. It creates a striking collaboration and a rejuvenated chunk of local history.
Perhaps the best work the pair has assembled is their own local history, which comes pieced together by decades of friendship and artistic pursuit. While no other language has succeeded in translating Finland’s spirit of resilience, Samppala paraphrases it nicely: “It’s easy to give up on things, but it’s nice when you don’t.”
Collaborative works by Daniel Samppala and Melissa Manley>
On display by appointment through September
621N4TH, 621 North 4th St.