by Johanna Weissing*
The prairies of western Minnesota have more to offer than first meets the eye. The area is often overlooked in favor of popular tourist destinations along the North Shore or the state’s many lakes and rivers. Tucked away in rural communities not far from Lake Wobegon, though, one can find folk artists working in various Scandinavian traditions, people quietly pursuing a passion for handcrafts that connect them to their heritage and to the people around them. They produce beautiful works of art for their friends and neighbors. In the process, they are preserving a bit of the past for future generations.
The area around Milan, home of the Milan Village Arts School, boasts a particularly high concentration of these folk artists. Over the years, the school has attracted many gifted teachers and now offers a wide variety of courses. The offerings include many traditional Scandinavian art forms, from making Norwegian skinnfeller (sheepskin blankets) and Sami bracelets to rosemaling and Norwegian knife-making.
Another local attraction is Billy Maple Tree’s, a Scandinavian-themed gift shop run by Billy Thompson and his daughter Ann. In the rooms next to the gift shop is housed the Arv Hus Museum (Norwegian for “heritage house”), where Billy showcases historic photographs and artifacts from the Milan area.
Milan is also home to Karen Jenson, an internationally-famed rosemaler. Her house, just a few blocks from the Milan Village Arts School and Billy Maple Tree’s, is a work of art in itself. Karen collaborated with local woodworkers Aaron and Arvid Swenson to remodel the house, which she then painted with traditional Swedish and Norwegian colors and rosemaling styles.
An hour’s drive from Milan is Willmar, home of woodcarvers Lowell Anderson and Lowell Torkelson. Both took up their hobbies after retiring and have developed their talents rapidly. The two are long time members of the West Central Carvers Club as well as their local Sons of Norway lodge, through which they know hardanger embroiderer Betty Knutson.
Worthington, several hours south of Milan and Willmar, has fewer Scandinavians, but even here one can find a few artists working in Norwegian traditions. Julie Buntjer, a hardanger embroiderer, and Lisa Severance, a rosemaler, call themselves “the German girls who do Scandinavian art.” Retired Worthington police officer Dan Bogie has picked up woodcarving and particularly enjoys flat-plane carving, a Scandinavian style he studied with Harley Refsal at the Milan Village Arts School.
All three agree that Scandinavian traditions are dying out in the area. Julie struggles with access to the materials she needs for her embroidery, Lisa feels isolated, as she has yet to meet any other rosemalers from the area, and Dan wishes he didn’t have to travel so far for classes. They hope to drum up more local interest through exposure, though. Julie is teaching a 4H class this winter that will include hardanger embroidery, and all three presented their work at Worthington’s international festival this past summer.
While traditional Scandinavian folk artists can still be found in western Minnesota, the future of their work is uncertain. Most of the practitioners are near or beyond retirement age. They are all eager to tell their stories and transmit their skills to future generations, but there do not seem to be many younger people interested in hobbies that require such a large investment of time and high level of skill.
Several of the folk artists hope to see their disciplines perpetuated through art programs in public schools and through community education courses. Unfortunately, funding for such projects is scarce these days, and even established folk art schools like the one in Milan are struggling to keep their doors open. Many fear that the day is not far off when the traditions they have worked to keep alive will be relegated primarily to museums. But still they paint and carve and stitch and advocate for these traditional art forms, master artists on the prairies of Minnesota.
*Johanna Weissing recently earned her MA in Scandinavian Studies from the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. In the summer of 2018, Johanna worked as a summer documenter, conducting fieldwork with Nordic-American artists throughout Minnesota.