WHEN you ask Lapp painter Andreas Alariesto about his art, he responds with his entire body. The azure eyes dart about alertly; his powerful hands start to twitch and turn, searching for words to illustrate. Then the stout shoulders come forward, bringing the answer very close to you. ``When I was a child,'' he quips in his fervent, friendly voice, ``my favorite place was under the table. It was an excellent spot for eavesdropping on grownups.'' Between the knees and toes of Lapp elders, young Andreas could overhear stories and myths of ancient times in the northern region of Finland - of reindeer-herding customs, wild animals, and shamans. These stirred up a vibrant slew of pictures in the boy's creative head, and it did not take long for him to do something with those images: ``When I was 3, I found a piece of wood and coal on the floor and drew a picture of a devil from a myth,'' he recalls. ``That's the first piece of art I remember making.'' The year was 1903.
Seventy-three years later, in 1976, Mr. Alariesto was still making pictures - colorfully naive paintings of traditional Lappish life and lore. He was a poor and neglected artist, a retired laborer who had made hundreds of drawings and paintings in his lifetime - and never managed to sell a single one.
Then, quite suddenly, Finland's publishing magnate, Hannu Tarmio, asked to see Alariesto's work. He decided immediately to make a book. Mr. Tarmio arranged for an exhibition in the prestigious Helsinki Art Hall to coincide with the publishing of Alariesto's work. ``People pressed into his room not only for his artwork,'' Tarmio says, ``but for his magical presence - the way he danced about and eagerly told the stories behind each of his paintings.''
Today Alariesto is Finland's prize folk hero, renowned as the storyteller of traditional Lappish life. He tells his tales with song as well as paintbrush, and is known for having an ethnographer's eye, a historian's memory, and a poet's imagination. His lively paintings have been displayed across Europe, and invitations for shows have come from as far away as Israel. Lappia House, the well known cultural museum in Finland's northern provincial capital city of Rovaneimi, boasts a permanent collection of 40 Alariesto works, valued at about $150,000.
Almost every Alariesto painting advertises the fact that this man has had no formal art training. The figures often look like toys, and frequently the perspective and lighting are off. But the pictures have an undeniable charm, and they trumpet the fact that their author intimately knows and revels in his subject. Each picture, accompanied by a text written by Alariesto, faithfully records a slice of Lappish cultural heritage - traditional building styles, means of subsistence, seasonal changes in the textures of the land.
Some paintings illustrate hair-raising Lapp legends, such as the tale of Alariesto's ancestor Akmeeli the shaman, who died 300 years ago when he sought eternal life by having himself buried alive.
Each painting seems perfect in its own right, emanating from such a sincerity of purpose that the notion of technical shortcomings seems beside the point. ``I never called myself an artist in the beginning,'' says Alariesto. ``I just always had a very, very strong will to save stories and life on pictures. So I painted and painted. For a long time people told me I was wasting my time; whenever I picked up my brush they would say, `Andreas is painting again, he is doing nothing.' Some have changed their minds.''
To Finns, who are passionate about the Great Outdoors, Lappish culture epitomizes the ideal oneness of man and nature, and Andreas Alariesto is the official illustrator of that intimacy. His paintings not only reveal the unity, they actually help preserve it: One third of his post card royalties go to the World Wildlife Fund, Finland, to maintain the surroundings of hiking cottages in Lappland. That gesture alone is enough to win the hearts of Finland's countless nature lovers.
Alariesto grew up in the spare, rigorous environment of Finnish Lappland; he was born in the 900-year old village of Riesto, 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle. His father was a reindeer man and a farmer, and Alariesto worked with him until he was 12. ``We had some schooling, but it wasn't a regular school. It was just reading and writing. We had slates and chalk for practicing our writing - but I used mine for drawing!''
At age 15, Alariesto bought a camera and ``began photographing all those ways I knew would disappear.'' He became a multimedia conservationist who spent most of his free time painting, photographing, and clipping newspapers in an effort to carry parts of his past into his future. ``I have always been very interested in history and felt a great passion for storing knowledge and details,'' he explains. No one ever paid him for his spontaneous efforts to document Lappish culture. To put bread on his table, Andreas pursued other kinds of labor, from gold panning to road construction.
In the 1950s, Alariesto built a home for himself and his wife, Rikka, in a small Arctic town called Lokka. Some 10 years later the house caught fire, and his lifelong accumulation of paintings, photographs, and clippings, stored in the attic, were destroyed. Disappointed but undeterred, Alariesto started over - rebuilding his home and painting more vigorously than ever the countless Lappish scenes stored in his memory. One neighbor recalls, ``He painted constantly and wholeheartedly, singing all the while.'' Gradually he rebuilt his stock of cultural renderings.
His collection has captured the admiration of ethnohistorians.
``The value of Andreas's work is not only the paintings themselves, but the stories they carry,'' say Sari Ratenan, cultural researcher for the Lappia House Museum. ``He is quite accurate in his observations, and his paintings go very well with the facts we know of Lappish culture, such as his painting that shows how Lapps sleep in the tent.''
In addition, Alariesto has depicted cultural aspects unknown to researchers. For example, says Ms. Ratenan, ``he has painted a story that shows a reindeer herder taking blood from antlers. Andreas says that there were periods of the year when food was low and Lapps had to bleed the antlers for food. I haven't seen this before, but I will check it because it is in Andreas's painting.''
Alariesto says he paints ``to bring the past to new generations so they might discover that it is not something separate, but part of us.'' At a time when Lapps (who call themselves Sami) are increasingly anxious that their distinct culture not be absorbed by mass modernity, Alariesto's ability to revitalize their traditions is priceless.