By Mirva Johnson
Interviews and Documentation by Johanna Weissing
Wood carving in the Nordic countries has a long history with styles distinctive and representative of specific eras and regions: Acanthus style carving such as that on stave churches in Norway, kubbestols found throughout Norway and Sweden, flat-plane carving used to create figures such as Dalecarian horses, and other styles broadly “Scandinavian.” Passed down for generations, these traditions have fewer and fewer practitioners in the Nordic countries today, but are being passed on, preserved, and even revived thousands of miles away in the Upper Midwest—an area home to the descendants of many Nordic immigrants to North America beginning in the mid-1800s.
Many woodcarvers pick up the skill as a hobby through classes offered by individuals or through folk schools. Folk schools in the Upper Midwest such as Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa; North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota; and Folklore Village in Dodgeville, Wisconsin; all offer classes in Scandinavian styles of carving. These classes are not just a means for gaining a new skill, rather they are also a place for connection and to build community with others who share an interest in working with their hands and in these traditional Scandinavian styles. Many people find community with friends a little closer to home after attending these classes by participating in carving clubs, which allow people with a common interest in working with wood to meet, share their work, and pass the time working on a range of projects and chatting with friends. They are a place where a range of styles and skill levels are found and a space where expertise can be passed on to others. In these clubs, woodcarvers are reviving and adapting traditional Scandinavian styles to suit each artist, alongside a wide variety of other carving traditions and techniques.
Lowell Anderson and Lowell Torkelson are two such carvers from the area around Willmar, Minnesota. Both are part of the West Central Minnesota Carving Club. For each, it wasn’t until taking a class during retirement that they began developing and investing in their woodcarving.
Lowell Torkelson was born on a farm north of Kerkhoven, Minnesota, and his Norwegian heritage was at the center of his childhood and upbringing. His parents spoke Norwegian when visiting his aunts and uncles and Lowell picked up bits of the language himself. He traveled to Norway with his family in 2005 and again in 2008 to visit his great-grandparents’ home region and was enamored with some of the artwork he saw there. But his first experience with woodworking had come long before, as a furniture-maker, when he made a few pieces of furniture for his parents and later for his own home. He received a book about flat-plane carving as a gift and after flipping through the pages, decided the technique was out of his league. So the book sat on a shelf for years. He didn’t pick it up again until after retiring, at which point he decided carving might be worth pursuing.
LT: Actually, I had done woodworking when I was in high school, and made a bedroom set for my folks. And I made some furniture for us when we first got married, that dry sink back there. My wife bought a book on woodcarving and gave it to me. (Aside: How many years ago, about? No audible response.) But anyway, she gave me that book, and I think, it was sort of like flat-plane carving. I looked at that, and I thought, I can’t do that. So I basically put it down, and didn’t look at it again until after I retired, and then, looking for something to do. But I decided to take a class before I started woodcarving, so I didn’t pick up some bad habits.
A frequent attender of Sigdalslag, a Norwegian-American organization for descendants of immigrants from the Sigdal region of Norway, Lowell met Else Bigton of Norske Wood Works at an event hosted by the group. Else was showing some acanthus works and recruiting students for the classes she and her husband Phillip Odden offer in Baronett, Wisconsin. The two offer a range of classes in acanthus carving, dragon style carving, and ale bowl carving. Lowell decided acanthus carving would be a good way to get involved in Scandinavian woodworking and took his first class with Else and Phillip.
The only address Lowell Anderson has ever had is in rural Clara City, Minnesota. His father was Swedish, but his heritage was not necessarily Lowell’s inspiration for picking up chip carving. After Lowell’s regular hobbies of hunting and fishing became difficult to keep up with during retirement, his wife insisted he find some other way to get out of the house. He had done some carving now and then over the years, and so his interest was piqued when he heard about a chip carving class.
LA: Well, I really didn’t have an interest in woodcarving until maybe… well, I did carving of a different type. Once in a while I would make a little project and do something over the years, but not chip carving like I do. I did a lot of hunting and fishing and when I got to the point where I couldn’t get around and walk, my wife says, ‘you gotta do something, get out of the house,’ and there was this chip carving class, up in Sunburg, Minnesota.
Lowell Anderson’s first chip carving class in Sunburg, Minnesota, was with instructor Bob Bredeson. The particular style of carving is one that is being revived in Moorhead, Minnesota. Bob took a class in the technique and has in turn taught others, spreading the tradition. Bob is also a member of the West Central Minnesota Wood Carvers Club and after the class, he suggested Lowell come to a meeting. The carving club meets monthly and carvers come to show their work, exchange stories, and pass the time. Each carver develops their own preferences and style in the carving tradition they practice, as Lowell Anderson explains:
LA: …so then I got to meet a lot of other people and… everybody does their own thing, a different kind of carving. Some might do the same stuff, but they all have their own style and how they do things. And then there’s lots of classes on carving, different types of ways. But I stuck right to chip carving and I only use, it’s called chip carving with a gouge. So, I only use one size gouge for all of my carving. We meet once a month, compare stuff and show stuff that we do. So we’ve had a good time.
In this video, Lowell Anderson demonstrates chip carving with a gouge:
While the hobby can cost a bit of money up front, it can still be more affordable than some other pastimes. The club often has a small project for everyone to start on at each meeting or a guest carver to offer a short class on a particular project or technique. Bringing in a carver to the local club is often less expensive than traveling to a class. As Lowell Torkelson says,
LT: That way it’s a lot cheaper, you don’t have to pay for housing. And usually they don’t charge very much when they come to the local club. It’s a fun hobby, it costs a little bit of money, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than fishing where you got to buy a $20,000 boat.
Each carver has their own approach that they develop over time with practice. Some immerse themselves in one style, honing their technique, like Lowell Anderson. Others prefer to take many classes in a range of styles, broadening their repertoire. Lowell Torkelson has taken a number of classes in different Nordic styles, though much of his work has been in acanthus and flat-plane carving. Acanthus carving has a history stretching back to the 1600s and Lowell describes it as the rosemaling of carving; each piece consists of a series of ornate C- and S-patterns,
LT: Acanthus carving is pretty much like rosemaling, except it’s in the wood. You got the C-style pattern, C and S.. If you look at an acanthus, you can see Cs and S’s in there. And supposedly in the 1600s there was either a vase or something sitting on the ground and this acanthus plant grew up around it. And the architects at the time thought that looked nice, so they started using that in architecture.
In addition to the acanthus style, Lowell Torkelson has taken classes in kolrosing, flat-plane carving, and kroting (among others).
Each of these techniques originated in the Nordic countries and is being adapted to suit the materials and styles found in the Upper Midwest today: using coffee grounds instead of coal to add color or creating a pattern of one’s own design. The adaptation of these techniques to suit modern needs demonstrates how traditions change, and it is that ability to change which makes their survival and revival possible. But importantly, the traditions aren’t changing by themselves. It is artists like Lowell Anderson and Lowell Torkelson who are choosing to practice these styles at carving clubs, bringing visibility to these traditions and giving others a chance to learn about them.
Carving is a pastime that encourages patience and persistence to master the basic techniques. Along the way, carvers develop their own individual style which can make revisiting early work a bit entertaining. As both Lowells agree,
LT: .. I could point out some mistakes, but a carver should never point out your mistakes.
JW: Hah, yeah, don’t betray any of your trade secrets there.
LT: The more carving you do, the more you realize how your older pieces probably didn’t look so good. It’s sort of a joke in carving class, ‘this is a five-footer.’ It looks good at five feet, probably not so good at one foot.
Some carvers might like to restart an early piece, but these early pieces also allow artists to see just how far they’ve come in developing and refining their skills.
LA: I would say that some of the pieces that I started with, I’d like to do them over. But it’s kind of fun to see how much my carving has changed from when I first started to now. You know when I started I’d just push in, now I have a nice beautiful cup, it looks more like a dish. And when I see the other people that are just starting, you know, they can’t understand, ‘How do you do that?’ Well, it’s just something that you acquire as you do it. You don’t know why it gets to be your personal style, how you do a thing. The more you do it. Yeah, I’ve got one style, everything is pretty well the same. No matter what I do, everything has got the same style of flower, carving, outline. But that’s me. That’s the way I do it.
While everyone develops at their own pace, it can be nice to have company in the process. Beyond socializing and skill development, carving clubs allow for collaboration in what can otherwise be a solitary hobby. One collaborative project of the West Central Minnesota Wood Carvers club was a series of carved quilts, pieced together from individual squares carved at meetings. Each carver has their own style and preferences and creates pieces that are uniquely their own, but can be brought together to complement and build on one another in a larger piece. These carved quilts are a representation of the different skills that are practiced and cultivated at the Carvers club. It is an expression of the different styles that the carvers have experimented with and gravitated toward and shows the breadth of techniques used by the artists at the Carvers club.
Both Lowell Anderson and Lowell Torkelson have invested a great deal of time into their practice, one obvious perk of retirement. Lowell Anderson has tried to draw others into the hobby:
LA: Now you know there’s something about…whenever I go to a dentist. They’re cleaning your teeth. I always tell ‘em, “You know, you could make a beautiful, wonderful carver. What’re you doing? You’re in there, well you could carve. You’ve got all the patience, you’ve got all the things it needs, but you need to get that on some wood.” But you got to have the interest in doing it, I guess. I didn’t have that interest either until I really found wood to work on and enjoyed what was coming out as what I did. And it gets to be, like anything else, if you have a job and you enjoy your work, that’s what you should do.
Others may want to learn, but are unable to invest the time in developing the necessary technical skills and cultivating the humility needed to learn from mistakes. Some start carving only to lose patience and interest in completing a project. As Lowell Anderson explains,
LA: Then there’s ones that start and probably don’t get very far and there’s some that get a lot farther and some that do excellent work. You can’t just look at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s easy’ and it is easy. But you gotta finish it and you gotta do it over and over. And some people might say it’s monotonous but to me, it’s when you get done [and] you look at a finished product and you’re kind of proud of what you’ve done.
Carving takes time and patience, but that time invested can lead to a sense of achievement and pride in the finished product. Both Lowell Torkelson and Lowell Anderson picked up woodcarving later in life and have approached their craft in different ways. Each is practicing and developing skills in the traditions that interest them most. Lowell Anderson has immersed himself in chip carving with a gouge and works to perfect and refine his style. Lowell Torkelson has taken a range of classes in different Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian styles of carving, creating an expansive repertoire of skills. For each, Scandinavian styles are one outlet for their carving skill set which includes a range of tools and techniques. Both have found community in a local carving club—a space for socialization and camaraderie as carvers show their work and bounce ideas off of one another. The Upper Midwest is home to practitioners who are reviving Scandinavian styles, found passing the time alongside other artists who are woodburning and whittling. Carving clubs are a space where different interests intersect. People with an interest in working with their hands are attracted to carving, and some with an interest in Scandinavian heritage may choose to learn to carve in Scandinavian styles. The intersection of styles and motivations is what makes a carving club a promising space for the future of wood carving, and for the preservation and recreation of traditional Scandinavian styles.