It was a very snowy Saturday in January 2011, when I was invited to Vello Muikma’s home by Arne Randsalu. Vello had passed away in June 2008, a year and a half before I began working here, in Toronto. Thus, I was never able to meet Vello in person. I also was not able to get to know Vello’s wife, Ari, as her health had been declining for some time. However, I did visit their home, and like a typical archivist my goal was to look over Arne’s photos and archival material in order to bring them to the VEMU archives at Tartu College. I was able to peek into and behind closets, drawers, shelves, and all of Vello’s secret places that even he may not have touched for many years.
Who was Vello? Vello Muikma (1920-2008) was a Toronto Estonian, who established his own photo studio at the end of the 1950s and thus, became a freelance photographer. During the time of the rapidly growing artistic advertising market, he specialized in commercial photography. Muikma was able to become one of Toronto’s best in his field. He also taught photography at OCAD, Ontario College of Art and Design. He was also an active member of Estonian community in Toronto.
In November 2011, art scholar, Eha Komissarov and her young colleague, Ellu Maar, arrived from Estonia to see Vello’s archive. In 2010, Eha and Ellu had curated an exhibit about Estonian photographers abroad at the KUMU art museum in Tallinn. A beautiful catalogue accompanied the exhibit, which can also be seen here at our small exhibit. Vello was also represented at this exhibit with the help of Arne Randsalu acting as the mediator for Vello’s work. This time in Toronto, Eha and Ellu wanted to see more of Vello’s work and learn more about him. During their fairly short visit, the hard-working Estonian women covered a lot of ground. They helped sort Vello’s archive and photo collection, researched and found Vello’s students and colleagues, interviewed them, and created an exhibit of Vello’s work, which was opened here at Tartu College in the beginning of 2012. This led to the idea of creating a book using the material created for the exhibit. Ellu Maar visited VEMU again on her own, to continue researching Vello’s archive, choose more photos for the book and to conduct interviews with Vello’s colleagues and students. Although it took 5 years, the book is finished.
On Wednesday the 28th of September 2016, many gathered together for the VEMU hosted event at Tartu College to celebrate the launch of “Eye Catcher. The Life and Work of Vello Muikma.” The book created through Canadian and Estonian collaboration was sponsored by: Estonian Studies Centre/ VEMU Fraternity Vironia both in Canada and Estonia, Compatriots Programme (Estonia), Cultural Endowment of Estonia, Art Museum of Estonia, Vello Muikma estate.
The evening comprised of several speakers, opening with Ellu Maar, the author of the new book “Eye Catcher,” who sent a recorded greeting from Estonia to express her gratitude to the many contributors and sponsors who helped bring this project to fruition. Consecutive speakers were respective friends, fraternity brothers and past students of Vello Muikma, many of whom shared their memories both on this evening and within the pages of “Eye Catcher”.
As Vello’s students spoke, we learned more about him as a photographer. Past students, Nick Buzcok, Christina Mizur and Derek Andrews each described Vello’s unique ability to capture raw emotion and natural expression on camera. Through hearing the memories of Vello’s past students, it became apparent how a great teacher has a lasting effect that is remembered throughout a student’s life as they continue to find their own creative and professional voices. Even when not explicitly teaching, Vello brought wisdom, happiness, and comfort to those around him as described by the evening’s other speakers: Jaan Meri, Ed Stewart and, Jüri Daniel who were friends of Vello Muikma.
On October 1, 2016, Muikma’s book was launched in Tallinn at the Telliskivi Loomelinnak (Telliskivi Creative City) as a part of the event programme for photography month.