an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Kalamaja’s First Coloring Book


A few years ago, adult coloring books suddenly became a thing back in the United States. I remember spotting my first grown-ups with their elaborate coloring books and their boxes full of colored pencils busy working away in coffee shops or airport lounges and wondering what was going on. Then I learned that the process of coloring is supposed to be therapeutic – and that working on these books is supposed to help you relax and reduce your level of stress. Guess it must be working as a couple of these adult coloring books went on to become Amazon best-sellers in 2015. Still, I must confess that my first thought on seeing my first adult coloring in public was one of amazement – until I remembered that I had bought Ulla Saar’s lovely Kalamaja joonistamise raamat (Kalamaja Coloring Book with its variant English-language title of Not Entirely Brown) back in 2011 – along with a set of new Caran d’Ache pencils to go with it.

Yes, Ulla was ahead of her time – copyrighting her finished coloring book back in December 2010 – yet more proof that Kalamaja works in mysterious ways. I’m very glad that I bought her self-published book so soon after it appeared because its limited edition print run of just 200 copies ran out not long afterwards. The wonderful thing about Ulla’s whimsical illustrations of Kalamaja is that they capture a neighborhood that no longer really exists – or no longer exists in quite the same way that it once did – as everything started changing around that time as a new wave of residents moved in. Ulla’s English-language title of Not Entirely Brown alludes to the fact that many of Kalamaja’s wonderful wooden houses were once painted brown because that was the cheapest and most plentiful color back in Soviet times. Ulla first met her future neighborhood when she started coming here almost every day for nursery school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She describes this early Kalamaja of her childhood memories as “a half-mythical place […] – a town inside a town where everyone knew each other and all the wooden houses looked the same.”

Ulla then moved to Kalamaja as an adult not long after graduating from the Estonian Academy of Arts – a well-known art school which itself just moved into the neighborhood earlier this month. In her afterword to her coloring book, Ulla writes: “I moved to Kalamaja and felt at home immediately. Little by little, it started to reveal its secret life to me as I went for long walks around the area and started to discover its subtle hidden beauty.” While Ulla doesn’t recall the exact spark of inspiration that lead to her coloring book’s creation back in 2010, Kalamaja was in bloom at the time with its old wooden houses being repainted in their original 100-year-old colors. Perhaps Ulla wanted to play her part in bringing this colorful Estonian spring back to Kalamaja as she captured the passing of this fleeting season with her pencils ….

While Ulla’s fanciful illustrations of people can be quite quirky, her illustrations and photo-collages of Kalamaja’s houses are almost architectural in their detail. It may therefore come as no surprise that Ulla has a background in architecture, working as a designer at one of Tallinn’s leading architectural firms. At the same time that she was busy working on her coloring book, Ulla also launched a series of cool postcards which you can sometimes still find in Tallinn’s better souvenir shops if you know where to look. Since then, Ulla has also designed just about everything you might imagine from socks to notebooks, from tote bags to jewelry. And given her love of music and her numerous drawings inspired by songs, it should come as no surprise that she has also designed over a dozen album covers for a number of different Estonian musicians. Sadly, Ulla’s Kalamaja wooden house badge (or pin) didn’t sell well – perhaps because it appeared before the neighborhood became hip. Oh, well. Hopefully, Ulla will have more time to work on other Kalamaja-related projects soon. But at least for me, Ulla’s Kalamaja Coloring Book served as a confirmation – or a reaffirmation — that I had bought my Fish Flat in the right Tallinn neighborhood.

After Ulla’s groundbreaking book helped show “what a cool place we have here,” there was a second Kalamaja coloring book – or a book that just calls out to be colored: Tuuli Reinsoo’s 2016 Pliiatsiga jalutuskäik Kalamajas (A Walk with a Pencil Around Kalamaja). Tuuli’s illustrations are a perhaps more detailed than Ulla’s although rather less fanciful. And then I’ve always wondered if there might have been other Kalamaja coloring books out there that I may have missed in my comings and goings over the years. In any case, Kalamaja – and especially its many wonderful wooden buildings – have been inspiring local artists for years. One of my favorite features of Ulla’s book is that it even comes complete with a map which you can use to explore the neighborhood. These days, you can use the book to see what has changed and what remains the same.

In any case, Ulla’s very first book – the Kalamaja Coloring Book – seems to have caught people’s attention, including those in the Estonian art and publishing world. Printed in Spain because she couldn’t find a local publisher at the time, Ulla has since succeeded in her stated mission: “This book is about me trying to share that [Kalamaja] beauty with you and encourage[ing] you to add yours to it.” And so, in 2013, Ulla’s first illustrated children’s book Lift (written by Kätlin Vainola) appeared, winning several important awards. Five years after her breakthrough Lift, Ulla’s 18th illustrated book just went to press – an impressive accomplishment by any count. You can follow what this award-winning Estonian illustrator is up to by visiting her website or by following her online @ullaisland (saar being the Estonian word for island). She’s also on FaceBook. And over the years, Ulla’s illustrations have traveled across Europe as part of various exhibits featuring Estonia’s best-known illustrators. If you’re lucky, Ulla and her pencils might even visit your town one day soon.


Image: The front page of my Kalamaja Coloring Book – illustrated by Ulla Saar but colored by me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: